Janis Rafailidou guides us to her non-anthropocentric universe

A conversation between visual artist Janis Rafa and Tassos Chatzieffraimidis

Anyone who has been following the work and career of Janis Rafa, active in the fields of visual arts and moving image, will hardly be surprised to hear that she is the only Greek artist participating in the main exhibition of the 59th Venice Biennale, entitled “The Milk of Dreams” and curated by none other than Cecilia Alemani, who chose to show Janis’ work alongside that of another 213 artists originating from 58 countries. On the contrary, this feels like the logical conclusion of an impressive and exciting journey in the field of contemporary art. A 2020 SNF ARTWORKS Fellow, Janis, who lives and works in Greece and the Netherlands, amidst feverish preparations for the opening on April 23 and just before catching the plane to Venice, took the time to talk to us about her work, her future plans and the challenge of harbouring an artistic vision which looks for the human in a non-anthropocentric universe.

Janis Rafa, photo by Luca Carlino and Fondazione in Between Art Film

The beginning

When I was 18, I left Greece and went to study, at the University of Leeds (UK), where I did my undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD in Fine Arts. My contact with the Netherlands started after my graduation, when I joined the Rijksakademie for a two-year residency. It is certainly one of the world’s leading academies, internationally with significant support and visibility for the artists. The previous Greek artist who did a residency there was Stefanos Tsivopoulos in 2005/06 and just recently Penny Key 2020/22. It was an extremely formative experience, as this was where I ‘unlocked’ my artistic vision and all the dimensions and problematics of my recent work took shape. I moved from the video essayistic and experimental documentary practice, towards a more cinematographic and film structured format.

Exploring the themes of an abstract, multi-faceted art practice

Ever since my PhD, the urban periphery has been the focus of my work. By periphery I mean that which is not registered, overlooked, on the edge or bypassed. To all this, another dimension is added: migration, minorities, which are also not registered but instead marginalized, kept out of sight somewhere between legality and illegality. I was playing with such motifs from the beginning, and later on I started experimenting with ways of recording the landscape, as a kind of alternative archeology or cartography. At the outskirts of an urban landscape dotted with dead and stray animals, my perspective began to shift from the human agent to the non-human one. As I also come from a background where there has always been an awareness of animal life, I wanted to map a landscape capable of registering or even naming the unwanted or unnoticed bodies just before they are finally lost. This contact with the animalistic part of my work became visible during the first works I made at the Rijksacademie, bringing together all my influences into a single narrative and cinematographic level.

Contact with Greece and the “Greekness of the work”

Although I have been an artist based abroad, it was always when I returned to Greece that I could free myself and create works. All my works have been realized in the periphery of Athens. In Greece, I can find the various stimuli, combine them to create a cinematic language and at the same time use what I know best through personal experience. I am more interested in representations and concepts that are timeless universal and acultural, and can therefore both abolish and explore individuality. On the other hand, I don’t feel that my work is particularly Greek, nor is this something I would enforce.

Janis Rafa, A Sign of Prosperity to the Dreamer, 2014. Film still, double-channel video with sound, 16 min. Courtesy the Artist

The problem of being an artist in Greece

There are very few institutions fostering art in Greece, such as ARTWORKS, the Onassis Foundation, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Ten years ago, it was more difficult. There are very few entities capable of supporting an artist’s vision in Greece either in art or film and the whole thing moves very slowly, depriving artists of the speed to interact directly with their time. Artists need to constantly reshape and explore their vocabulary. Any impetus an idea might carry will be lost after two years. Being based in the Netherlands and receiving their support all these years, I can say that what is missing in Greece are the funds required to help ideas materialize; and access to grants facilitating the immediate production of projects and researches. Besides, that’s how my debut feature film Kala Azar was born, after receiving a grant by Mondriaan Fund and Netherlands Film Fund specifically designed for artists wanting to make their first feature film. Without that I would not have even thought of shooting a feature.

Commercial success as an obstacle to creative freedom

I come from a more academic background, so my work does not aspire to be commercially successful. I have always prioritized the possibility of developing an idea independently, over responding to someone else’s demands or concept. My ideas have always been self-supported, not commissioned (apart from Lacerate) and therefore free of constraints, so my aim was never to make a work for a particular context.

Pandemic and social distancing

We had the misfortune of Kala Azar premiering in the middle of a pandemic. After its world premiere in IFF Rotterdam, all other screenings were held almost exclusively online. I was thus unable to get feedback from a live audience. In another sense, this isolation didn’t allow me to comprehend what kind of film Kala Azar actually is.

Kala Azar

Kala Azar borrows pieces from previous works of mine and incorporates them into a more effusive, broader personal universe, enabling the coming together of some compositions which had previously existed in my work. Its starting point were my travels around the Attica region and the sight of animals killed in car accidents or by local bird hunters. I wanted to compose rituals that attempted to bring orders to a place that is messy, chaotic and distorted. Where there is man, there is violence. The film attempts to rethink, to reclaim the place under a less anthropocentric order. But this attempt inevitably ends in distraction. Human presence itself creates destruction.

Janis Rafa, Kala azar, feature film, 2020

The challenge of shooting a film with an unconventional narrative

I work instinctively. I experiment with the locations, the abstraction of narratives and on the aesthetic side of things. For Kala Azar I did not develop a specific form. We wanted to be guided by all the dissonant elements we encountered along the way and figure out how to film them on location. We decided to move very close to all these elements and focus on everything that takes place once the ‘scripted’ action stops stops. There was a script that was quite elliptical, based on imagery and composition but not completely on narrative. We used a lot of decoupage. With Thodoris (Michopoulos, director of photography), we were trying to discover details from a scene, never attempting to record the whole. We agreed on this spontaneously. We concentrated on the bodies, the textures, the liquids, the food, the saliva, the contact of disparate bodies. There’s a truth and a groundedness to it all, something animalistic and earthly, perishable and familiar to all, which at the same time makes us feel uncomfortable. We played with the boundaries between the accepted and the forbidden, the taboo, the bizarre and the desirable. I think all these things are easily identifiable. Kala Azar is not a difficult film, it is simply its narrative that is challenging since it does not rely on dialogue but delivers its story through images and asks the viewer to accept a world not far from the one we know.

The charm of ambiguity

In all my works, in art or cinema, I take a clear position politically, ethically and conceptually but the lack of words and text makes space for freedom of translation. I like this semiotic iconoclasm, which allows many layers of interpretation but is also honest in what it wants to express.

Directing compared to other visual arts

Directing is a difficult and demanding experience, requiring quick decisions and directness on the choices made. Writing a script is also a time-consuming and arduous process, which, for me, requires a considerable amount of time to carry out and delve into, since I come from a different artistic starting point.

Janis Rafa, If I Ever Get a Monument Chickens will Do It For Me (Requiem#3), 2021. Film still, single-channel video with sound, 7 min. Courtesy the Artist

The next film project

I am in the development stage for a new feature film, The Future is An Elder Cow. It is set in a familiar yet non-specified location and time, where humans have, despite their efforts, unexpectedly stopped propagating. Instead, they stand as defeated witnesses of cases of pregnant women giving birth to mammals. Focusing on micro-scale relations, the film unravels the story of a community stuck between its traditional past and its hopeless future, with manhood falling in desperation and decline.

Participation in the Biennale

Cecilia Alemani (this year’s curator of the Venice Biennale) was introduced to my practice through her studio-visits in the Netherlands. That is how we got to know each other. My work is presented in the Arsenale. It is a 16min film, called Lacerate. It has quite a strong cinematic language and its central theme is the perpetuation of violence in its greater sense and within Western art-history.

Janis Rafa, Lacerate, 2020. Film still, single-channel video with sound, 16 min. Courtesy the Artist; Fondazione In Between Art Film

The female gaze and alternative perspectives to patriarchy’s dominant worldview

Many things need to be expressed not only by women, but also by groups occupying the margins of the dominant commercial model, alternative viewpoints arriving from different origins, experiences and needs. Cinema has a very stereotypical format. It is rare to find a non-anthropocentric element. For example, Arnold’s film Cow was a godsent, it went where very few dare to go. It spoke about animal rights without being didactic, the truth is didactic in itself. We are so immersed in our egos, so convinced we are at the center of everything, when in fact there are individualities extending far beyond us. It takes an honesty of experience to produce works that are so authentic, especially if you think that Arnold has been working with very successful fiction films and series previously.

On the separation between the person and the artist

The work itself, in its entirety, must be able to speak to you about the artist without you having to be in direct contact with the person.

Epilogue

I cannot tolerate a humanity which cannot lower its gaze, a world where we only look each other in the eye. I seek for some kind of vindication for nature in a cycle of endless violence and destruction. This is my core.

Lacerate is a 16 minute long film, commissioned and produced by Fondazione In Between Art Film as part of ‘Mascarilla 19 — Codes of Domestic Violence’ , a commission dedicated to the subject of domestic violence and gender violence towards women, inspired during the pandemic lockdown by Fondazione In Between Art Film and Betratrice Bulgari.

Lacerate is a 16 minute long film, commissioned and produced by Fondazione In Between Art Film as part of ‘Mascarilla 19 — Codes of Domestic Violence’ , a commission dedicated to the subject of domestic violence and gender violence towards women, inspired during the pandemic lockdown by Fondazione In Between Art Film and Betratrice Bulgari.

The project is curated by dir. Alessandro Rabottini and curators Leonardo Bigazzi and Paola Ugolini, with the additional support of Modriaan Funds. The film premiered in MAXXI in October 2020 and is presented at the 59th La Biennale di Venezia The Milk of Dreams, curated by Cecilia Alemani, from April until November 2022. The first edition of the film was part of Fondazione In Between Art Film collection.

Lacerate blends elements of realism with a dreamlike, symbolic dimension, portraying the extreme decision of a woman who turns from victim into executioner. Inspired by the iconography of mythological and biblical paintings such as Artemisia Gentileschis Judith Slaying Holofernes, I chose to show the moment after the act of revengeor self-defensewhen the dramatic climax is already over.

The hunting hounds and other dogswhich were perhaps owned by the couple and witnessed the abusive relationship over the yearshave come back like ghosts from the past. Historically symbols of loyalty to their master, the dogs here rebel and become the womans guardians, supporting and protecting her in the process of liberation from her persecutor. It is thus the irrational, animalistic part of the unconscious that has been unleashed, allowing the woman to regain control over her life and save herself.

Janis Rafa (SNF ARTWORKS Fellow 2020) lives and works between Amsterdam and Athens. Her body of work combines film, video installation and sculpture.

Tassos Chatzieffraimidis is a lawyer and a freelance writer based in Athens. He currently works as a film curator at Cinobo, a digital platform dedicated to independent and arthouse cinema.

ARTWORKS is a nonprofit organization exclusively supported by its founding donor, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF). Our aim is to create a fertile and nurturing environment for Greek artists through funding and public engagement opportunities. You can always learn more about our Fellows at www.art-works.gr

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Essays, texts and interviews about contemporary Greek artists and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Artist Fellowship Program. www.art-works.gr