Interview by Alexander Strecker
“For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of — to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone.”
— Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Tucked away in the furthest northeastern reaches of Greece, pressed up against waters that are at the extreme edge of what we know as the Aegean, lies the Thracian port city of Alexandroupoli. Its very name hints at bygone Hellenistic expansion; low-lying and green, the landscape surrounding the city feels a world away from the dry, rocky hills we associate with Classical Athens. For the artist Niki Gulema, growing up at such a distance from the country’s artistic center was a mixed blessing. Her ambivalence makes itself clear as she considers my first question about the influence that her birthplace had on her and her work. At last, she shakes her head and frowns, pushing away any traces of nostalgia. She tells me plainly, “Where I grew up, it’s all flat. Wherever you stand, you can see far, far away — and still, nothing is happening. There was no inspiration for my work in that environment.”
We are sitting across from each other in the living room of her well-loved, charmingly bohemian apartment not far from the centre of Athens. Every piece of furniture, every object on her crowded desk seems to have had many previous lives, but has found, with Niki, a happy home. We laugh about her remarkably old laptop, coming up on a decade. Niki strokes it affectionately and says, ”It gets a little hot, but it’s still running fine,” as if describing an ageing animal companion. In this moment, Niki seems perfectly enmeshed in her immediate surroundings, her seaside childhood feels far away. I push again on the question of environmental influence but she sidesteps and focuses instead on her own creative beginnings.
Niki took up drawing from a very young age. She drew constantly and with ceaseless passion. If she had lived closer to a big city, art school might have seemed a likely path. But, she tells me, those days were different: there was hardly any internet and Niki felt completely isolated from the rest of the world. The possibility of being an artist didn’t just seem remote — it wasn’t even on her horizon of possibilities. Obliquely, she reveals a bit more about the challenges of growing up in Alexandroupoli, “Athens felt so far away. Things happening there didn’t seem like they were in the capital — it was like they were in another country altogether. But fortunately, I had an art teacher who told me about the School of Fine Arts and encouraged me to apply.”
“Athens felt so far away. Things happening there didn’t seem like they were in the capital — it was like they were in another country altogether. But fortunately, I had an art teacher who told me about the School of Fine Arts and encouraged me to apply.”
Niki came to Athens at the age of 19 and began her studies. “Once I settled in, I found exactly what I needed. I know that this city is a bubble, but it’s one where I have everything I could want to make my work.” As she advanced in her degree, she broadened her approach; photography, especially, became a major influence. Experimentation with different kinds of lenses, cameras, and analog film revealed new ways of seeing for Niki, a means to fragment the world that could then become whole again on her canvas: “There was a long period when I used telephoto lenses, using them to zoom in on very specific moments so that they would be transformed into something beyond recognition. I also experimented with plastic cameras, which are so imperfect and hard to control. Each one does whatever it wants and makes its own atmosphere. I find something beautiful about that. I remember once I found a bag of expired film. All the images came out pink. Without my intending, that became the start of the project, an accident that told me how I would work.”
As Niki describes her process of bouncing between a disjointed, photographic mosaic and a unified, painterly whole, my mind wanders to her immense canvas, Dawn, which I saw exhibited at the ARTWORKS exhibition at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The work’s largely bare surface is dominated by its empty expanses, broken up by scattered, often solitary forms: a delicate zag of energy here, a soft glow there, an unnameable silhouette resisting definition. The relationship between photographic realism and the painting’s diffuse abstraction seems hard to trace, especially given the underlying subject of her camera’s images. Athens — one of the most chaotic cities where I have ever spent time, a riot of overlapping layers, clashing histories, and churning life — appears unrecognizable as rendered by her brush. Even in the studio-like calm of her apartment, restless street activity periodically interjects; surely her painting has nothing to do with the city we both inhabit?
I tell her about my struggle to connect these two worlds and Niki laughs. She pulls up a jpeg of the two-meter painting on her computer and offers to guide me through her process of imaginary transformation. We walk together through the abstracted cityscape and Niki describes how each individual shape derives from a singular moment of origin: a shadow of Athens’ skyline, a distillation from a photograph she made during one of her urban walks, or even a relic from the flat, watery place she left behind. “In an earlier painting, I drew on the symbol of Alexandroupoli, its lighthouse. The regular rhythm of its beacon turning off and on, illuminating the night, made its way into my work.”
Indeed, many references in Niki’s paintings are prompted by her environment but quickly turn towards the inwardly sensory. She says, “My teacher at art school always told me, ‘You, you hear your paintings.’ Other painters have worked closely with noise; I don’t do this consciously, but somehow it expresses itself in my work. There are sounds that are frozen in my paintings. I listen to funny music when I paint (for example, Milton Babbitt). When I look at each part of my composition, I can remember specific feelings, certain moments, a single voice that informed it.”
Niki’s paintings are prompted by her environment but quickly turn towards the inwardly sensory. She says, “My teacher at art school always told me, ‘‘You, you hear your paintings.’’
Despite this abstraction, Niki’s paintings remain deeply rooted in the world through their materiality. She tells me, “What I like about painting is mixing the colors, stretching the canvas, all these handcrafted aspects, how everything smells. I am a little romantic, I guess. Since I often leave so much empty space in my frames, it’s important for each material to be just so — the unpainted canvas puts more emphasis on the underlying support.” Niki’s attraction to these fine details also pushes her back into the city, like a photographer looking for frames, but with a different goal in mind: “I even get excited tracking down each of my materials, finding just what I need. But it’s more than that; it’s the whole process. For example, I love talking to different shop owners, each of them boasting they have the best stuff. Sometimes they cheat me or sell me fake silk. It’s a game, a search, a hunt.”
As she talks, the once infinite chaos of Athens becomes condensed into a stroke, the bend of a line. In her simple way, Niki reminds us that we rarely ever see the entire city at once. Instead, we experience it in exactly these tiny, crystallized fragments; we inevitably make our own personal map through the surrounding disorder. She pauses and then concludes, “My paintings are a container for all of my experiences.”
I ask her if it takes courage to leave empty spaces on her canvases, to feel confidence in something that appears unfinished. She bats the idea away. “No, I never thought about it. From a young age, I drew this way, with many empty spaces. Even in the emptiness, I know what’s right and what’s wrong. When it’s finished, I can tell.” Such strong conviction also come with challenges, “In the same way, if I make a mistake, I also know. Even if it seems like it’s just one small mark, I can’t work around it, I can’t go back. I have to get rid of the whole canvas and start over.”
But lately, her work has been shifting. Niki’s recent pieces have begun to fill up, paint now running from edge to edge. Her canvases are now drenched in color. Yet the source seems to go deeper. Niki tells me how these “complete” canvases, paradoxically, are the result of her spending more time up north, seeing her once-empty home with new eyes. She says, “I had been away for ten years and after a decade in the city, I had forgotten what it was like to have nothing happening. Suddenly, nature became very enriching for me. In the provinces, we have so much time. I can read, I can draw, I can make my work.” She goes on, “How do people pass the time in a place where nothing is happening? There, everything is very cyclical. Life runs on a program. In the early morning, people work in their gardens, with their bees. At 3 pm, when the sun is high, no one is moving. It’s time to eat and rest. In the city, we lose track of these rhythms; in the country, we are closer to them. Time there is less fragmented. I want my work to return to that wholeness.”
Still, she recognizes the limits of solitude and her need for other kinds of energy. She says, “On the other hand, Athens is where everything happens. Ideas come from being here, seeing people, moving through the city. Right now, I feel on the border. Perhaps going back and forth will be the best way forward.” Although we spoke in the middle of the summer, a time that many look forward to as the best part of the year, Niki was ready for September to arrive; she wanted to get back to a routine. “I need to have a proper studio again, my own space where I can have all my colors.” Niki is committed to staying in the city, but with a new approach, informed by tempos that long predate those imposed by contemporary Athens. “I need a stable place that I can return to every day. I like to keep my surroundings fixed so my ideas can move. It’s only in routines that I can find one thought, which brings the next one, and the next. And then, suddenly, I have the sense of going somewhere.”
Visual Artist Niki Gulema is a 2018 SNF ARTWORKS Fellow. ARTWORKS is a nonprofit organization exclusively supported by its founding donor, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. 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
Alexander Strecker is pursuing a PhD in Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University. His research explores how artistic practices register the contradictions inherent in ideas of crisis, periphery, and technology, with a focus on how these tensions are felt acutely in contemporary Greece while also resonating worldwide.