By: Deean Yeoh
Recently, I was lucky enough to sit down for a touching conversation with witty, self-reflective, Francis Bacon-esque, Billy-Eilish-super-fan, and artist Alina Zamanova whose raison d’etre is “talking about [life]…and expressing feelings through [art]”. This is our conversation on what she had to say about her artistic journey, figurative drawings, and the reason behind why she “hopes for mistakes” in her art.
As a young girl who grew up in Ukraine, Alina was fascinated by the intersection of fashion and art. While she first started out as a fashion illustrator, over time her love for emotive expression through abstract visual art prevailed. Today her distinct female figures decorate various mediums (and celebrity homes) - redefining the concept of societal beauty standards, and expressing body empowerment and inclusivity.
A Contemporary Figurative Artist of Our Time
For years, Alina had been inspired by the works of the late Lee Alexander McQueen. “He bridged that gap between art and fashion,” and so she moved to London to trace the footsteps of her first muse. Alina later went on to intern at Alexander McQueen for six months as a print designer for the Pre-Fall 2014 collection. She would continue working as a print designer in the fashion industry for two more years, winning competitions and showcasing at London Fashion Week, before deciding to work full-time as an artist for her own namesake brand in March 2016. Her tenure in printing may contribute to the reason she’s interested in exploring monoprinting in her art one day. “We don’t really have a lot of [print making] facilities in Ukraine. So, I think when I go to London [after COVID], I want to investigate that more there.”
The Alexander McQueen Pre-Fall 2014 collection that Alina worked on.
As a Fashion Illustration BA honors student at the London College of Fashion (LCF), Alina began to find her voice in art. It was at LCF that she learned what she wanted her art to say, and pushed herself to cultivate how she would say it through various mediums. “I was very cautious [when I first started] ... [I was] very comfortable with my direction of drawing.” Alina went from solely black-and-white, ink-and-pencil illustrations to a combination of mediums when a university professor pushed her outside her comfort zone. “I took everything...all the mediums that we had. And that’s where my first [mixed medium] drawing, The Wedding Lady, came from.”
Humility & Learning – Adapting to New Mediums
Her recent transition from acrylic to oil was a “stressful moment on the canvas” for Alina. “I never ever learned how to make an oil painting. There was one teacher back when I was 10 years old [who] had pre-mixed everything and just gave me [the paint], ready-made.” Unlike most people, the learning curve and Alina’s deep love for Jenny Saville’s use of “buttery” oil paints encouraged her to take an online course during COVID. “I thought ‘I want to try to push [my art].’ And so, I learned the specifics and now because I have the knowledge of how oil [paints] bind with water, and what layer goes next, and next. I think I’m not that afraid anymore of exploring my body figures on the canvas.”
Alina exudes humility and quiet confidence, but attributes her love for learning to a time when she caught herself thinking “’I know everything!’ And as soon as I have this…arrogant thought I was like [laughs] ‘You know nothing!’… I like to learn because [thinking that] you know everything is a bit wrong for your ego… You can’t grow anymore,” Alina explained.
Alina in her studio in Ukraine (Photo Courtesy of: The Glass Magazine).
Many believe that when Michelangelo released David from marble he had inadvertently created what would become the Western ideal of “man” for years to come. If that were true, then Alina’s portrayal of women is to society what David is to man. In Alina’s society, women aren’t bounded by Madonna-Whore complexes. Instead, they are multi-faceted, blended dichotomies: eroticized and demure, vulnerable alphas who are defiant, yet harmonious; ugly and beautiful. Her work serves as a reminder to society that women are not to be boxed in, and a reminder to women to love ourselves in all our complexities.
Dance, a piece about “energy, movement, and balance. The reason why we see two figures here represents my internal struggle and battle within thoughts and decisions. They cannot live without one another – like the angel and the devil, the good and the bad, beauty and ugly, positive and negative.” Dance by Alina Zamanova (2020) is available on alinazamanova.com. Interview transcript from Vanity Fair London.
The Figurative Drawings with Soul Connecting to Ours
When asked about the personification of her paintings, Alina mused light-heartedly saying that her paintings would be a musician and a dancer but “not a nice dancer – She would be running around like a crazy person, wild… She’d be contemporary dance” with “two apartments – one in New York and one in London.” Alina likens the utopian world in her art to the chaos of our reality; a place where “there are women...and they are peaceful – they’re talking. Some of them are fighting. Like reality. It’s not an ideal world. It’s just our world but the one that we try to hide sometimes.” What we “hide” of course, referring to the societal pressures to present the best version of ourselves at all times – something Alina talks about in works like the Silver triptych: Silver Lining, Embrace, and Fading Out.
But it’s not just negative emotions that make it into her works – it’s “weird, beautiful,” positive ones too. Her most recent piece, Distorted Reality, for example was based on a time when she and two girlfriends were walking their dogs outside one day:
“Everything was super chill until the moment [the dogs] decided to start running around us. So, the leashes [tangled]! I was on the floor! Julia [Alina's friend] – she went [gesturing with flailing arms] like this she almost fell! We were stuck in such a weird position all together. That gave me the idea of freezing that moment…we were just so connected; we were so loving... That was such a positive moment.”
Distorted Reality by Alina Zamanova (2021)
Regardless of good or bad emotions that inspire her work, the “rush of adrenaline” and feeling that Alina experiences while working comes across undeniably, creating visceral connections to her fans. From A-List clients like Mohamed Hadid and Paris Goebel, to her forty-two thousand IG followers, Alina’s art speaks volumes, across oceans and continents. “I had a collector from New York [who reached out on Instagram], she said she's a nurse and she was on the front lines when COVID just hit off. She said that when she was coming home, and she was looking at my oil paintings she felt at ease [because] she was tired [and fearful]. The painting is called Overwhelmed and that’s how she felt at that time.”
As for Alina’s goals? She’d like to exhibit in New York or Los Angeles in the next few years, preferably in collaboration with other artists in group shows. “I really like to see group shows as a combination of totally different styles and kind of at the same issue [but from] different point of views.”
Private Garden by Alina Zamanova (2021)
I’d be remise to exclude bits of Alina’s wisdom throughout our dialogue. So, below are remnants of our conversation discussing matters of artistic inspiration, creative direction, and advice to young, aspiring artists still finding their voice – in Alina’s own words.
Deean Yeoh (DY): You mention that you work in series and I’ve read in your previous interviews that you, kind of, take everything that’s around you and absorb it - documentaries and movies - and then you…digest whatever it is that you want to come up with. But, as you said, art can happen over the course of several months for a single piece. So how does that transform over time?
Alina Zamanova (AZ): Sometimes I’m in the studio in one mindset and then sometimes in another one and the same painting can transform [a month’s worth of] difference in emotions.
Some of the paintings I come back and then some of them I just sit and finish in one go. From the past year I started doing similar techniques for several [paintings at once]. Especially when the oil [paint] is drying…you need some time in between. [Working on] two or three [canvases] at the same time...it's good because it captures the same mood and the same vibe if you go simultaneously on several canvases.
At the moment, I’m kind of…just spending time in the studio and exploring the ways that my painting can evolve from my last exhibition. I think a little bit of time to myself... [My work] just [transforms] into a series – it’s usually how I work.
DY: I know you’re very inspired by Egon Scheile, with his use of colors. And I think the colors stand out so much in your work. I was curious if you had developed color theory and your use of colors in school or if it was purely after school and just being inspired by Egon.
AZ: So [color theory is] definitely not my strongest [skill] in an academic way… I was studying in a school in Ukraine where they teach all the fundamentals and…I forgot the academic aspect of it but my hand and my brain - [they were] meant to learn this way... London gave me a push to learn what I want to say with my art – not how I want to tell it but what I want to tell.
When I saw Egon Scheile I was working in monochrome mostly because I didn’t know what I wanted to tell. I was painting pictures, portraits and they were very academically appropriate - black-and-white with pencil, ink and whatever. And then I saw [Egon’s] show and I think [the way he painted] women’s... eroticism…they are vulnerable, but you look at the picture and it just showcases such strength. It kind of struck [something in] me and then the colors on skin - how he portrayed it - that opened up a new door which I started exploring more. [It] kind of reminded me that you can tell your story. You don’t have to just draw something.
DY: Have you ever experienced creative blocks in your process?
AZ: I wouldn’t say [I’ve experienced] creative blocks [laughs]... I just wrote it down recently in my journal… "my mind is sabotaging my body." So, my mind, it doesn’t let me be as active, as happy as I want to [laughs], but it’s fine we are figuring it out. I think the art helps me… I never looked at my work as a representation of specific health issues, but because I was experiencing several of those…maybe they are now in this kind of subject matter as well.
DY: I’m also really curious about social media. I think it was my explorer page where I saw Michaela Stark’s stuff and then from Michaela I saw you. I think the breadcrumb of social media is so powerful because you never know who’s gonna see your work and I’m curious, as an artist, how that’s impacted you.
AZ: I was in my studio all the time and that’s why I didn’t really engage with social media because I was working on a solo show for a year and two months. I think [COVID] hit around that moment. So, my social media was more silent at that time. I mean, the old works were going but I didn’t show new works until the show came out. As for social media in terms of connectivity, it was amazing. [My friends and I] were having Zooms a few times…when we were all stuck [in different countries] during quarantine.
Social media in general is nice. It connects people, but also it makes you anxious. Like “you’re not good enough, you’re not where you’re supposed to be.” I mean, even the most confident person, I think, [social media] can break. Even if you’re the most confident in what you do, if you spend too much time on it, it can create a very negative effect and turn of events. So, balance is good [laughs].
DY: I was just gonna ask…the fact that you’re more connected also means that you’re comparing yourself a lot. In an Instagram post of Sky [Alina’s dog], you mentioned [in the captions] how your “art would never be born if [you hadn’t made] mistakes.” If you are comfortable sharing, I would love to hear the meaning behind that…and also the advice that you’d give to artists because I think a lot of aspiring artists want to be perfect or at least their vision of perfection.
AZ: Yeah, I actually hope for mistakes in my work because they give direction to explore.
If you do everything by the book, I don’t really feel like you can invent something - or you can’t really push forward. It’s fine that you’re staying on the same page…but in order to push, you need to make a mistake and then you need to find a solution.
By mistake I mean…even if you hurt someone with words – that’s a mistake. You can go and you can ask them, “What did I do wrong? How can I say I’m sorry?” and then you’re creating now patterns for making up to people... [or] you can be stuck in [the negative emotions] for a few months, few years maybe even. It can grow inside of you and that’s this ugliness that I [refer to in my art] that grows inside of you – but that’s fine. It’s who you are right now. But...if you acknowledge [your mistakes] you can come up with a solution and you can start growing.
So, I think the advice probably in terms of artistic way… I think acknowledging that [something is] a mistake. And that it’s fine. Just push; keep working. I think working is probably the key answer to this. Alice Neel said that some women, who’d just given birth [around the same time as her], and were not as they were before, would stop working and [Alice Neel] didn’t stop. She had three kids, one died, and she never stopped working. She said if she stopped that it would have been a mistake. So, she kind of looked at other people and followed the direction that she wanted to take.
On May 1st, 2021 Alina will be joining a group exhibition with London's Daniel Raphael Gallery. In the coming months, Alina has plans of painting a muse on Instagram Live and releasing never-before-seen art, paired with her mom’s poetry, through her exclusive studio sales. To stay updated or enquire about her art, follow Alina on Instagram (@alina_zamanova).