In the Studio with Emi Avora

Emi Avora is a London-trained and Singapore based artist. We sit down with Emi to talk about growing up in Corfu, her major influences and the inspiration behind one of her latest works.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist? 

My father is a painter so in a way I grew up with that possibility. I loved art materials and spending time in my dads home studio. So the idea of being an artist grew from my relationship to my dad. I always thought I would be doing something creative but I seriously considered the idea of going to art school when I was a teenager. 

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I am from Greece, was born in Athens and grew up on the island of Corfu. Although it didnt always feel it at the time, growing up in Corfu was an idyllic upbringing in many ways, living up in a town that is a Unesco heritage site and surrounded by the sea, enjoying the Mediterranean climate. Elements from my upbringing definitely inform my work today – the memory of that strong Mediterranean light that brings a clarity and strength to colour as well as the places special history and the remains of its colonial past (Corfu was under Venetian rule, French rule as well as a British protectorate before it was reunited with Greece). 

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience?  

I guess my artistic journey has been a combination of hard work and lucky moments. Coming from a small island, I was naive when I decided to pursue an artistic path to say the least. However that naivety instilled a childish, excitable love for art which has been and still is very important.

 So as I mentioned I was lucky to grow up in an artistic household with my dad painting and having a studio at home. Although largely self taught, my dad still is one of my favourite painters. My first exposure to art was through my dads books and exhibitions. He is not always so keen on contemporary art but he is very open to find out about it. I would always follow him to see shows and he even took me to Kassel in Germany to see Documenta X when I was fourteen.

I was also lucky to have another very inspiring teacher while I was preparing my portfolio for art schools. He was fresh out of art school, he introduced me to a lot more contemporary trends of the time and I still remember and follow his advice when I am stuck

Then I had another stroke of luck when I met an artist who was teaching in London at the time and suggested I apply to study at the Ruskin school in Oxford. I had not even heard of the Ruskin before.That led me to the Royal Academy schools and London where I continued studying and continued my practice.

It hasnt always been easy trying to find an artistic voice in a new country and at times I questioned my choice of pursuing an artistic career. But time and time again the art itself draws me back in and I realise I would never be able to live a fulfilling life without it. 

What’s the message of your work? How would you describe your aesthetic?

Rather than conveying a direct message about someone or something, I would say I see my paintings as portals to a space of dreaming for the viewer, where paradoxical things happen, where theres a sense of euphoria but also of anxiety at times, where cliches and surprises collide, where things are simultaneously disorienting and dazzling. I use my everyday observations, anxieties, humorous encounters to create a universe that invites the viewer to a visual journey into a fictional parallel world. The aesthetic in my work is usually quite maximalistic and quite complex, blending a variety of elements that come from my ancestry and my reality. I tend to exaggerate my motifs projecting my own visions onto what already exists.

At the same time my work enters a discussion with the formal elements of painting – colour combinations, paradoxes of space and perspective, as well as composition are primary preoccupations of mine.

Who/what are your greatest influences? 

As I am very preoccupied with colour at the moment, I am looking at a lot of colourists; turn of the century as well as contemporary artists. 

I have been looking at Cuno Amiet, Charles Burchfield and Florine Stettheimer a lot lately. I have also been studying Ancient Greek and Chinese pots for inspiration, but have also been following some great contemporary artists like Lisa Brice, Michael Berryhill, Chris Huen and many others. I tend to read or listen to a lot of fiction books that give me ideas for titles and new paintings. The influences shift as my interests shift so I always stay open to new stimuli. 

Girl with Flowers, 1896, by Cuno Amiet

 An unexpected source of inspiration?

When I had my children I spent a lot of time chopping veg in order to purée them. It was a busy time and I hardly had time to sit down let alone make art. However one day the image of brightly orange chopped sweet potatoes gave me an idea for a pastel sketch and then for a painting. This led me to a series of works that then subsequently led me to my current practice. 

 Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? 

Some paintings start from images I have gathered or drawings I made and other paintings start with an idea. So there is a vague plan but it often changes in the process. I leave the plan purposefully open ended. In the larger paintings I very much like the viewer to become the protagonist of the scene I direct, so yes, I do think of the viewer, essentially the visual journey I offer him/her in the paintings. It is not exactly the same with the smaller works which have a more jewel like, sculptural character. 

How has your art evolved? Do you experiment? Do you see any parameters to your work?

 I think a change of environment has always promoted change in my practice that is also why artists enjoy going on residencies to see things with fresh eyes. For example my relocation to Asia has definitely changed my aesthetic. It was not an exactly intentional decision. My practice usually evolves organically I prefer not to force the changes but let them happen. I do always experiment and research. I dont always use or show my experiments but sometimes they show me a way forward. Parameters are set for the work to be made but then later they tend to be broken and readjusted. The paradox of creating and adjusting your own rules only to then rebel against them always fascinated me.

 What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

Art making has always been a companion in easier as well as harder circumstances. Yes I could really talk about a lovely studio with ample space and a lot of time in my hands but being pragmatic and especially after becoming a mother I realised I havent always got the luxury of idealconditions. Apart from having some space to work in, some materials and some time, there is no other idealcondition I need in order to make work. There are always good days and bad days, good periods and bad periods but I would really struggle to make any work if I always waited for idealconditions.

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

I painted All alone togetherduring the onset of the pandemic when we were anticipating the worse. I used some imagery from holiday snaps I had made in Thailand during the Christmas holiday just before when no one had suspected what the new year would bring. I wanted to create a scene that would have normally been busy and bustling but without the people as if they had to abandon it quite suddenly. Its still seductive and inviting but also haunting at the same time. It talks about collective loneliness, the fact that we all experience a similar phenomenon but in our own lonely space.


All Alone Together (with Prawns and Monkey), Emi Avora, 2020