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Art as Social Discourse: A Conversation with Sonia Rolak

Join us for a thought-provoking conversation with Sonia Rolak, a visionary artist whose four-decade-long journey has been driven by a deep commitment to exploring socio-political themes through art. From challenging gender inequality to shedding light on the plight of marginalized communities and the perils of financial speculation, Rolak has used her creative genius to raise critical questions about the world we inhabit. In this interview, we delve into her artistic evolution, the power of art to provoke change, and the vital role artists play in addressing societal issues that experts often overlook.

15 September 2023

Joana Alarcão

To begin, could you give us a brief overview of your practice?

Towards the end of my studies in London, I started to express feminist ideas and anxiety about the threat of nuclear war, which was bound to feminist criticism, since most of the wars were started by men in power.

For a long time, I considered myself a painter, but little did I know that my subjects would take me to create objects, installations, or even performances. So gradually, I changed the way I made art, adapting the use of materials to the work content. 

Soon after I opened my first studio in Venice, I started to make reliefs inventing a mixture of paper, wood powder and glue which then I applied on previously shaped surfaces like wooden boards, metal grids or canvases. Later, towards the second part of the eighties, I went back to painting, using this mixture for a relief effect.

Whenever I felt the urgency to express any idea, I did it right away in my studio using whatever material was available. I kept my mind open to the use of new materials, following the modern and contemporary art legacy.

But the main trigger for my creativity was, and still is, the search for the roots of social injustice.

The ladder of no values by Sonia Rolak. Image courtesy of Sonia Rolak.

A reoccurring motive in your work is expressed by the symbolic charge of certain objects like stones and mirrors and the language of numbers in stock exchange quotations. What is the symbolic interconnection between these objects?

The symbolism started to appear in my work as a combination of my earlier abstract art and figuration. For a period of time, I tried to make art which I believed could be easily understood by everybody in order to pass on my messages. But with more experience, I realized that only people with a certain mindset are really interested in contemporary art, so it doesn't matter what form it takes. They will try to understand it anyway, driven by their natural curiosity.

Consequently, I went on to use my creativity to dig deeper into the structures of sociopolitical powers.

There seem to be always hidden economical agendas behind the proclaimed threats to world security. The war on Iraq was one of the best examples.

To this day, none of those responsible for starting it have faced any trial, even though it is now public knowledge that the reasons for it were no other than geopolitical domination and economic exploitation. In the meantime, thousands of civilians were killed and others were forced to emigrate after their homes and livelihoods were destroyed.

My first works about emigration appeared in the second part of the eighties, when Italy, a country with a long history of its own emigration, experienced for the first time such phenomena on its shores.

They are paintings with relieved surfaces portraying columns of people marching on. What can be visible inside the compressed masses are only a few heads. In such situations, the humanity of these people is cancelled.

In that period, the western and eastern blocks started to fall apart. So, I decided to show their collapse by painting the heads of the few in power falling down from the erected statues, followed by the heads of the population, the ones who always pay the last price for the mess their leaders leave behind.

Eventually, in my new paintings, the heads started to look more like the falling stones, symbolizing the victims and at the same time the witnesses to the cruel dealings of the Powerful. The children in particular, whose lives and potential are being wasted.

It puzzled me why the art system started to speculate so heavily after the seventies, making artists carrier the subject of passing fashions and whims of auction houses.

The answers were in front of me, the time of idealism was long gone. The last such figures like John Ruskin, Mahatma Gandhi or Lev Tolstoy became only historical names of the past. The new era of modern materialistic society replaced idealism with excitement and awe of the Wall Street “wizards” who were making tons of money using overly complicated deals, so complicated that eventually they provoked the Wall Street collapse in 2008.

The financial speculations, greed, and frivolous games of power in a society obsessed with material goals made me think that eventually there is going to be a price to pay for allowing such a moral degradation.

It looks like we are paying it right now with another terrible war in Europe which could have been prevented, with unstoppable climate change which was warned against for decades by the scientists, yet ignored, and the huge distance created between rich and poor by global economy.

The stones I used for my sculptures in 2001 were already shaped by hundreds of years of being pushed on by the rivers, I only made a cut on their sides to apply the mirrors. These mirrors were “the eyes” of “those passive witnesses” reflecting our brief existence passing by. If we destroy this beautiful planet, the stones will still remain.

Around 1999, I started to make images using printed stock quotations in the shape of buildings and towers with drawings of lonely figures, small groups or heads, on top of them. Through this, I was trying to show the connection between financial speculation and the narcissistic delirium of those who seek power through the accumulation of material gains.

Petrol by Sonia Rolak. Image courtesy of Sonia Rolak

Can you tell us how the books “The Female Eunuch” by Germain Greer and "The Culture of Narcissism" by Christopher Lasch changed the direction of your art from abstract to figurative?

While still a student in 1980, I was given a book, “The female eunuch” by Germain Greer. Oddly enough it was a gift from my then-boyfriend, and even though, the feminist ideas were not new to me, having had an activist sister based in Holland. I was still flabbergasted by its content, which inspired me to read every other feminist book available.

Suddenly, the missing pieces fell into place. I started to understand all the “why” in my personal and social life and felt an ardent desire to express it.

All of this passion called for a dramatic change in my art from abstract to figurative paintings more adapted to communicate the messages I wanted to send to the world.

A similar realization of finding the underlying cause of certain social phenomenology happened to me after reading “The Culture of Narcissism” by an American sociologist, Christopher Lash. His analysis helped me to understand better our modern culture, and this understanding once again made me cross my own boundaries of creativity. I started to add objects and installations to the body of my work to better express contemporary reality.

Witnesses by Sonia Rolak. Image courtesy of Sonia Rolak

In one of your texts, you mentioned the almost timeless concept of “witnesses”. What is the meaning of this concept in your practice?

The concept of witnesses has evolved, observing the stones in nature and reflecting on their shapes which are the result of hundreds if not thousands of years of formation. A few years later, I had similar thoughts about the mountains, whose existence is incomparable to the age span of the human species.

The thought occurred to me that the stones and the mountains are likely to be still around long after we are gone, witnesses to our brief passing through this planet.

Many, too many people still believe that no matter what we do to our environment, our species will survive and this is just an omnipotent illusion.

Tree by Sonia Rolak. Image courtesy of Sonia Rolak

For more than twenty years, you focused your conceptual analysis on the modern human condition, especially that of women, children, and the less privileged. Can you lead us through this artistic and conceptual journey?

I do not believe that art, philosophy or any reasoning by itself can answer the big questions of life, but art can be a valuable tool for inquiry. It is a surprising tool which can discern things otherwise outside our range of experience, using the emotional charge of creativity to do that.

When I think of my work at the end of the nineties, I feel quite amazed at some of my own insights. I was trying to alert people against financial speculations almost ten years before the Wall Street collapse in 2008 using my art to do this. The first serious warning was launched only in 2000 by trader expert Michael Burry, whose article I certainly did not read.

It was the artistic process which brought me to these conclusions.

Naturally, I did not know that there was going to be a financial market crash, but what I did know was that the rich in power are playing dangerous games by speculating, very slippery games. This I expressed in many drawings and creating some objects like a smoothly varnished column (which I consider a symbol of power) covered with stock exchange numbers and the mirror on its top. Or again, a slippery print-covered ladder leading up to an empty mirror instead of idealistic heights. The narcissistic death.

All of my concepts originated from the idea of social injustice beginning with women's inequality and later including all the unprivileged. The injustice touches all vulnerable members of society, when only one minority is discriminated the rest will follow.

Hope in the mountains by Sonia Rolak. Image courtesy of Sonia Rolak

What can you tell us about your project and exhibition "Hope in the Mountains"?

This project was meant to become an exhibition in 2008 summing up my criticism of narcissistic society. The main focus was going to be an installation with stone sculptures “Witnesses” surrounded by big paintings of the mountains covering the walls so that the mirrors on the stones would reflect them.

The idea behind it was to show the disproportion of human existence and that of our planet, as well as, to show some fragments of our beautiful world in danger of destruction.

The “Hope in the mountains” was a “tongue in cheek” title. Knowing that climate change is inevitable and that the sea levels will come up so high that most global coast countries will go underwater, I used the word “Hope” sarcastically, since we, human beings are so resolute and clever to let climate change happen we can then use the mountain tops as the last chance to survive it.

By Sonia Rolak. Image courtesy of Sonia Rolak

In your practice, it seems that you create a dialogue around feminism and climate change. Can you tell me how these themes affect your practice?

With time, I realized that the unjust social condition of women goes hand in hand with that of other members of the human community, the vulnerable like children, LGTB, people of color, poor. This happens because the abusive narcissistic culture tries to dominate and exploit everything on its path, nature included.

Any specific work that you can mention regarding these two themes that you feel created a linear and emotional connection with the audience?

There are many, I could start with a very early work from almost forty years ago “The tree”, where I already connected the mentality of power with the dominance of nature. It is a relief in the shape of a tree with the face of a man who could be a politician, some people at the time told me that the face looked like that of Bush senior. The figure’s head monopolizes the tree, symbolically not only because of his sociopolitical position but also because his power stems from his family “tree”. 

Another reading can be made of a businessperson who decides on the sorts of nature dominating it, which happens all the time if only to give one example of the destruction of Amazonian forests for the material gains of big corporations.

A second painting from 1994 is titled “Rwanda”. It depicts a desperate child on the top of a dirty splash of water, his/her life was already wasted the moment that child saw the atrocities of war, such tremendous traumas are almost impossible to heal. The innocent lives are “splashed out” by wars which are never just to start with.

Rwanda by Sonia Rolak. Image courtesy of Sonia Rolak

In your opinion, how do you feel contemporary art can create a path forward regarding the current global political and social atmosphere?

Many years ago, the mainstream culture did not approve of politics or any social issue being a subject for artist's consideration. I was even told by my tutors at college that something like this is mere propaganda.

Feminist artists were among the first who started to express their sociopolitical ideas in art. Their bold creativity certainly helped to open the way for other art of this nature.

I believe that any cultural project with social intention can sharpen people's sensitivity to address urgent problems. We have to remember that the testimony of our past is passed on mainly through art because history books are constantly adjusted depending on political needs.

So, no matter how much the present society is considering art a marginal endeavour, as we could see during the pandemic, it is a human activity to be reckoned with. Because once the life of the powerful is over, the truth about their deeds is going to be told no matter what monuments they erect for themselves. It is quite different for the artists who have nothing to hide and if their achievements were significant, they are going to be remembered for generations.

Greed by Sonia Rolak. Image courtesy of Sonia Rolak

What message would you like to leave our readers?

It would be easy to leave important messages similar to slogans, but I will not do it. Instead, I say this, sharpen your sight and your intellect. Do not be fooled by promised security in place of your freedom. We are living in times of great changes, and we have to be prepared. Read George Orwell once again.

Know more about the artist here.

Cover Image:

Don't walk on the glass by Sonia Rolak. Image courtesy of Sonia Rolak

All of my artworks from the last forty years are inspired by socio-political content. I started the first inquiry into a power structure already as an art student in London at the end of the seventies, expressing in many ways women's inequality. Soon, I understood that women are not the only subjects of such domination, anyone who is at the bottom of social scale of any society is discriminated in one way or another. This conviction brought me to paint images about the waste of human potential through migrations, I turned the heads of "falling" migrants into stones and used stones as witnesses into human folly. At the end of 1999 I started to create works about financial speculations, convinced that this is going to bring us towards disaster, and how right I was, the disaster hit the western world in 2008 with the Wall Street collapse.
The problem is that when we, the artists, express ourselves on such issues we are not taken too seriously since we are not the experts. But where were the experts hiding at that time?

What’s on your mind?

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