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Exploring the Political Power of Kitschy Collages: an interview with Elleanna Chapman

In the world of art, one artist's canvas may be another's playground, and creativity knows no bounds. In today's interview we have a captivating conversation with Elleanna Chapman, who finds inspiration in the unconventional. This artist's medium of choice is collage, but not just any collage – collages that defy the norm. From prints to enlarged images, canvas-based paintings to collected objects, this creator's work embodies a blend of kitsch, cuteness, ugliness, and strangeness.

Join us as we delve into the mind of Chapman, exploring the intriguing fusion of art, kitsch, and politics that makes her work a unique and thought-provoking journey.

4 October 2023

Joana Alarcão

Can you begin by telling us your background and the steps you took to become the artist you are today?

I think I was always very creative - I come from a working-class family in Essex, and though I didn't visit galleries until I was older, my parents and nan didn't discourage my creativity. I took art at school as a teenager, and eventually, I began to regularly attend Focal Point Gallery, a contemporary art gallery in Essex. Through volunteering at the gallery, I began to see a lot of exciting art. I absolutely loved it and this is what drove me to try and pursue it as a possible career. I was the first person at my school to attend Central Saint Martins, where I completed a foundation course in Fine Art. I was then also the first in my family to attend university. I got into the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, and my nan couldn't really believe it. I remember her calling me and saying that they didn't accept 'our type' there, but I managed to get in nonetheless. My time at the Ruskin has been incredibly formative - I've really benefitted from the smaller cohort and all the resources available at Oxford, but most importantly I've had the time and space to develop my own practice and to learn from like-minded and incredibly talented people.

Your choice of working with kitsch, cute, ugly, and strange images and objects in your collages is intriguing. How do these elements contribute to the narrative and atmosphere you aim to create in your artwork?

I like to imagine my work as an attempted marrying of kitsch, working-class aesthetic with revolutionary class politics. I am incredibly drawn to the kitsch visually, and I understand it to be humorous, and a bit camp. If there's a cute, seventies-style kitten, I think this aesthetic can pull a viewer in, so that they may engage with the political message of the same work. I'm still trying to research and understand this connection between the aesthetic and the political, but I think it also speaks to taste, class and self-indulgence. For me, I really enjoy tasteless, ugly objects - as a working-class artist, that's enough justification then for me to foreground these elements visually in my work.

V IS FOR VAJAZZLE by Elleanna Chapman. Image courtesy of Elleanna Chapman.

Cats seem to play a recurring role in your collages. What significance or symbolism do they hold within your work, especially in the context of conveying a political agenda?

I think of the cats as super cute revolutionary messengers. There is a certain image of militant class politics that I think has been distorted through bourgeois propaganda. Every day, the state, the media - they all tell us how great capitalism is, and how socialism has been tried and failed. I think it's important to speak to what I believe in, which is revolution. The cats are my little messengers for this, they draw in the viewer and frame a Marxist agenda in a fun, positive way. I am interested in how art and culture can act as a political catalyst, and in a way, I think the cats are a symbolic agent of this. 

Your statement mentions the lack of preciousness in your art as a deliberate choice. How does this approach allow you to more effectively convey your political message through your work?

I don't have the time or want for perfection. It doesn't really exist anyhow. I like giving myself the space to make art messily, to make mistakes, and to embrace the rough edges. It's not that it doesn't take time - I also enjoy slower processes, such as stoning and sewing, which are quite cathartic for me - just that a super professional outcome doesn't appeal to me. I would much rather have an object that is a bit hodge-podge, but sincere. I think when you are engaging with art politically, it has to be honest, and the lack of preciousness in my aesthetic is an expression of that.

All Power to the Workers, Babe by Elleanna Chapman. Image courtesy of Elleanna Chapman.

What can you tell me about the project All Power to the Workers, Babes?

I love this piece. I made it in my first year at the Ruskin, and there was (and continues to be) a lot of trade union action across universities in the UK. I took the opportunity of our first year show to request to exhibit on the outside of the building, on Oxford High Street. I was thinking about the University and College Union (UCU) strike action, as well as my practice's relationship to audience and the public. I created this banner in the image of traditional, sewn trade union banners, and reappropriated the labour slogan 'All Power to the Workers'. It's a variation of 'All Power to the Soviets', a slogan used by the Bolsheviks during the First World War in Russia. 'Workers' seemed more appropriate than 'Soviets' in this contemporary, British context, and I added 'babes' as a nod to the Essex dialect, and a certain slang that has been demonised as chavvy, or classless. As I had hoped, the work was engaged with by a much wider audience than it would have if it had been kept within the building of the art school. People took photos with it, buses honked at it, and it was shared on twitter. The response was very positive, and it really encouraged me that there was an audience, and a need, for some sort of revolutionary, proletarian art. I don't know if I necessarily want to self-appoint that title to my practice, but I do want to make art that is enjoyed by the many, and not the few.

Collages can be a powerful means of visual storytelling. Can you share an example of a collage you've created that particularly resonates with a political message and what inspired it?

One collage that was completely visual was a video work titled I make a lot of paper collages and prints, and they often include text. This work was almost completely visual, made up of crudely cut archive footage from the Essex Sound and Video Archive. I was thinking about Essex: as well as being the county where I grew up, it became a bit of a case study for me. It's really interesting to me how the spectacle of Essex has become a caricature of southern England, and how it has this simultaneous radical and subversive culture that lives amongst a sea of conservatism. Again, I was able to explore the viewer and the public through screening the work on The Big Screen at Focal Point Gallery, and it is also available to view in the digital world, on my website.

A cat class act by Elleanna Chapman. Image courtesy of Elleanna Chapman.

Your statement suggests that your art aims to agitate viewers. Could you elaborate on the emotions or reactions you hope to evoke in your audience through your artwork?

When I speak of agitation, I mean this in a political sense. My work is broadly provocative, and there are lots of people who don't like it and who don't get it. However, I'm not making the work to piss these people off, but to connect with those who understand the need for change within society. Most explicitly, I want to connect with those who also want to overthrow capitalism and have a revolution. I understand agitation to be sharing one idea to a large number of people, as a political strategy. My work and collages can become very time or event-specific, but more broadly, I am moving to make work that is boldly communist, that calls upon the viewer to be agitated in the sense that they may organise and build for a revolution. 

In today's complex social and political landscape, what role do you believe artists should play in addressing and challenging prevailing norms and ideologies?

I think you can get away with a lot more as an artist than as an individual, law-abiding citizen. My art practice is an extension of the political work I do, really, and it is a great forum and platform for these Marxist and Bolshevik ideas. Being an artist allows me to be outspoken, and to create public artworks or socially-engaged workshops and events that have a clear political agenda - I don't think there's another occupation where I could be so open and agitational. I think there is also a role that art and culture can play as a political catalyst, as an aspect of society that can be so progressive, and at times, very widespread. For me, art exists as a proponent of a radical counterculture, where alternatives to bourgeois ideology can slip through the cracks.

ATTEMPTED MANIFESTO by Elleanna Chapman. Image courtesy of Elleanna Chapman.

Are there specific political or social issues that you are particularly passionate about, and how do they inform the content and direction of your collages?

As I have already mentioned, my work has a Marxist agenda. I have been involved in the left from a young age, and have found that Marxism has really allowed me to understand society and how it can be better. There are many different and specific social issues that I am passionate about - Marxism, in its scientific analysis, provides the only solution to all of these issues, through revolution. This is why my collages often use slogans or transitional demands (a demand that links a specific issue to the broader need for socialism) as this is the way out, I believe, of all oppressions and inequalities in society. It won't be an easy job, and everything won't be magically fixed through the overthrow of capitalism; however, I do believe that capitalism requires and perpetuates oppression. By agitating for the need for revolution specifically, on a Marxist basis, I am able to respond to a number of societal issues with one, revolutionary solution.

Artists often complicate their creative process, resulting in unconventional and humorous narratives. How do you deliberately make your practice and creative process more complicated? Do you have any amusing or captivating anecdotes about changing your methods of creation?

I am quite indecisive and have a number of projects or works in progress at any one time. Although this means my brain is never focused on one thing, it means that my different interests all feed into each other, which can make for some exciting work. 

Lastly, what message would you like to leave our readers?

Organise and build for revolution! Educate yourself, and read some Marx - it's even more relevant today than when it was written. These are not outdated ideas, but ideas that hold real positive and revolutionary potential. One solution: revolution!

Know more about the artist here.

Cover Image:

All Power to the Workers, Babe by Elleanna Chapman. Image courtesy of Elleanna Chapman.

I like to make collages. Collages in the form of collages, in the form of prints, in the form of enlarged images, in the form of canvas-based paintings and in the form of collected objects. The images and objects I choose to work with are kitsch, cute, ugly and strange. They are often found or happened upon rather than specifically chosen and there are a lot of cats. There is no preciousness and this lack of preciousness is crucial as it leaves me with more time to develop a political agenda. The cats are cute, but what do they need to say to agitate their viewers?

What’s on your mind?

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