Like me, my aunt Tina is one of the family’s black sheep, which could be why we’ve gravitated towards each other and forged such deep connections. Since young, she’s opened up my world: taking me to my first forest rave, providing me moments in the beautifully quiet and tranquil Welsh countryside in Powys where we could walk, think and discuss things together. She taught me how to appreciate the world and to question things through a wider lens. Throughout my journey as an artist and human, the good and bad, Tina has been there for me…
That would otherwise have remained hidden. It sheds light on two people’s love for literature, art, science, meditation, healing and the natural world we exist in. I guess that’s what connects my aunt Tina and I: our shared interests and our understanding of the self, with all its dilemmas, traumas and joys in the journey of being human.
TS: Thinking about this now: I genuinely can’t remember the first time we met — as if you’ve always been there.
SS: I have the same feeling, but I remember the first time I saw you.
TS: I know we met when you were a teen…
SS: I think I was 12 or 13 during the summer holidays. I went downstairs in our maisonette on Column Road in Cardiff to find you in the living room, standing there with your back towards me, looking at some framed image on the wall. I thought, “This is my auntie? She looks so young and cool, almost like Patti Smith.” That was our first meeting in our family home we had until I was around 13. We lost it after my mother was mentally unwell again. We drove in your Jeep to the cinema.
TS: Remember what we went to see?
SS: How can I forget… a movie where I saw my first blowjob.
TS: Oh God, I remember that. It was an arthouse film showing a non-simulated blowjob. And of course, me being the new relaxed aunt, I was trying to broaden your horizons of life. You were very impressionable.
SS: I felt connected to you, like I had known a part of you before. You weren’t like everyone else. The most vivid memory I have with you after that was when you took me to the university in Glamorgan where you taught Psychology.
TS: Yeah, in Pontypridd. It was probably quite intimidating. You were only 13 or 14 — did you feel out of place?
SS: I was already used to academic environments because I’d grown up on Colum Road, Cathays, the central hub for Cardiff University. At the end of my road was the Cardiff University Library, where I’d go with my mother.
I remember those papers people would look at through big screens. You’d see articles when you turned the handle, archives and newspapers. Machines like a Rolleiflex Camera, watching the images flicking through like a carousel.
I remember sitting there trying to grapple with the idea of living art.
TS: Almost like an analogue Internet.
SS: Yeah, it was pre-Google. I was aware of academia, but never fully knew what people were doing around me. Everyone was quiet and serious. The non-descriptive smell, and lighting of the library was all so controlled and calming.
When you brought me to Glamorgan, you took me to the library, I was sitting at a large table when you dropped these massive coffee table-sized books in front of me, saying, “This is fucking art , look at it,” and then walked off.
TS: I remember there was Robert Mapplethorpe and H.R. Giger. And the whole Patti Smith countercultural thing… who else?
SS: Louise Bourgeois and Francis Bacon. I thought they were all dead because I had no concept of living artists. I remember sitting there trying to grapple with the idea of living art… because for me, art was old, dusty smelly things in museums — big Italian, Dutch Old Masters, and terribly boring English paintings — works by dead white men of a certain establishment and time.
Looking at the works of Francis Bacon, mainly portraits and scenes, I remember I was taken by his painterly gestures and how he dissected what was human, rehashing it into an animalistic, trapped persona. He always painted architectural cages surrounding people. He felt the spirit was trapped within the body against the man-made structures of life, that humans were these conditioned animals on the fringe of self-destructing at any moment. I wasn’t connected to him then, but now I understand his outlook more.
Then I remember looking through Mapplethorpe and my face probably went red. There were some nice flowers, then suddenly, bang ! A huge cock, penises of all shapes and sizes, whips up someone’s ass. My brain was going: ERROR, ERROR, ERROR . I thought, “Fuck, this is porn ,” but also, “my aunt shared this with me and said it’s art, and I’m in a library so it must be acceptable.” I recall encountering this homoeroticism and underground world for the first time. I was blown away by the idea that someone could take the camera lens and create a portal, unapologetically placing it in the public arena. Mapplethorpe had balls, and it was put forth in a beautiful way.
The third book was on Louise Bourgeois, and those cage motifs appeared again. I felt drawn to them, these abstractions of containment. Her delicate drawings and laboured needlework were fascinating to me because it represented a kind of fluidity and physical rawness. Bourgeois had coined this terminology, “confessionalism” — the revelation of the family story. I identified with it in my own story of my dysfunctional parents, psychological dramas and traumas. Looking back, maybe I was holding back from divulging my own story through my work that was at first painterly and figurative. Then I went so abstract for a long time, coming full circle.
Then there was H.R. Giger. I thought, “Wow, this is fantasy. This is symbolism.” I didn’t know these terminologies then, but I was familiar with the ideas. Giger’s work was this other-world he created which was beautiful, terrifying, cold and far away — like Mars or the moon.
TS: A lot of Giger’s stuff seems hyper-fem.
SS: Yeah, I understand. Some people may look at his work and think, “Oh, he was a misogynist and fantasist,” but I think he loved the female form and power of the feminine.
TS: When you look at the images, the surreal landscapes, they’re vulvic and not of this world.
Do these early encounters with art have any long-lasting influence on your work? Years later, you still speak about Bacon a lot.
SS: Yes, I picked up a copy of his biography The Gilded Gutter , reading it to understand him. There was a point in my life where Bacon suddenly clicked for me. I was at the Tate Britain, standing in front of a triptych of his lover George Dyer, who he frequently painted; Dyer was one of Bacon’s several lovers who committed suicide. I remember looking at the gestural marks and colours, aware of my own breathing — as if studying a stage or watching a film. I realise that every time an artwork is poignant to me, I have to read more about the creator, to know more about them as a human.
TS: Did you feel a palpable connection with the painting at the Tate?
SS: Yes. I understood pain, that traumas are located within the body, and how we don’t release them when we should. I connected with that empty space, and within it, the question of human existence.
I needed Bacon’s work at that moment because life was tough — I had stopped speaking to my father and had disconnected from my mother. I was going through a lot with my identity and sexuality when I left Armenia and moved to London. Bacon’s work became a sort of guide to make my way as an artist, to survive, work, live, create… I gravitated toward Bacon’s destructive tendencies. He would be obsessively drawing, then suddenly rip the works up, destroying them. I liked that he wasn’t precious.
I found that same creative destruction in the works of Gustav Metzger, in his auto-destructive art and Actionism He made a lot of art about the Nazis, war and his family loss, dropping acid on paper, allowing it to eat through the material. A pivotal moment was when I started making work with crude oil. I wanted to do the opposite of Metzger and make something that was about creation and cleansing. Watching the oil travel across the paper and the canvas was meditative.
A lot of artists have made me think about seeing the world differently, to be more observant. When you dropped those books in front of me, they really changed me, but I just didn’t know it yet, only realising much later.
Your work now makes more sense to me now that you've come to understand yourself more.
TS: I felt that you really started embracing who you were when you did that photography piece with the Heinz 57 image.
SS: That piece was a springboard for my work being less abstract and more biographical, a comment on my identity and heritage. I created that work in 2012 with the help of my then-lover, who was also an artist. The idea actually came from when you talked about how your father, my grandfather, would refer to himself as “Heinz 57” when people asked where he was from. The phrase alluded to his mixed heritage of Naples-Italian and Roma-Rhajastani.
It stuck with me when I got fed up with people in the UK always asking me where I was from. I didn’t want to live within nationalistic confines. I’m just a human who happens to be born in a certain country. Am I Welsh? Am I British? I don’t know. There are so many different parts of me that have lived in several places, countries and cultures which I’ve absorbed in my life — and it all flows out through my art.
That work was a manifestation of my multitudinous identity. I became super intrigued by the diversity of my heritage; it was fascinating to dig, and see how those different worlds could have met in a totally different landscape. I discovered all sorts of colonial ghosts and forms of oppression that made me realise my ancestors survived such dreadful things, from slavery in Benin, the sugar plantations, racism and outcasting.
TS: Was the story of your grandfather a tool for you to unpack and unlock ideas and emotions?
SS: You carry childhood traumas with you, thinking you’ve dealt with it, not realising that you haven’t until you grow older. I’ve been trying to break the loop. For example, I started using oil for the works of my father because he was a mechanic and the smell of oil resonates with me. Afterwards, I began looking deeper at its environmental impact. It’s a long, messy process because life is chaotic and healing takes time, and humans aren’t linear.
TS: Does your work reflect your life in a linear sense or in a more chaotic way?
I'm trying to show people it's not all darkness... there's serenity and moments of love and laughter.
SS: I’ve realised I can’t make work in a linear format. My ideas come out in a thought-out way, but sometimes there’s the happy accident, a moment of chaos. When I was creating a luminescent garden in Finland, I came across the Zodiac birth sign flowers and created a whole photography series of illuminated flowers that represented individual symbols of the zodiac. These spontaneous ideas inform the mediums that I use. I’d love to be a straightforward painter and have that solid, singular space to work with and in, but that’s not how my mind works.
TS: I love how your visual messages inform the medium. Actually, a lot of your work now makes more sense to me now that you’ve come to understand yourself more. You’ve become more comfortable in your own skin. The direction of your art seems strong now. I feel your work also helps you to process your trauma and reflect on certain events in a healthier way.
SS: That’s part of the healing process. I’ve gone through the thread of psychology with the help of thinkers like Lacan, Jung, ET Gendlin , Winnicott and Leader. I know you dismiss Freud a lot… You were the one who gave me those tools. I’d spend summers with you in the middle of Wales, in your little library, looking at all these fascinating books on quantum mechanics, art, poetry and Beatnik literature. Those were beautiful moments where I had the time to absorb everything and just be.
I make art because I’m trying to carry myself out of the mental cages — trying to pull back the curtain and shine a torch backstage, revealing the clutter and mess, showing that is who I am. If my story can help just one person who comes across my work in time of need — that’s all I want to do. I’m trying to show people that it’s not all darkness… there’s serenity and moments of love and laughter. We all carry scars, traumas… some wounds are deep…but time heals, and you can eventually bloom, if you do the work.
A line of high-end cameras, produced first by the German company Franke & Heidecke, and later by Rollei-Werke.
Viennese Actionism refers to a movement in 20th century art. It was part of the wider development of performance art in the 1960s. The movement is not considered to have been consciously-developed; rather, the term was applied to a set of collaborations between its artists.
Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) was a French psychologist whose work is noted to have marked the international and French intellectual landscape, described as “the most controversial psychoanalyst since Freud”.
Carl Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and the founder of analytical philosophy.
Eugene T Gendlin (1926-2017) was an American philosopher who developed ways of thinking about and working with living process and the bodily felt sense.
Donald Woods Winnicott (1896-1971) was an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst who is best known for his ideas on the true self and the false self.
Darian Leader is a British psychoanalyst and a founding member of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research.
Sigmund Freud (1886-1939) was the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method of treating psychopathy through dialogues between patients and psychoanalysts.