The first thing that intrigued me in your textile works is the context in which you depict the female body. Even though you portray very intimate situations, often the women figures are in a way dehumanized, as they lack facial features. In Curanado/ Catching my own tears, which pictures a crying girl, we can see no eyes but the teardrops falling. You seem to focus on the colour of skin and hair of the women rather than the details of their facial features.
Sophie Utikal, Curando/Catching my own tears, 2020, textile, 5.13 m x 2.20 m. Courtesy of the artist
My focus in my art is the body and its language. I start my drafts with my own brown body and my black hair, and think of scenarios that transmit a feeling I want to talk about. It can be for example my anxiety because of the climate crisis, despair within loneliness, trust in the face of change. I think if I would add facial features then they would distract from what the body is telling in these moments, since this is what usually happens. We have conversations with our faces but not with our bodies, at least not consciously.
Your women are often curled up alone on the bed, tied with ropes, or grief-stricken, although you present these situations with delicate, pastel colors. Where does this contrast come from?
Sophie Utikal, What was is gone, textile, 2020. Photo: Abiona Esther Ojo. Courtesy of the artist
I am interested in the ambivalences that come with a crisis. It can be painful but usually can teach me something. In the best case, I don’t stay stuck in the crisis but move on to transformation. So if I want, the pain can become my teacher. But to get this motivation for change, I first have to admit what is going on inside of me. I want my women to have this power to change what is hurting them and for that, I believe they need to enter a vulnerable space at some point. I want to create this soft and welcoming environment within themselves. Being vulnerable is frightening and I hope in the process I can learn from them.
How does everyday life and the pandemic situation inform your work? Do the series ‘Quarantine’ and this unusual situation have a special place in your overview?
Sophie Utikal, My Loneliness Is Nothing New To Me, from Quarantine series, 2020, textile, 110 cm x 142 cm. Courtesy of the artist
All of my everyday life is in my works. The books I read, news I watch, things that move me, scare me, everything. I digest it in my textile works. Since I sew by hand I can slow down and stay with one experience for several days or weeks. Now with the coronavirus, of course, things have changed. I moved to Berlin last summer and I am without a social network for quite a while now. I am a very social person so these limitations are depressing for me. But I am privileged and grateful that I can continue working as an artist and when I work, I completely forget about my isolation. It is my escape, so I am now working most of the time. The ‘Quarantine’ series is special for me because I started working on a smaller scale. I did not know how long the lockdown would continue and how long the fabrics I still had at home would last. So my works were then only 1m long instead of 4 or 5m. Also, I started producing textile works just for me, my home, and my own pleasure, without having an exhibition or curator in mind. Returning to this decorative function is also the initial idea of the arpilleras
, which are little textile images in South America that depict everyday life and have the aim of bringing memory and beauty to the home. I have been familiar with these images since childhood and they have been an inspiration for me to start with this medium of figurative textile storytelling.
Your knowledge of human carnality is impressive. Would you like to tell me more about the Grinberg Method in your practice?
Sophie Utikal, Need to Touch, 2020, 70 cm x 90 cm, textile. Courtesy of the artist
I think you can find many aspects of the philosophy of the Grinberg Method in my work. The Grinberg Method is a teaching method on how we limit ourselves in life and how this becomes very evident in our bodies. I studied to become a Grinberg Practitioner, that is a person who guides you 1:1 through your patterns and helps you become aware of your body in the situations you want to change. The idea is that we create most of our patterns because we were afraid of a painful situation in the past, probably for very good reasons. For example, I was afraid of being alone as a child, so I became very good at staying in toxic relations until today, even though my reality has changed and I am not a child anymore. Of course, we create a lot of our patterns because of the structural injustice we live in. Capitalism has created a hostile and inhuman society and any form of oppression is traumatizing. It can disturb our sense of safety, dignity, belonging, if we do not learn how to process what happened. When I learn to heal, then I am able to bring all of myself into the present situation and unlock the power that I lost. So you see that the Grinberg Method is about personal emancipation, trusting the body, and being brave enough to be vulnerable. These are elements of my works as well. I think all bodywork methods aim at emancipation on a personal level while art tries to do this on the level of our imagination. I think these are processes that need to come along with social organizing for a broader liberation in our society.
“My technique, in which the black thread remains visible, is based on textile works that are made by women in my family in Colombia and with which I have been familiar since childhood. In the pictures, I use the representation of my body as a starting point to tell stories based on traumatic as well as pleasurable experiences of migration and self-empowerment as a woman of color in Austria”, as you put it in another text I came across. Women’s intimacy or the absence of brown women or various body types — these notions seem to be touched upon in your work, both from ethical and sexual angles. You have lived in Berlin recently. Would you say the city and its local scene still offers a lot to the newcomers and emerging artists, and how does the problem of diversity present itself?
Sophie Utikal, Crisis, 2020, 147 cm x 122 cm, textile. Courtesy of the artist
Well, it is hard to tell because everything is on hold at the moment. But on my personal level Berlin and especially Neukölln has still given me a sense of home and belonging because of its very diverse migration population. The last seven years that I lived in Vienna were often difficult for me, because I faced direct racism in everyday interactions from the very beginning of my stay. I had not made this experience before while growing up in Germany and it made me feel more anxious and insecure in public spaces, often I wished to be invisible. Since I came to Berlin I have a completely different relation to my surroundings, I feel like I own the city because I live in a neighborhood with so many people that look like me.
However, not only the women's body is visible in your work. In “Starry Night”, presented as a large-format installation on Karlsplatz in Vienna, you depicted a car hanging on in the air upside down seconds before it crashes. It seems like this one stands out from other works made by you.
Sophie Utikal, Join, 370 cm x 150 cm, Connect, 310 cm x 150 cm, Relate, 300 cm x 150 cm, Multiply, 250 cm x 150 cm, from Coexisting series, 2018. Photo: Katja Kobolt. Courtesy of the artist
My work “Starry Night” is a crashing German police car and a critique of the police as an institution. I was imagining myself in the future where the police does not exist anymore and is washed ashore as a relic from the past. The police and how it is functioning right now scares me and I believe that it needs to be abolished and new community-informed groups must be built. I know that this will require other re-imaginations of our society on every level to keep life safe for everyone, but I believe that it is part of an artist's job to trace how this might look like. There is already a lot of great work on this topic here on the website of Abolitionist Futures
and in this collection of links
I’m curious what is on your reading shelf. Is there anything you would like to share?
Sophie Utikal, Starry Night, 2020, installation view at Kaleidoskop Films, Karlsplatz, Vienna. Courtesy of the artist
I’m currently reading two books by Alexis Pauline Gumbs right now. One is called “Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals” and the other “M Archive: After the End of the World”. I love both books because Gumbs turns her black feminist theory of liberation into a narrative that is personal, poetic, and very accessible. Both books work with powerful metaphors that are changing how I perceive the sky, the sea and our society. There are also great podcasts with Alexis Pauline Gumbs which I have been listening to while I sew. These two I liked a lot: A Breathing Chorus
and the other, Remembering
SOPHIE UTIKAL (b. 1987 Tallahassee, Florida) is a textile artist living and working in Neukölln, Berlin. She graduated in 2019 in Vienna at the Academy of Fine Arts in the class of Ruby Sircar, Ashley Hans Scheirl and Gin Müller. Her main interest is to use her imagery to create places where black and brown bodies can feel themselves. She published “Anti*Colonial Fantasies / Decolonial Strategies” with Imayna Caceres and Sunanda Mesquita (Vienna, 2017) and studied the Grinberg Method from Avi Grinberg and Ruth Elkana in Spain, Alcala de la Jovada from 2018 until 2020.
Sophie Utikal, Union, 2021, textile, 100 cm x 115 cm. Courtesy of the artist
© 2021, SOPHIE UTIKAL, MAGDALENA ADAMECZEK
& GUEST ROOMS