Elena Papanikolakis

In Issue 47, Elena Papanikolakis wrote about the personal nuances of her practice, which weaves together the cultural histories of her Greek heritage with formative moments from her childhood in Australia.

When I was a child, I could be found every Friday night in the office of my parents’ fish and chip shop in Canberra, waiting for the telephone to ring. As the youngest in the family, I wasn’t yet old enough to serve customers out the front, so my job was to answer the phone and take down orders as they came through.

I spent many hours in the shop’s office, and while my memory of it is probably an adaptation, I do remember walls that were covered with overlapping newspaper cut-outs, phone numbers on torn bits of paper that were sticky-taped to the walls, calendars from the chemist and/or the Greek church, the poster of a leather-clad blonde woman on a motorbike holding a Chiko Roll, horse racing paraphernalia, and the telephone conversations I had with customers ordering their Friday night meals.

The shop office was a nucleus for me. I learned to spell my surname there (‘That’s long!’ I remember saying to my sister as she hastily wrote out thirteen letters on a piece of paper and told me to copy what was written). It’s where I ate my breakfast in the mornings and read cartoons in the afternoon; it’s where I went to great lengths to make signs for the front window in my very best, pudgy bubble-writing: ‘AMERICAN-STYLE FRIED CHICKEN’, ‘BAKED POTATOES’, ‘HOT CHIPS’.

These memories, and others like them are so clear they seem almost within grasp. Perhaps this is why I inevitably draw on my own experience in my artistic practice, as these moments, whether defining or banal, are swirling just beneath the surface. The particularities of experience and of self – the people and places we oscillate, the encounters that reverberate, and the stories, history and culture we inherit, are of particular interest to me.

Rather than being the sole focus of my practice, these moments are intertwined with unrelated found material exploring a wider range of experience, place and narrative. Images from second-hand books coalesce with personal photographs, and memories trickle through painting and text. There is no demarcation between personal and found, as layer upon layer merge and overlap, not unlike the walls of the shop’s office. The very nature of these things, how they operate, the relationships between them, and how they can be interpreted, inform my investigations into meaning-making.

This was a driving force in my recent work Parting Words (2018), a series of large-scale mixed-media photomontages in the format of book pages. These works comprise enlarged collages of found images and photographs (depicting landscapes, objects and textures), painterly interventions, and text in the form of captions that explore narrative, memories and recent dealings with loss.

Key to this work was the format of the book page itself, which provided a means to engage with the relationship between images and text, notions of photography as proof, and the communicative function of language.

Potential (2018) explores what ‘sacred’ means today by making comparisons between ancient Greek belief systems and contemporary migrant values that focus on family, home, education and a strong work ethic. The inspiration for this work began while I was on residency in Paris, where I encountered the ancient Greek artefacts in the Louvre.

I felt compelled to explore the relics from my cultural history, and amongst the stories of gods and heroes, I found both huge gulfs and unlikely similarities between these stories and my own experience. Taking cues from these artefacts, I created nine small-scale acrylic paintings on paper with roughly hewn edges.

In Potential, paintings of ancient Greek temples sit alongside those of my childhood home; a dark-haired mythological serving girl is painted in profile and adapted to more closely resemble my own experience working in my family’s fish and chip shop, and the grand narrative of Poseidon (God of the Sea) is grounded by making a direct reference to seafood, a source of income for many Greek migrants. The irregular edges of the paintings, high-key palette, mark-making and decorative elements are all references to ancient relics that have been worn by time.

The works I am currently developing continue along these threads and look to modes of storytelling such as films and texts to explore narrative and the expansive realm between representation and abstraction.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 47, 2019

Elena Papanikolakis: Then, Closer
5 September – 5 October 2019
Reading Room, Melbourne

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