Melbourne-based artist Justine Khamara has gained an impressive reputation as an original contemporary artist recognised for her meticulous constructions of two-dimensional photographs into three-dimensional sculptures, often transforming figurative images into complex abstract forms. Khamara talks to Melissa Pesa, Art Almanac Digital Editor, about her practice.
MP: “One can understand history, or time for that matter, in terms of layers, of an accumulation of periods or events layered one over the other, the newest on the top, the ancient past buried deep down.” Can you discuss this statement further in relation to your work?
JK: Last year I had the good fortune to undertake a travelling scholarship as well as an Australia Council residency in Paris. I spent 5 months in Europe devouring art while also connecting with my own family histories.
In Italy you are acutely aware of those layers of history. In Rome you can walk through buried structures that are thousands of years old and at the same time watch contemporary life carry on in the buildings on top of you.
In London I connected for the first time with elderly relatives – the last of a Jewish diaspora to flee Iraq as the brutal Ba’ath regime came to power – and in France I got to spend time with family that we have never lived close to. These kinds of encounters make you aware of the forces and narratives that shape and continue to shape the present, but also parallel histories; the stories others told, in which you may have had a role or a place very different to the one you experienced. It can shift your whole sense of what is or what was.
I was thinking about all these things as I was working on this current show, the layers of time and memory that can obscure lives lived. And sometimes something happens, the layers are exposed and you realise what was there all along – how the past shapes and lives on in the present. I was also thinking about how those layers can take on their own form or structure, both physically and metaphorically.
MP: Can you describe your work process? How do you go about creating an artwork from start to finish?
JK: This varies so much and is difficult to answer in a coherent way.
MP: Your work has been described as Op Art. Who, or what, has been a significant influence in your overall work practice?
JK: Gosh, I have had so many over the years. Early influences included artists such as Claude Cahun, Hanna Hoche and Elzabeth Gower. Lately I have become more and more interested in what anthropologist David Lewis-Williams describes as ‘entopic phenomena’ in his book Mind in the Cave. This is phenomena within vision, an experience of seeing that occurs anywhere between the eye and the brain. Entopic phenomena is usually a zigzag, stripy or repetitive patterning and appears at the beginnings of art making within human history.
Lewis-Williams argues that this occurred because of what he calls neural universals, that is, the very structures of our bodies and brains that enable us to experience things in particular ways. Applied to a surface (in the case of Neolithic man, a cave) entopic motifs ‘hum’ or ‘buzz’ visually and emanate an intensity that causes them to stand out from what surrounds them.
If I think about work that has made the biggest impression on me over the years it would be the work of those who manage to harness a visual intensity with a certain psychological sensibility.
MP: At what point when creating the artwork, through its manipulation and distortion, do you discover the end point – the final work?
JK: It varies from work to work. Sometimes things just appear in my mind fully formed and I have to translate it into material reality, and other times things emerge gradually through the manipulation of materials and have to be worked through. The final work or end point makes itself known, something demands that I stop and leave it for a while. I might not see it straight away but the important thing is to stop and take note of where you are when the work calls you to.
MP: Some works show a figure nearly unrecognizable. Do you think these figurative images can be shadowed by the artwork’s overall abstract form and disrupt its intended narrative?
JK: That is the point actually, that narratives are interrupted, and a figure or part of a figure can become a part of an abstract form. I am looking for that place where figure and form oscillate, where at a given moment or point of perception one can overshadow the other and vice versa.
MP: These works are in part influenced by your visit to the Siena Cathedral. Can you describe your experience when first seeing the gothic landmark? Which of its features did you incorporate into your work?
JK: I stumbled into that Cathedral completely unprepared for the experience. It is almost unremarkable from the outside, a landmark tower poking out from a medieval city skyline.
Once inside my jaw dropped. The interior is made entirely out of black-and-white marble slabs. Columns, walls, and even the podiums upon which sit various catholic saints, angels and popes, are all black-and-white horizontally striped marble. It was unexpected, modern, Moorish.
Most striking of all was the tomb of Pope Alexander – a massive rectangular wall of unbroken black-and-white stripes. A carved statue of the pope’s body lies in a narrow slot inlayed with pink marble, its curves and warm hue stand out against the unrelenting horizontal pattern of the wall.
You could step back from that and observe the soft bodies of people moving through this incredible space. It really made an impression on me.
MP: What conversations do you aim to inspire?
JK: I don’t really think about conversations. The works that affect me the most are those that cause me to shut up and look. What drew me to art in the first place was this way of communicating through the creation of something; an object that can resist speech and that can be powerfully silent.
If my work could inspire anything I would hope that it might be a moment’s silence.
Stratum, 2016, installation view at ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne
Mask, 2016, pigment ink pen, pencil and collage on paper, 76 x 56cm
Rising, always rising, 2016, pigment ink pen, pencil and collage on paper, 76 x 56 cm
Courtesy the artist and ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne