Born in France but living and working in London, interdisciplinary artist Johanna Tagada’s work exists in a utopia of its own. Beautiful not only for it’s soft, delicate and ornamental aesthetic but also for it’s meaningfulness, Johanna’s practise combines various artistic disciplines to explore themes of positivity, happiness and nature. When Johanna isn’t painting, drawing, making films or making sculptures, she’s teaming up with other artists to produce exhibitions, writings and hand-bound publications for her collaborative project POETIC PASTEL which she describes as an ‘open conversation inspired by warm memories, literature and tea culture’. Catching up with her before one of her regular trips back to the French countryside. I sat down with Johanna for what felt like a chat with someone I’ve known for a long time. Sharing her beliefs on femininity, friendships, motivation and city-life, we also discuss her ongoing exhibition Épistolaire Imaginaire, painting for pleasure and whether people are born positive.
Words by Kadish Morris & Photography by Sach Dhanjal
Where did you grow up?
Alsace in France. The countryside. I go there every two months.
Why do you visit so often? Does it still feel like home?
I go to be with my family and to go back to nature. Without that, I might go nuts in London! In the city, people tend to think about themselves more. Not necessarily in an egotistical way, but ‘Do I look nice’ or ‘This person looks nice – do I?’. So many details become so important. You become super conscious of oneself and of others to the point of excessiveness. When I go to France and I’m closer to nature, your ego shreds. It’s not about looking amazing. It’s about being with nature, with others and not being so self conscious. In the city, you can have everything all the time. Nature teaches you to be patient.
Your work is about positivity but is making art always a positive experience?
Yes. It makes me so happy.
That’s really cool. A lot of artists experience so many moments of dread…
I wouldn’t paint if it weren’t fun. I know it’s not obvious. As you said, for some artists it’s very different. But for me, as much as I do enjoy replying to emails, preparing for my exhibitions. Once I take the brush, I just become like a child. It’s just so nice. If I go to an art shop and find some new paper or I find a flower that would make a good colour. I’m like a kid with a new toy. With painting, there is a lot of pleasure, but then after 4 hours, there’s a moment where it becomes a problem. You step back and look at the composition and you have to problem solve. It’s the same with sculpture, you think ‘Oh no I’ve sanded too much. It’s shit now’. I made a tent for my last exhibition. It was hand embroidered which took so many hours and at times, was very painful on the hands. When I finished the embroidery, I had to make the top bit, the roof. A circle. But I didn’t know how to work out the diameter. You become a mathematician. You think ‘How do I find the actual diameter of this?’ That was tricky. But the best moment was when it did work and when I saw it installed in the exhibition.
Was it all quite nerve-racking?
No. Because I learned to let go.
“If I go to an art shop and find some new paper or I find a flower that would make a good colour. I’m like a kid with a new toy. “
I think the feeling. Of course, I think everything is equally important so it depends where each person gets their pleasure from. Some people will just experience it for what it is. They don’t need to read about. They don’t need to talk about it. But some people get their pleasure from knowing the concept. For example. My sculptures. You can play with them. That’s what I intend for people to do because I think as adults, we don’t play with our hands. But I don’t say what they are.
I guess a lot of contemporary art is about concept so it’s interesting hearing you talk about making art for pleasure…
Like I said, either the pleasure can come from seeing it. The visual, the colours, the softness. Maybe others like the feel of it. They like the fabric, or the feel of closing their eyes and sleeping in the tent. The visual element is important, but I think it’s also the things you cannot capture in a photo. The feeling of playing. The feeling of sleeping in the tent or talking to your friend in the tent. It’s very much about the things you can not see but the things that you experience.
Do you ever want to make work that is drastically different to your usual aesthetic and colour palette?
In the spring, I received an email from an American concept store called Association Shop. Their new collection was based on Shibui, which is a Japanese aesthetic, taste and concept. It’s mostly associated with colours such as beige, dark brown, oxidized orange and bottled green. Shades that are not usually in my vocabulary of colours. For me, the best definition of Shibui is tea that’s been infused for too long. I had to use some of these colours more than I would do regularly. It was kind of challenging, in a good sense.
“Some people will just experience it for what it is. They don’t need to read about. They don’t need to talk about it.”
Your project POETIC PASTEL allows you to collaborate with others. Do you think it’s important for artists to work together?
I can’t say for everyone, but for me definitely. It’s like playing on your own. When you’re with other people, it’s really nice to exchange ideas. You realise what you don’t know but you also realise that you do know some things. One of the recent collaborations was a tea wear set made with French ceramist Laurence Labbé. Even though I don’t wish to create work with ceramic – I was able witness the process. I learned something. POETIC PASTEL really is a way to exchange but I think it’s very important that it’s not done with a competitive approach. It’s not one fearing ‘I’m going to teach someone something and now they’re going to take my place’. I think the project wouldn’t work if there were people with this kind of mindset.
How does poetry relate to what you do?
A general approach to life. I try to see beauty and satisfaction. Beauty in the sense that if you love something or someone, it becomes beautiful to you. It’s more about the feeling of beauty, rather than the aesthetic of it. Of course, I love literature. One of my favourite novels is Lemon by Kajii Motojiro. Recently, a Japanese company – Kedama by Scott – published my work. They didn’t know about my love for this particular piece but in the magazine, there was an extract of the novel! What are the chances that when I’m being published, Motojiro and this novel is in there too? When I read it 10 years ago, it really amplified my perspective. It’s a story about a man who finds this lemon and really gets pleasure from the lemon. He thinks it feels nice it and smells nice. The character learns to be pleased not by eccentric objects, but by this lemon that he found in a grocery store. When I read it, it pushed me to find satisfaction in one good thing or find a good thing in anything.
You’re fluent in English, German & French. Is it a different experience reading in different languages?
I guess reading the original version is always the best because translation is only a translation and it carries the understanding of the translator. It can only be that identical and that close to what the writer intended to say. When I publish, I don’t always translate it because I think sometimes, it doesn’t need to be understood and it can only be understood to a certain extent because some words don’t have real translations. With Lemon, I’ve only read the French version but I bought the Japanese version hoping one day I would be able to read it.
How do you motivate yourself?
I’m usually quite positive. And when I’m not, it takes maybe two hours and then I’m back up again. Sometimes I really want to take a break. Not from making art, but from what is surrounding the practice. It’s finding the balance to not to be eaten by the things surrounding it. Things like answering emails, shipping, taking photos of the artwork which for me, is sometimes really difficult because of the colours. It’s really a challenge to take the right photograph and to have the colours looking as much as possible like the work.
So what’s the percentage of actual art making and all the other stuff?
I try to keep it 50/50. Otherwise it just becomes unpleasant.
What is it like to navigate the arts as someone of mixed origin, someone who is bilingual, someone who has lived in all these different places?
Normal. I think it’s quite common now. Not everyone is from here. If I think about my friends who don’t necessarily look like they’re from elsewhere. Their mother may be from the Netherlands or Poland.
“I think every woman is feminine in her own way. Some women could be feminine by the way she brushes her hair or the way she drives a truck.”
Where is your husband from?
My husband Jatinder Singh Durhailay is from London, but his ancestry is in India. For us both, we of course have a connection to where our great great grandparents come from but I consider myself French. It’s the same for him. He feels British. But being British doesn’t mean being descendants of the Queen [laughs]. It means among other being here by choice, by right, and that this is the place where your friends and family are. When you go to the place your ancestors are from, you realise it’s not necessarily your home. I realise more and more that I should identify myself as French because that’s who I am. If I disassociate myself from it, it gives more reasons to people who might be racist to validate their ideas that actually I’m not from here. If I don’t claim it myself.
I agree. My grandparents are from the Caribbean but home isn’t necessarily where your ancestry is, it’s where you feel most connected to…
Yes. We’re made up of all these different places.
Your work has been described as soft, delicate, calm, poetic. Would you consider it feminine too?
I’m a woman, so it’s obviously feminine. But then, feminine could be a woman in a truck with no hair [laughs] It is feminine as in a woman made it, but then everyone has their own definition of what a woman is. I think every woman is feminine in her own way. Some women could be feminine by the way she brushes her hair or the way she drives a truck. I don’t think there’s a feminine activity. I think there are activities that are referenced as being more feminine. But I don’t think this is necessarily correct. I think anything can be feminine.
I think that’s a really interesting way to look at it. Whatever a woman does is feminine, whatever that may be…
And in that sense, anything can be feminine or masculine.
“The reason my work is about positivity is because I used to be very anxious.”
You work with paint, photography, sculpture, film. Do you ever feel pressured to distribute your time evenly?
No. I just do what I do when I feel like doing it. Obviously painting is still my ultimate favourite. But if you have a favourite dessert, you don’t want to eat it all of the time. With sculpture, I’m really happy when they’re finished. Even though they are very small, they can take so many hours to sand. Sometimes it can be 10, 20 hours of just sanding sanding sanding. So it’s not the same pleasure. I don’t feel like doing large scale painting all the time. It’s sort of a privileged moment. If I’m doing loads of paintings in large format, I need to step away and do other things. I’ll always do collage first and a colour study and I take a photo. Then there is this moment when I gather all of these things together and I go toward the painting. I do a lot of small paintings on paper, but when I decide to do a big painting, it’s more of a decision.
Are there any painters that have had a big influence on you?
Yoshitomo Nara if I just have to name one. When I first encountered his work, I was really moved. Soon after, we went on a school trip to England to visit Tate Modern. I had some pocket money and bought a small postcard of his work. Then 3 years ago, I met him and became his assistant.
Wow. How was that experience?
Really good. When you look up to someone, you might be disappointed because there’s the work and then there’s the person. And the person isn’t necessarily the work and visa versa. But he was just so nice. When I assisted him for his talk at the Dairy Art Centre, he didn’t first speak about his work. He spoke about the Ainu people, the indigenous people in Japan. How they’re not respected enough and the issues surrounding them politically. So it wasn’t just someone who cared only about his work. He had other interests that were not selfish. I also met another one of my favourite artists and photographers Takashi Homma who is also Japanese. He invited us to spend some time with him but because I don’t eat meat, or fish or egg and only rare dairy from small farms, just before we had lunch, I was thinking I don’t want to be rude. He’s my favourite artist and he’s being so nice to us and I’m going to have to say no to his lunch. Then my husband explained our diet and he was like guys don’t worry it’s vegan! So someone I not only look up to for their work, I can also look up to them as a person for their life choices. He’s successful and his work is amazing, and he’s established and recognised and he’s making choices that I value as an individual and is also contributing to society in a positive way.
It’s nice when you see someone who you admire living a similar lifestyle. It makes you feel like you’re not alone and there is space for you…
I feel like when you make choices that are alternative. You at times feel that people might judge or think that you think you’re better than them. But then you realise, other people do it and they do it fine. It confirmed to me that it’s fine to be true. You don’t have to please people. Simply be you. It confirmed to me that you have to just stick to what you believe in. With Poetic Pastel, it’s kind a statement that I truly believe that fish, meat and dairy being consumed is really killing our planet and statistically it shows. It’s just the truth and you can’t argue the truth. The nature being destroyed, the pollution created, the amount of carbon dioxide. It’s just the facts. So I’m not saying that meat is not tasty [laughs]. I’m just saying factually, this is the truth. But when you put this at the forefront, some people might be annoyed by it. It’s not propaganda it’s just sharing the truth. The weird thing is the more you move away from it and the more time that has passed since you’ve eaten meat. You actually don’t miss it. You actually become disgusted by it. The meat, the fish, becomes an animal again and you start to realise the bigger picture and not just the packaging.
Is that where the semi-autobiographical element comes into your work?
Yes. Just life decisions about nature and also about experiences. The reason my work is about positivity is because I used to be very anxious. I was always looking for things, not material things, but an activity, like a smell or lighting a candle, watching a movie or talking to a friend to make myself calm. I want my work to be one of these activities that helps with anxiety. And if the person isn’t anxious, it’s simply pleasing. Which might feel very naïve because it’s very primal. It’s such a simple thing, but sometimes the simplest things are the hardest. It’s easy to say it’s not a big aim, but I think it’s the biggest aim of everyone’s life. Even though in our societies we have other aims like making money, making this, making that. The number one thing is to feel good. Whatever the way is.
Do you think that some people are just born positive and others have to work really hard at it?
I think so. My husband always has a smile. He’s always very positive and cheerful. But for me, I found that I used to have to fight hard for it. I think there are some people who tend to be more negative maybe because of their upbringing, or because of the people that surround them or the situations around them. But if you have the will, there is a way.
What would you suggest to someone who doesn’t find it easy to be positive?
Make a list of all the things that you have. Not just material things. Look at what is there and not what is not there. We tend to overlook what is not there. Even me, I don’t have an amazing skin. It’s not a big issue but it can really put one’s mood down. So the days I wake up, look in the mirror and my skin is bad, my day would be over. You need to find the energy to push yourself up.
What are some hopes you have for the future?
I hope there will be a Épistolaire Imaginaire book. In each Épistolaire Imaginaire exhibition, people were asked to leave as a note, in any languages, of a simple moment of happiness. I really see it as something important. Not just as art, but socially. Wherever the place or whatever the language, it really shows what happiness is and how simple it is and mostly, how uncomplicated it is. The exhibition is only a few weeks, but the book could be there forever. And whoever didn’t visit the exhibition, could go back to what the visitors shared and what I shared. When we think about a memory, it can make us so happy. We have this power to make ourselves happy just by thinking about a happy memory. A book would be a database of what happiness was for people, in different continents. In Asia, America and in Europe between 2014 and 2017.
What are some lessons you’ve learnt from the different places you’ve lived?
In France we have this word ‘ami’. It’s kind of between friends and family. You can tell who is your ami. But in England, everyone’s is everybody’s friend and everyone’s mate. For me, it’s about being honest. If I like someone, I say I want to be your friend. I think when things are left unsaid, you can only imagine. It’s the same for a relationship. If you don’t say you’re together. How do you know you’re together? You can only assume you’re together. If you have a situation and you call someone up and they’re like ‘I’m not here for that I haven’t signed up that!’ [laughs] It may be naïve and maybe it’s because I’m from a village but I really feel like when I say I’m somebody’s friend I’m here for you. When I was in Japan, I wrote a piece and took some photographs of Taiki Iai. He makes clothes and lives in a small village near Fukushima. When we met it was magical. Even thinking about it after, I cried so much. It was such a beautiful moment in my life. Afterwards, he wrote me saying I want to be your friend for life. It’s really childish in a way, but often adults don’t say it. People say friendship comes with time but it also comes with will. If you actually commit to be someone’s friend, it means you commit to write to them from time to time and not to just call them when you’re lonely. The word friend, I feel in England is a bit overused. If you call everyone a friend, you devalue it. When I spoke to my husband. He said if you say acquaintance, it’s kind of disrespectful and awkward. It kind of forced me to reanalyse my own perception of what a friend is. Maybe everyone is a friend? Maybe it’s me who has the wrong picture? Being in different country has brought me to rethink things. This being said, when you don’t grow up in a place and relocate, you need something. Your family isn’t here, your history isn’t here. So you need to have something that makes it home. And the friends and the people make it home. I’ve met a lot of people. I’ve also made friends but it’s different. In Germany, it’s different too. People are friendly but you know it’s just a formal situation, no confusion.
“I’m happy with who I am because I think I’ve stayed true. I stayed honest to myself.”
It’s like what your husband was saying about acquaintances. People that are around but not really present in your life…
Well you don’t even have their numbers! You just see them at openings or parties…
Because London is such a career focused city, everyone is always in a certain mindset…
What I realise from my travels. From France, Switzerland, Germany and England. The social rules and behaviours are very different. More than I had imagined
So what have you got coming up?
There’s a publication launch at Tenderbooks on October 27th. Then my solo exhibition opening in France on February 2nd 2017 at Galerie Jean-Francois Kaiser. And I’m curating and participating in a group exhibition Inaka no Hana at Nidi Gallery in Tokyo in Japan in March 2017.
The change in attitude from I want to do this on the side to I want to do this all the time, was that a difficult decision?
It wasn’t made spontaneously. When I was in Germany, I worked for companies and before that, I worked in a café. So I had many jobs. Then instead of 4 jobs, I had 3 jobs, then 2 jobs. Eventually, I was working 4 days freelance and 2 days for a company. Then at some point, the company didn’t need me for 2 months but because I also do client work which is pattern design and art direction, I had enough work coming from that. It was hard but it’s enough to pay my bills. In some way, I don’t know how but it keeps rolling. You still don’t know how much is coming. But slowly, I know that if I work hard, something is always coming and hopefully, it’s at least the minimum of what is needed.
How would you define success?
Being able to do the things you love. Setting small aims and being able to complete that aim. Or if you realise it’s not going to work, having the power to say I don’t want that to work out. So not sticking to your word, but sticking to yourself.
So would you consider yourself successful by your own definition?
I’m happy in the place I am at. I wouldn’t complain. I have some small aims, like I wish for the next exhibition to be well received and there are some people I truly hope to work with. But I’m quite content. That doesn’t mean that ‘I’m cool I’ve had my food’ [laughs] I’m happy with who I am because I think I’ve stayed true. I stayed honest to myself. What I dreamed of is coming and I’m living it and I haven’t decided to quit even with the difficulties that come with it.