The permanent pilgrim
An interview with Russian artist Olya Dubatova
The international artist takes us on a journey to faraway places, creating magical pigments and using art to help us feel our way through the darkness of misunderstanding
Olya Dubatova once had this studio in Tbilisi, Georgia, in a building constructed by German POWs after WW2. You accessed it via ascending a long stairway, where the muted, chaotic sounds of the families in each of the apartments could be heard. Right at the top, there was silence, and that was her door.
The building reminded her of home somehow; because for her, home is relative, coming as she does from a country that doesn’t exist anymore – the Soviet Union.
The search for a place to call her own has taken her on a journey of creation too diverse to begin to detail here anything but briefly. The thing that’s empowered her? Art.
Q&A: Olya Dubatova
Becoming an artist can be tricky, no matter what social background you’re from. Tell us a little bit about your journey.
Art for me is the urge for expression that comes through intense experience. When you’re from a place that doesn’t exist anymore, your memory is your home. I was born in a very small town in the south of Russia. Where I grew up, the North Caucasus, Istanbul is closer than Moscow, so culturally it’s a real melting pot. There’s even a community of Koreans who speak Russian there.
I was born into real poverty. There were simply no career options for ‘artist’ – I couldn’t even imagine that that was a possibility for my life. In those days, everyone was poor and life was chaotic. It was the end of the Soviet Union and there were criminal gangs everywhere, shootings on the street, kidnappings. Law and order was non–existent. Everything was unstable.
When I was 16, I started working as a model while studying at university. That’s how I went to Moscow for the first time and came into contact with the wider world. We got internet, and I first saw TV shows like Sex and the City and was delusional enough to believe I could have a different life. So I applied to the first school I found online – a grad school in Switzerland – got accepted and left Russia. Everybody in my life was against it and thought I shouldn’t go. No–one left to study abroad where I am from, but I didn’t care – I just knew I wanted a different life and imagined living in different places around the world. I had no fear, and I never regretted leaving – even though it was hard at times.
While at Geneva University two years later, I had a sudden urge to study Italian. So I went to an island near Naples in Italy and began to paint again. There was an opening of a hotel of my friend in Geneva and I gave him a painting. It all started from there.
When you’re from a place that doesn’t exist anymore, your memory is your home.
So, why art? Can you pinpoint when you first fell in love with it?
In the end of the Soviet Union, I found a painting teacher in what used to be called ‘Creativity House’, a public house of art and crafts that existed in every town. His grounding and kind presence, his stories of Greek myths that transported me into another world and the smell of oil paints that I dreamed for a long time after. I was eight-years-old and had my first exhibit when I was 11. It branded me in a way – even though I never went to museums or galleries growing up. They simply weren’t part of my world or and imagining myself as an artist wasn’t a career that was remotely available to me.
What have been the biggest obstacles you’ve struggled with on the way?
My own self doubt, my background, not having any connections in the artworld, poverty, US immigration. It was difficult to get an artist green card. Recently I was In a situation that forced me to relive my earlier struggles of watching someone you love give up – my father struggled with addiction most of his life and died six years ago. So to experience it all over again was heartbreaking. It’s one of the most difficult things in life for me to watch someone give up hope, because I really believe hope allows you to continue living.
Tell us about your art…
I am in love with painting even though it’s quite a dysfunctional relationship. Painting is so material for me, I use mostly natural pigments and obsess about the texture of my paints. To me, a good painting feels like it enters my body, I feel it with my skin. I get mentally excited too but the physical feeling is much stronger. Painting like no other medium can hold me in an unresolved state while delivering extended release gratification. For me art is a gradual deliverance from chaos and false illusions. Through the darkness of misunderstanding, delusions, shortcomings, external obstacles – to the light.
And your sonic work…
My sonic or sound work came from the interest in spaces and how sound can make one experience the sensation of being ‘home’. One of my favourite projects was called Silent Bell and it was a smaller version of a bigger one that I did with UC Berkeley and Stanford. We did it in South Australia, a gallery which had a huge sinkhole right in front of the entrance and it looked like an inverted bell in the earth, so we installed the speakers inside of the sinkhole and people could go down a spiral stair to be inside the bell. The sounds of bells experienced that way in such a location were so out of place yet felt perfect at the same time. By descending the stairs one could experience different levels of reverberated sound and be in it together with a waterfall that was falling. The silent bell felt to me a collaboration with nature and nature did the bigger part in the experience.
What unusual material do you use? Talk us through those processes and most exciting experiments.
I mostly use natural pigments from Italy and Armenia – that is my way to connect with the earth and to ground myself because it’s working with earth from places I love. Pigments allow me to feel how art is born. What does the Earth give me? It takes much longer to make paint and often I don’t want to mix it but each time I do I get unbelievable satisfaction; it’s very meditative. I use mostly tempera grassa which is a fat tempera – an Italian recipe of tempera which is egg and vinegar and then you add linseed oil, sometimes damar. It’s alchemy! It feels like magic. I love linen canvas for its texture and I prime it myself or someone helps me as I like rabbit skin glue as a primer. This kind of texture has many intertwined histories in it for me.
What’s the most unexpected outcome you’ve seen as a result of your work?
I feel like I am reworking the landscape of my childhood. What does it feel when one belongs to a landscape or land? The main questions in my work are: Why am I here? Where do I belong? I don’t know how it happens but sometimes I get answers and then new questions arise.
I am in love with painting even though it’s quite a dysfunctional relationship.
Right now, you’re in Mexico. What are you doing here?
I was going through a painful breakup in Tbilisi, Georgia. I had come to realise that the relationship I was in was mostly an illusion. I badly needed a new beginning; and I flew out to the US Virgin Islands. I was in such an emotional state there that all I knew for sure was that I wanted to be in a jungle near the sea in the softness of the Caribbean. That’s how I came to Tulum. I wasn’t planning to stay long, but through a friend I met a Japanese samurai who was teaching Bushido philosophy and samurai meditation, I never thought I would meet a samurai in the jungles of Mexico but started studying with him and that kept me here.
You’re an absolutely prolific traveller. Can you tell us about some of your favourite places and why they’re your favourite places?
I feel like the artist is a permanent pilgrim. I have immediate Intuitive connections with places – sometimes my decisions are spontaneous like when I moved to Tbilisi, Georgia in 2019 from Los Angeles.
The languages themselves attract me. How do they feel? How do you love in a different language? The languages tell the story of my life: Russian, French, Italian, Georgian, now Japanese. I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s be because of past lives but I need to hear and speak italian, Georgian and Japanese languages periodically; living in English is too limiting of an experience for me emotionally. I don’t think I can feel as much as I can feel in Russian or Italian or even hearing the Georgian language on the street. My dream was to learn Georgian but I can’t speak it yet.
The languages tell the story of my life: Russian, French, Italian, Georgian, now Japanese.
I love South of Italy, from Rome down south. Even the language – the Roman and Neapolitan dialects feel closer to me. The shapes of the pine trees, the warm light of Rome that is reflected on white and earth tones of burnt sienna, raw umber and yellow ochre buildings, the sound of church bells. I need to be in it as it changes me physically and I can make different work.
One of my favourite places is Villa Garikula in Georgia, a castle in the Caucasus Mountains that functions as an art residency. In Rome, the Hotel de Russie garden on via del Babuino is a private garden that I often go after getting some pigments in Via Ripetta. And in New York, my favourite place is my close friend’s apartment, who is a perfumer and I can spend endless amounts of time with him there.
If you had to look at one artwork only until the end of days, what would it be?
James Turrell’s work. My influences also include Les Nabis and Japanese art.
What’s next for you?
In November I am having a solo exhibit in Empty Circle Gallery in New York City until 10 December and in February I am going to a residency in Georgia.
What are your longer–term plans in your mission?
To find a home.
Lastly, your best piece of advice?
To know balance, you need to experience chaos.
To know balance, you need to experience chaos.
Olya Dubatova ‘s tips of 5 people to follow
1. @Zen.Takai.samurai – ninja and meditation
2. @artvillagarikula – art residency in Georgia
3. @karo.garikula – artist founder of Garikula and Festa Nova
4. @welcome.to.campfire – dance company/collaborator
5. @boy.has.no.name – kindest person and perfumier
Want more from Season 02 of TOPIA?
Meet the writer
Matt Graham is a TV writer, originally from London, now based in Los Angeles. He’s the writer of the hit series Oliver Stone’s: The Untold History of the United States, a great many TV scripts for Hollywood, short fiction and a novel, The Night Driver. He’s the survivor of a plane crash in Panama and a roadside mock execution in Nigeria, and has worked as a crime reporter in South America, as well as a ranch manager in Colorado. He’s lived all over the world, and his great unifying passion in life is the search for the sleaziest bars imaginable. Sometimes he wakes up wondering whether or not it’s all just been a strange dream – the kind that jolts you from REM at 3am and leaves you staring at the ceiling. Follow @muzurphulus.