Art essays and curatorial commentaries

Zoe Sua Kay – A Margem, enchanting reality with a crave for intimacy and connection + Interview with the artist

Zoe Sua Kay is not an emerging artist, but an artist that emerges from the depths of reality, of the very fabric of our daily lives. Born in Portugal, she carried her multicultural heritage to London, when she was 13 years old, and then she went for master classes to New York. Now she is back in Portugal, with a new exhibition at the Belard Gallery, called A Margem. The artist surprises the viewer with the striking hyperrealist technique, a trait of her artistic universe that focuses on figures and bodies, rather than the conceptual type of art.

The Intimacy of Life

The artist proposes a constellation of paintings that could be put in 3 mythologies: fish, skin, and womanhood. All of them share the same characteristics, of hyperrealism, detail, clarity, tremendous focus and work, and incredible talent. The paintings speak also about a delicate, fragile form of intimacy that Zoe finds in the usual, a seduction coming from a reality that is more than often strange and even alien to herself. Through this, her art pieces speak to the viewer in loud silences of contemplation, transporting them into her universe of close-ups and details.

It is clear to the viewer that one of the main topics in A Margem is fish. Like them, the artist needs to come to the surface from time to time to answer vital questions such as: what is hidden from us? what lies in there for us? Finding something special in the usual, the magic of the basic, the mundane – Zoe Sua Kay enchants the disenchanted and bored world that we live in today by isolating subjects and representing them in a unique manner. The paintings with fish as subjects are also a study of light and reflection on the slippery skin of the fish. From afar, they almost slip the viewer’s eye, you can feel their oily touch. Close-up, the light can be understood through the white paint carefully placed so it mimics reality perfectly, deceiving perception and playing with our visual and tactile senses.

What Lies in the Dark? Ourselves.

Triton, oil on canvas, 410×70

This topic also covers a meaningful dimension, fish being not only one of the main sources of historical income for Portugal but also a powerful old-as-time symbol that the artist brought back to the surface. Working like a mirror, the painting entitled Triton reveals an almost Rorsarch test in which we can experience the entire depth of the sea encompassed in the carefully represented color of the elongated fish. Also with an impressive dimension, we could be easily swallowed not by the fish’s mouth, but through the very blue-black paint that covers the canvas. 

Following up, her mythology of skin depictions transports us into a unique topography: close-up epidermic studies. These artworks are paneled on pieces of fabric that bring the viewer in touch with the paintings through their materiality. They transcend the limited canvas through the fabric that mimics the very skin. This brings forth a final result that aims through its layering to reach a tangible dimension, of perceiving skin as a barrier – as a limit, as A Margem.

Crest (small I&III), oil on canvas, 35×35

At the Body’s Border

 Looking at the depictions, the skin is shown in pastel-like colors, revealing its sensitive function and also placing it in opposition with the cracks that are visible on it. These cracks resemble the cracks of the arid Earth, a possible relation with “working for the land hands” being clearly suggested. Zoe speaks visually about connection, about the elasticity and plasticity of our wrapping – she is not trying to escape the fabric of our bodily existence but to display it like a beautiful dress that serves as our most precious tactile organ.

In Peniche, a pair of hands remind us of the way in which the external leaves traces on our skin, thus becoming a record of our very life. Peniche carries multiple meanings, besides the local town in Portugal also meaning barge, if we correlate it with the painting there is one thing for certain: we all carry our stories also on our skin, navigating the waves of life as the artist eye navigated the surface of the skin with care and tenderness, looking beyond the horizon.

Peniche, oil on canvas, 200×200

The Gorgons

Last but not least, the 3 portraits that we can find in Belard Gallery also carry meaningful names: Medusa, Thalassa and Amphitrite. Striking like the mythological Medusa’s look and powerful like the two goddesses of the sea, Thalassa and Amphitrite, the portraits are powerful displays of womanhood beyond any other appendages.

Looking like clear shots taken by a professional camera, the focal point enhances their skin and their body, the unfinished clothing leaving room for the eye to dialogue with the subjects. A certain tension rises while in front of them, just as if we were facing some legendary characters. And behind their back, a fourth, unseen portrait, rises: the portrait of Zoe Suakay, an artist that built a home in the limit, in the border, A Margem. And from her home, an aesthetic vision gives us the world condensed in places that we would never think the whole world hides: in some fish, in the eyes of some ladies selling fish, or even in our own skin, bearing the daily struggle of living. 

Last but not least, my favorite work in this collection is Paresthesia, a rectangular, elongated display of a close-up skin. For me, this painting reflects the best idea of a larger-than-life perspective, because this itching, this tingling sensation that paresthesia as a medical term describes is beautifully represented by Zoe. A pale skin crossed by red lines, almost making you want to scratch the painting, to go beyond the textile, to reach the other part.

An itching sensation of our bodily limit that divulge our longing for connection with The Other.

Interview with Zoe Suakay

AF: The sea is forever changing – yet still the same, forever moving – yet still there. For you, the sea is a constant find in your search for identity. How could you describe your relationship with the sea, considering this?

Zoe: Well, that’s a really really good question because…so I was born here in Portugal and I lived like 15 mins away from the ocean, and when I used to go to school every day you would drive along the sea and the shore  – and it was really something I took for granted as a kid. And then I was 13 and moved to England where I was inland – between London and the South of England/London so I never really thought about the importance of the sea until I moved to New York. It was then, at around 24 years old, realizing for the first time coming from London to New York – which has water all around it: this is actually such a beautiful thing to be able to see – water! And that’s when I kinda started to realize how important it is, how therapeutic, being able to look at water – really was. Especially in New York where everything moves constantly. So to be able to walk to the river front or even to go to the mouth of the ocean – to go there and just look at the water and see how peaceful or not peaceful the water is – that became a really important source of comfort for me: to be able to see water. Also whenever I came back to Portugal, my first stop always was at the beach…and I could never really figure out what draws me to it…but I think it’s the potency of nature, how wild it can be, for example in the winter when the waves are so big, it helps you get out of your own mind. 

AF: How did the double nationality affect your sense of identity?

Zoe: It’s actually more than double! My father is half Chinese, half Jewish, and german, and my mother is from New Zeeland. My dad grew up in Mozambique, which was a Portuguese colony at the time, and then when the revolution happened, he moved to Portugal. So that’s why I’ve got Portuguese nationality, I’m not actually Portuguese in terms of heritage at all, so it’s really quite a complicated story. I think the way it affects me it’s different in different parts of the world. I’m very proud of this mix of different cultures, and most of the places that I’ve lived were English-speaking so I was always comfortable, it made me fit in, because English is my first language, so I’m not completely fluent in Portuguese. Having to move back to Portugal, the place I left when I was 13 years old, became really an issue for me in terms of identity – this happened 2 years ago. So it affects me in a way in which I perceive Portugal as my home – but I’m never really inside the home. I feel like I’m always in the garden of my house, looking inside through the windows, and that’s why I decided on this project. It’s also a kind of an excuse to move around the country, to meet Portuguese people that are really from here, and see how life is for them. The ladies who sell fish, the power of the ocean, the people who stayed in Portugal, their relationship with the ocean is such a powerful bond. Their history with the ocean and travel – it was all about looking at it like a scientist, trying to analyze what “being a Portuguese” means. 

AF: Are the “roots” important for an artist? 

Zoe: That’s a really loaded question because my work isn’t necessarily or always about identity. That’s a really excellent question, actually. I don’t politicize identity in the way some artists do. It’s not coming necessarily from a place where I think about how Portuguese fit into the grand scheme of politics. There are a lot of artists nowadays that discuss race, that think identity is something more political – whereas for me, as I’m not an oppressed person, my life was privileged – so my roots won’t come from suffering, from agony. But also I think of myself as someone who’s never really had roots, I think it’s more a question of curiosity – what does it mean to have roots? But it is not an overwhelming theme. I think the roots could also be our bodies – we all have them, so we should all refer to them as a starting point, that’s why my work also has pieces about skin, about how the outside affects us physically but I’m not talking about roots as something anchor-like. 

I’ve always been some sort of a nomad, and one thing that I had with me was my own body and that’s my home – the thing that never changes just shifts with me. Going a bit back to the sea question, sometimes growing up I used to go to the beach just to let my imagination flow, to think about what else is out there. what could I find outside that horizon? Maybe myself…

AF: Is an artist rather rooted in their universe than the actual world?

Zoe: I would say so. This is actually something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Currently, there is a lot of art that comes from the imagination, from their own ideas, philosophy, etc…and I think that’s something that I found moving back here. I don’t feel like this might work in my case. I don’t put my own experiences down, or my own interpretation of reality. I find other things out there more interesting, so I like to think of myself as more of a filter for things that are worth exploring. Objective things like different faces, and different hands – and how do I give them significance just outside of the day-to-day? As someone who travels so much, there is so much to see! I am the least interesting thing to see, really, and I think I’ve got an interesting perspective and I feel SO inspired by things that are outside of myself. I am a very sensitive person so I am always impacted by things that are going on around me so I like to absorb things…not necessarily to participate in, but to absorb, and I think that has to also get out somehow, to get expressed. It all comes down to me as an outsider but trying to get that feeling a visual platform, expression.  

You do exist in your own universe as an artist because for example, I don’t make works about myself or about my imaginings – but I am always alone in my studio, and I hide from the world, and I have to schedule appointments with myself to go out into the world and this specific exhibition it was a matter of three days where I went outside to find inspiration in the tangible universe. So I think there is a push and pull between existing in your own universe but also having to really have life experiences in order to make interesting works. There are lots of artists who like to paint objective things but they don’t have a lot to say – so knowing what to paint is 90% of the artist’s battle. If you don’t know what to paint then you’re stuck. So I think that some people have an innate ability to formulate in their imagination fabulous paintings – and that’s very rascal and special, but for me, for example, is really important to unroot myself from myself. 

AF: Tell us some more about the way in which you understand/view “the skin”. Is it a landscape, just a surface…or maybe a border – A Margem?

Zoe: It’s all of those things because I think the skin is the barrier between our inner world and the outside world. It’s also our life experience recording system, it bares our scars after giving birth, or after an accident, or…it is a way of recording your biography. It is also the first thing that other people see, so it has a huge impact in terms of your relationship with other people and I think that everyone has this dialogue with themselves: how does these people see me? Skin is the first step for that. No one can ever really know someone else – all you can truly know is how your skin looks and then you can make some sort of educated guesses about your personal intentions. So it is hugely significant in terms of our relationship with the outside world. When you touch something you immediately know what it is. When you touch someone else, that is such an intimate gesture. So one of the first paintings I made was about skin meeting skin and when you look at it there is a huge amount of heap between, it’s really interesting the color that has so much life and hue in it. When skin meets other skin there is an eruption of relief and color and that’s how intimacy feels, psychologically, for me. Skin is also how we communicate with each other…for example, in America, you never touch other people, where as Portugal is a very touchy culture. It is something that I’ve been anxious about because of acne, for example, so being aware of the way in which your externalization of self really impacts the internal and how you go about interacting with other people. And I also think that we live in a world now that is so photoshopped…everything looks edited in a way. So when I think about the skin I think about what it really means to be a person – with all of the flaws and…everything. Not just the beauty. It should be a map!

AF: Is skin political?

Zoe: Yes. Skin is political, very political. Definitely. When I did my Paresthesia paintings, my model was a redhead because of the thin, transparent skin. And somebody asked me around that time if I would paint a person of color, for example, and I said I can’t. I can’t be the white girl fetishizing black skin. Because that’s how political skin is. It is personal to people, it has so many connotations…it’s all about socio-dynamics. I don’t feel comfortable being in a situation in which I discuss somebody’s life experiences that I don’t understand. And age also falls in this category, painting older women with everything that follows with age. It might not be our story to say – but it is for sure a story that we must support with everything that we can in all of these situations. 

AF: Going back to you – how do you relate to A Margem as a whole, how does it represent your depths?

Zoe: Going back to my experience as a painter it is always about being outside, being a margem of the interior world. I think this is also true for a lot of artists, not only for me, but it is also kind of what it means to be an artist – to emerge from the depths of the studio. For example, I live in a basement studio without windows so without natural light and every day I have to also come to the surface for a reality check. I think it is also about what is hidden from us. Like a personal metaphor…what secrets do you have, what lies in the depths of the ocean inside ourselves. Being an introvert also made me look from the border of capitalist or political functions and even at social functions. It’s like a double-edged sword because I exist primarily in my life, in my cave, making works so there’s always a sense of being a margem…not only with my friends, for example, but something grander in the great scheme of things – even speaking about my heritage. So I think existing a margem means feeling a little bit like an alien. In the no-men’s-land is my land.

AF: Another striking thing was the silence. I felt a special kind of silence while walking around the gallery, one that can be heard and seen vividly and paradoxically while checking your artworks. Is silence a characteristic trait of your artworks? Is is quiet to be “at the border”, or A Margem?

Zoe: It’s taking something out of the ordinary functions and taking a moment to reflect on it…and this requires if not a certain silence, then stillness. And this is something associated with silence and I think is something so necessary, and intrinsic to deciding what is worth painting. What is worth spending the next 2 months on? You can’t do it with noise, it is so important to observe. I think silence is also really uncomfortable for a lot of people, but highly relevant for a creative person. Even when you’re bored, that’s when things come to you, it is an important exercise.

But silence in the paintings themselves – I don’t know about this. I think that my paintings are very vibrant, quite loud, abrasive. Because I think this comfort does create some sort of noise, or vibration. It is quiet to be at the border – but it doesn’t reflect necessarily in my paintings. 

They are so entrenched in the vastity of life and this is full of sound!

AF: In the gallery, we can see exposed 3 women’s portraits. After checking all this information about you, about your journey, about the idea behind A Margem, one final question I have for you is Is there a fourth portrait, hidden behind all the exposed canvas, a portrait of Zoe as an artist, facing not the viewers, but herself, in a continuous state of wonder?

Zoe: Yes. I think that is exactly what painting is. If I’m drawn to a thing then it has to mean that it resonates with me, and it has to impact me in some way, to feel familiar that also…like a tension between familiar-unfamiliar. You kind of see yourself and I think that goes back exactly to what we discussed at the beginning. I really think about what my life would’ve looked like if I stayed. Would these things be part of my life? Would I feel more at home if I had stayed? But I try in these portraits to find something that my life could’ve been…like an avatar. What if I hadn’t been an artist? What if I become someone who sells fish? Or someone with a more practical relation to the ocean? Because my life was privileged and I was able to live in New York, and London…but what were the possibilities? I’m always trying to find my place in the world…I have this longing for a place, for a life…for a connection actually, that might never be, or never was – something that saudade expresses perfectly.

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