The young artist at the centre of Exarcheia’s edgy new art space
A cultural wave is breaking over central Athens, distinctly placing the city on the European modern art map. Artist Kyvèli Zoi is one of the young, creative game-changers; in conversation with Athens Insider’s Elena Panayide she shares her journey of artful expression from her downtown Exarxheia art center and studio KYAN Athens.
Let’s begin from the beginning Kyvèli, it’s always a good place to start! Tell me about your early years.
I was born and raised in Athens, and my mum is from New York, so I’ve always visited the US and was officially baptized a New Yorker when I studied there.
How is one baptized a New Yorker?
Smelling fresh pee on your way to work!
Did you grow up in an artistic environment?
My dad is a multi-talented artist who studied fine art. He always drew with me as a kid. At my American high school in Athens, I took an art class, which led to my applying to art schools. Initially, in London I did graphic design for a year and I hated it for being too rigid; I’m too spaced out to work for others and follow a brief. I was too Greek! I didn’t get into any of the fine art schools I applied to, so I returned to Athens and started painting more on my own; doing murals too. I then applied to the States and got into the School of Visual Arts in January 2012. I got the real New York experience by working as a waitress before I started school. Once I started painting, I realized how important it was to me, as there are endless opportunities in just one frame and it’s brilliant that you can change it constantly.
The underlying theme in your compositions is that of chance and destiny?
I read a poem that changed my life: ‘Oi Theatrinoi’ by George Seferis. It talks about how everything is a play between the backstage and on stage. We’re constantly in the theatre we create for ourselves. Whether you’re in the background or foreground; somehow, you’ll be reminded of your fate. It will get to you one way or another. I realized why I wanted to paint; one of my main themes is chance. What happens by chance and how we’re also in charge of what we give and take. Things do happen beyond our control, but who we are in that moment, plays a massive role in what will come to us. It’s such a subconscious and expressive process, and you always learn about yourself.
Was there a moment where you said to yourself ‘this is it, I have to be painter.’ An ultimate click moment?
Yes, I was at the School of Visual Arts and I had an amazing professor, Peter Hristoff, we had a close connection. I was painting with acrylics, which is more certain as they dry quickly, and you can go over them, whereas with oil its more about patience and visualizing the final stage that you create layer by layer. I had a classmate that said, “you should paint with oil” and he showed me how, he gave me my first oils, and it’s then I realized the process of layering. At SVA, an Italian classmate commented that my painting reminded him of Giorgio de Chirico. He showed me the work and then I realized it was one of the first paintings I ever saw as a child. My father had curated a show in Volos with some of de Chirico’s paintings. Giorgio de Chirico had grown up in Volos, as his father was the engineer of all the mainland Greek railroads. When I saw that work, I had an insane flashback of how almost all my life was leading up to that moment. That’s the magic of painting.
You’re a young artist that has set up her studio and an art space ‘KYAN,’ in a part of Athens that has received a bad rap in the past. What made you choose Exarcheia and what is your intention for this space?
Exarcheia has been my home since I was a teenager, I like the hustle and bustle of downtown, my Ikarian friends hung out there and I lied to my parents so many times as a teenager, taking the late-night bus to Exarcheia. When I was living abroad, I realized that the extremes that exist in Greece are heart-breaking but important. On returning, this neighborhood was in its worst, dirty, burning and violent condition, but it still felt like home. Then I found this studio by chance, I feel part of this hood and it inspires me. I’m part of the generation that grew up here physically and mentally. I have strong political values, but I don’t agree with violence or trashing the streets of my neighborhood to prove a point. I believe in creativity, and I believe in rage that is turned into something fruitful.
I’ve always wanted a space where I could invite people to show their work and have a platform. It was important to me, to create this space ‘KYAN’, that is open to all, without discrimination. It’s important that there’s a place for people that’s not about connections or money.
How have you and other artists utilized this building since it’s transformation into an studio and exhibition space?
For the first two years, I was alone in the studio upstairs. KYAN opened in June 2021 with a group exhibition. It was the first show I curated. The abandoned building was given life through the artistic process. The project space was also utilized as a residency program between November 2021 to March 2022, when artist Barba Dee was provided with a free working space to enhance his artistic research. I also displayed my animal paintings in a group show at ‘Galleria Acappella’ in Naples. It was the first time I was asked to paint animals and I loved the process. I realized that I kept painting fish in a bowl. It’s very metaphoric to me and the work evolved into a series of paintings “Coffee, Cigarettes, Amore.”
KYAN Project Space is currently presenting the group show Eλπἰς (Elpis) – A Hopeful Ode to the Human Condition and the Power of the Hand. This show is a celebration of KYAN’s one-year birthday as an artist-run project space. The exhibition embodies the notion of hope (ελπίς – elpis). Emphasizing more traditional forms of expression, the exhibition pays homage to the human touch in an era of digitalization and technological dependence. Telling their stories with modern narratives, painters Aristeidis Lappas, Ioanna Limniou, Claudio Coltorti, Calliope Pavlides and Kyvèli Zoi construct the mise-en-scene of the project space as a temple of hope.
Until October 23, 2022