A Private Solitude Made Public – In Conversation With Joana Kohen

Joana Kohen is an artist from Istanbul, Turkey. Her intense and whimsical work focuses on acute consideration of the self, conveying different disciplines of commentary. Having studied fashion design at Marangoni Institute of Milan and contemporary art at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp, her multilingual and multiethnic environment give her a unique perspective on life. She will be presenting her first neo-gothic solo exhibition soon.

Heval Okçuoğlu: How do ideas come to you? Is it through music? Through human encounters? What are you most inspired by?

Joana Kohen: My work tends to be highly individual and focuses on self. I happen to find a great deal of inspiration in re-owned pain as well. Although I used to be inspired by single female life, sexual expression, social settings and communication around me in my earlier works, I have evolved a slight sense of humor as a background now. I am an artist from Istanbul, but my roots do not belong here. I am Turkish but I come from a mixed background. I grew up in different countries but I am hardwired to my own cultural settings here. I sometimes paint in different languages but I speak Turkish. Contrasts and identity crisis are the essence of my life and feelings. I use them as an inspiration because I believe contrasts nurture self and experiences.

Heval: Your work has a monochromatic side to it, you limit color but you are very generous with the materials. Did you ever thought why?

Joana: I suppose I feel color is already exposed in life that’s why I do not need to. I express, supress and project the colors I identify myself with, whites, beiges, browns, blacks. Different materials are my attempt to connect with my local background or reproduce the roots. Fur, leather, antique Ottoman and Armenian fabrics are the assets of my Turkish and Mediterranean culture. They have been used since the start of time for decorative, clothing, interior or exterior purposes and I concentrate on altering the opposition of this purpose, art, personal histories and self.

Heval: In terms of resolving certain things – like in concepts within your own work – how long does it generally take you to collect ideas and form them in your mind, and actually see them to fruition? What’s your process like?

Joana: Starting from scratch, I always find it risky to start on a clean slate. While practicing, I struggle with pristine conditions, in front of pure, untouched materials. My ideas and courage convey, I would say one month prior to action and during that period and I am drawn into a state of mind of self-pity, self-realization, misery and tragedy. I find them to be great driving sources for transformation of my etching, doodling and creating. It is a bizarre process to mess up and then create something beautiful out of it.

Heval: How do you feel about the art business current situation and the way it affects up-and-coming artists?

Joana: I feel the artists lead and define the business now rather than the crowd that market it. Artists are capable to prepare themselves dexterously to the business side of art and improve a fresh skill to present themselves individually now. In some cases, it almost jeopardize the added value of a dealer or a gallery owner. Artistry is artists establishment more than ever now, presenting, curating, selling and controlling one’s own work. Artists are able to survive and exist without help and they are more aware of this in our time being. It is the “vital impulse du jour” for an artist now. What is more, in our contemporary status of social media and communication, I witness the dealers and gallery owners are working on drawing a benefit from the artist’s own social circle and network too. It is survival cycle. The false understanding of “starving artist” does not apply anymore as the line between every aspect of commercialized art become very elusive. There are a lot of ways for an artist to sprout and pursue a career rather than receiving a recognition big time.

Heval: If you could return to a past era, what would that be?

Joana: I would love to return back to old Egypt. I would love to see Nefertiti and Kleopatra. I have a sweet tooth for powerful leader female figures. Then again, I would also would like to see the fall of Atlantis. Power on one end, annihilation on the other end. On an artistic curiosity level, I would like to peak into the lives of Klimt, Schiele, Middle Ages or between 70s and 80s, to explore the self-expressiveness of music.

Heval: Going back to early memories, which medium do you recall brought out your first strong emotions?

Joana: Apart from love and hate as a medium, it is music. My parents equipped me with a vast musical culture. I love 70s music, goth punk, cold wave, no wave. The Sound, Sad Lovers and Giants, The Psychedelic Furs, Sisters Of Mercy.

Heval: Do you think it’s the role of art today, art, music, to act as a mirror for society?

Joana: Naturally. For example, collage art is very popular right now. Collages are made from the newspaper and magazine clippings, bringing past, present and future together. It is originated from compositions of press, the text and visuals. New artists that uses political or urban aspects are focused on this kind of work a lot and it is obviously and superficially a mirroring of societies. It is social commentary. Especially, in Turkey there is are a plethora of elements you can inspire from. I do not think you can find more irony in life anywhere else. There are many things that is not a part of your own life here naturally and that is why it becomes a huge inspiration. It has always been that way.

Heval: When was the last time you surprised yourself?

Joana: It should be last weekend when a took a trip to my parent’s summerhouse. I have an early work hanging on the wall and I saw it after a very long time. You finish a work and you have this feeling that there is nothing more to add or remove. And when you see it after a very long time, you glance at it and see the roads you have passed and you feel strangely alienated. You do not register it while you are creating it, but when you look at it from the point you have come in life, you understand you can never do it again. You know you can never go there again. But you know what it feels like. You have the touch of the feeling. The subject is the same, it evolves. You are more mature even your work back then was not. But than you are able to see the maturity in it too.

Heval: Is memory a source of pleasure or pain for you?

Joana: It embraces both.

Heval: If you could trade places with any other person for a week, famous or not famous, living or dead, real or fictional. With whom would it be?

Joana: That would be Basquiat.

Heval: OK, let’s finish on a cheerful note then. I will read you some SAMO texts and you tell me what lights up in your mind.


Joana: Perpetuity.


Joana: Gauche.


Joana: Heartache.


Joana: Imagination.


Joana: 1979.

Portraits by Mustafa Nurdogdu

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