Interview with Ella Wang Olsson

By Abril Cisneros

How did you enter the world of art and visual media?

Art has always been a part of my life; an escape for me. I’ve lived in metropolis all my life, so creativity and going to art shows has always been part of my leisure activities. My mom is also an art curator, so within my house, I am surrounded by art and we have many talks about art. After finishing high school, I did not have any plans to go to art school. I was actually planning to go study sociology in England, but I changed my plans last minute. I enjoy making and producing art, whether it is painting or photography, I cannot live without it. That is why I’ve turned towards art school in the Netherlands, where the education is in English and there is also a bridge between art and academia.  

Your work includes many references to your mom. I sometimes feel that you directly equate the motherly figure with a notion of national identity.  

Definitely. My final graduation was also called ‘Mother’ in Swedish. This concept is again visible in the title of this exhibition. My mother is definitely a huge influence and motherhood is something I want to discover as a concept. Society is based upon patriarchy, the man being on top and fatherhood. I turn towards my mother as an act against that. 

You establish a relationship between motherhood and national identity, but also to language. How do you get into exploring the relations between language and finding your own self?

I think that language is always connected to power. It is a curiosity of mine that comes from frustration. A lot of the time, the stuff that I explore in my art comes from some sense of frustration within me. In this case, language is very directly explored. My video for this exhibition, I don’t want to speak English anymore came from a physical reaction I had when thinking in a different language. The incident happened on my way back from a lecture in Leiden actually, taught by an English-Dutch speaking person. I felt very blocked from the lecture somehow, and having the English voice (with the dutch accent) in my head, made me feel like I couldn’t properly feel my thoughts. My solution is always writing, usually in English, yet at this moment I stated to write in Swedish. This was the first time I had a physical reaction to a language, as suddenly my mind felt a sense of relief. This also prompted me to think what my mother tongue, my language of comfort, as English has always been the most comfortable for me, yet it’s the furthest away in terms of my identity.

Which language do you consider your mother tongue then?

Talking in terms of linear time, I would say that Swedish would be my mother-language. But at the same time, I feel the most far away from Swedish. And then Chinese is also very far but close too because it is my mother’s language. I’m not sure I have an answer to be honest, maybe I don’t have a mother tongue haha – this is something I am still exploring.

The work with the tiles is very interesting. You did a lot of research for this project. Why did you choose to depict these specific images? What is the relationship between what you painted on the tiles and the story behind them?

I wanted to translate my research between me, the Netherlands and China. Both in a contemporary sense but also in its past. I was searching for what the relationship between China and the Netherlands from their current trade relationship with the Belt and Road Initiative, and the past with the East India Company (VOC),  looking at how colonialism and trade has built its narrative. This reflects the relationship that they have today as well. I decided to make these tiles inspired by the ‘Kraakware’ AKA fake porcelain that the Dutch invented after trading with the Chinese. Here I also want to deal with the representation of China through the years. Before, China was seen as this glorious, innovative state where the Westerners came to get silk and porcelain. But now, what is made in China is often thought of as fake or not well-made. I was interested in that contrast and how this narrative has shifted throughout history. I tried to illustrate that with the tiles.

Now that you talk about painting from the mind. How was the process of making After the Orgy? I remember reading you tried to paint images as soon as they appeared in your mind.

It was a very long process of painting; I think it took around half a year. I was interested in Carl Jung and his theories on Individuation involving the realization of the self though the unconscious to put it in very brief words. I was interested in taking images out of my head – my so-called unconscious – and projecting them onto the canvas and through the instinctual movements of my hand with the paintbrush. I wanted to see how images manifest, trying to explore the images reoccurring in my brain, and what that could reveal about me. So it was really an experimentation, even with it’s size, as this is the first time I did such an unplanned big painting. It was a long-term practice, so I saw how images turned into something from nothing. I was very interested in that process, where do images come from in general? And what does that tell about me?

What are the images in this painting?

I don’t know! I can’t say directly what they are. It started in black and white actually. I slowly started adding colours where my mind wanted to. You begin to see the shapes and sometimes this is an optical illusion – I would say to myself “ wow that looks like a rabbit” and then I would follow that instinct to paint the rabbit. So this painting is really focused on that process.