The Affordable Art Fair celebrates its twentieth year this week in Battersea; Alice Parkin spoke to one of the featured artists, Marcelina Amelia, whose vibrant and striking paintings celebrate gender, heritage and the power of colour
When the Affordable Art Fair first began in 1999, it hoped to create a relaxed, welcoming space where people could fall in love with art. Its founders wanted to bridge the gap between contemporary artists and aspiring collectors, whatever their background. Their aim isn’t just to make art affordable; it’s to make art accessible, “no matter who you are or what your budget is,” says UK Director Elizabeth Dellert.
Among the artists on display this year is Marcelina Amelia, a Polish-born painter and printmaker who’s lived and worked in the UK for over a decade. Working in mixed media, Marcelina’s art explores heritage, gender, spirituality, sexuality and the human condition. “It’s visually stunning,” Dellert says. “I love the complexity of Marcelina’s inspirations, from spirituality to sexuality, and how they all come through in her work. Each piece is an intriguing portrayal of the 21st-century female.”
I had the great opportunity to speak to Marcelina about her work in advance of the fair. She now lives and works in Brighton, having made the move from London about three years ago. She’s a big fan of the city; to her it’s quiet, chilled out and cosy. She got involved with the Affordable Art Fair through her gallery, Liberty, which has close ties to the organisation. “It’s been great,” she tells me. “It’s just evolving and growing and becoming more and more exciting.”
The gallery gives her the opportunity to fly all over the world, exhibiting in Milan and Stockholm this year alone, where she participated in ‘Live Art’ performances (as pictured right), hand-detailing each print during the fair. “When I hand-finish, I paint on top of my prints so each one of them is slightly different,” she explains. “It’s just a bit more unique, there’s a human touch to it. I feel like it adds something special.”
Marcelina loves the energy and opportunity of the fairs. “A lot of my collectors are first-time buyers,” she says. “They’re people who’ve never even thought of buying art – they’ve been invited, or they came along with a friend, and sometimes there’s just this instant emotional connection that people have with a piece. It just changes their life, because from that point they actually develop an interest in art and they start collecting. It’s just so nice, because I think art is wonderful and it can enrich people’s lives.”I can see why Marcelina’s work would grab someone’s attention. Her prints are arresting and instantly understandable, working with bright, bold colours as well as heavy black lines to convey a wide variety of human forms. She’s interested in juxtaposition and tension, both emotionally and visually, something which she thinks might originate from her Polish heritage; she cites Grayson Perry’s comment on Eastern European culture that “nowhere else could such horrific grief be met with such fairly-tale romanticism”.
Marcelina’s relationship with this heritage has been very much evolving and developing over the past decade. When she first came to the UK she tried extremely hard to assimilate, to learn the English accent so that people would stop instantly asking her where she was from. “I just wanted to be a person,” she says. “To have a clean slate.” It broke my heart to hear how much she’d been affected by the racism and prejudice many Polish immigrants have faced in Britain recently:
There has been also a lot of negative perception of Polish people, which came to me as a surprise. It was something I just wasn’t prepared for. It affected me quite badly, actually, to a point that I was in a way hiding my heritage for a while, just trying to avoid the subject or trying not to highlight it too much. It took me a really long time, and my work actually really helped me because I tried to channel all the things I was going through into my work.
My work really helps me to understand things. It helps me to accept who I am, it helps me to accept that I’m a female artist, I’m a Polish artist living in the UK. I take those experiences, some of them which are quite dark and upsetting, and I kind of twist them, I make them into something beautiful or uplifting or empowering, and it just changes my experience. That’s kind of the whole goal behind my work, is to fight all of those horrible things happening in the world in my little, small bubble.
One of her recent pieces, ‘Straw from the Shoes Protrudes’, is a great example of this. It’s named after a Polish saying, which Marcelina explained to me:
If the village person came to a city, even if they were wearing a nice suit and really expensive shoes, the straw would still stick out – you still spot them. I use that saying to build this narrative about how actually now I’ve come to terms with my heritage, I’m actually really proud of it. I think that’s what makes me ‘me’, and so it’s as important – race and gender, it’s so important to represent that and to make it seen and just to empower that. Yes, I’m from Poland, this is me, it’s not something to hide.
I asked Marcelina about this aspect of gender, femininity and the female form in her work. “Drawing women and painting them just comes naturally to me, because it’s what I know, it’s my language,” she says. “It just feels instinctual and really easy for me to relate to.” But it was also instantly striking how strongly she felt about the importance of female artists:
Everyone is looking for their reflection in the world, in the art world, the media, everywhere – I think it’s really important to have that representation. And as everyone knows, basically in every sector of life women have been marginalised and discriminated against for so long, so long, forever, basically. So it just breaks my heart when I read about some of the women artists, or I watch documentaries and they talk about how they’ve always been squashed, they’ve never been given the right amount of attention, they’ve not been given platforms. It’s just really upsetting to me. That’s why I think it’s so important for us, the new wave of young artists, to just do whatever we can to make a mark, to show everyone how good we are.
Although she began her art education at around the age of thirteen, all of the artists she learnt about were male. There were two exceptions: the universally famous Frida Kahlo, and the Polish impressionist Olga Boznańska. Her first art love was Egon Schiele, whose raw, twisted forms appealed to her in a way that the classical art she’d seen before hadn’t. “I just felt a piece of myself in his work,” she says. She’d already been experimenting with more expressive, emotionally-charged pieces, but before then she’d been hiding them away; seeing Schiele’s work made her realise the power and legitimacy of her own.
Now, Marcelina actively seeks out the work of other female artists. She’s clearly drawn to artists with a similar kind of emotional rawness to Schiele; she cites Marina Abramović for her spirituality, Tracy Emin for her honesty, and the charged photography of Nan Golding. She’s also taking the time to learn more about her predecessors, and was recently affected by the story of Yayoi Kusama, the Japanese artist whose work was emulated – if not outright copied – by Andy Warhol.
She finds it interesting also to reflect on the male artists whose work she knew and loved growing up, particularly Picasso, a man notorious for the cruelty towards the women in his life and in his paintings. “I sometimes feel very conflicted about loving his work,” Marcelina reflects. “There’s quite a lot of violence towards the female body in his work, which I feel strange about. But technically he’s such a genius, really. It’s quite difficult, loving those male artists. They are fantastic, but I can’t quite agree with their male gaze, with their approach to female bodies.”
“It’s that moral question,” she says thoughtfully. “I love it, but how do I feel about loving it?”
I was also very much interested in Marcelina’s use of colour, something which is instantly striking when you look through her work. “Colour is my thing,” she agrees when I bring it up. “I’m obsessed with colour. I probably spend the longest deciding the colour scheme for each painting – it’s very, very important. I can spend hours mixing the right blue. It’s quite amazing how colour can change everything; literally one brushstroke can change the whole painting.”
She finds she goes through phases with her choice of palette, reflecting her emotional state at the time. Her recent work has been full of warm reds, yellows and browns, and this is very much a deliberate choice on her part:
Currently we’re all in very uncertain times, with Brexit and everything, so emotionally I’ve been craving comforting colours. I referred to earth tones, all the colours to me that had this soothing property. The colours I’m working with right now, they just make me feel calmer and better instantly. That was my aim and my goal for visitors and people viewing my work, I really hope they can feel that – that’s my goal. When they’re surrounded by my work, if someone actually makes the decision to purchase a painting, I hope that they can feel that calming, soothing energy from the colours I’m using.
This is exemplified in one of her recent works, ‘I Only Want Everything’, which is also her current favourite. “It was a very difficult piece to work on, to be honest,” Marcelina admits. “I spent so much time painting it, and at one point I almost gave up, I put it aside because I wasn’t happy, I was kind of lost with it. It was so different, and I wasn’t sure where it was going. Then I let it sit for a few months, took it out and suddenly I had the answers.”
This experience has made the work extremely memorable for her, exemplifying her relationship with her work, the role it plays and the shape it takes on. “As I grow up, I go through different phases,” she reflects. “My work changes with me and I change with my work, and it’s constantly evolving. I hope it continues.”
I finished by asking Marcelina what she’d like to work on next and what areas she’d still like to explore:
It’s going to sound cliché, but I do want to keep tackling the whole concept of belonging and heritage and gender. I think I will continue working with subjects like mental health, trying to reflect our inner world and how complicated it is, the whole existential chaos that is happening within me and within everyone else at the same time. Those will be my starting points.
Really, I want to just focus on painting properly. I really want to go into that zone, creating seven days a week. It’s quite hard to do when you’re exhibiting, when there are so many things you have to go to, when you’re travelling, and you’re kind of in and out of that flow. I think my plan for the near future is to make some space and time for me to go in really deep, really spend some time on research as well, trying to dig deeper and make pieces that are really emotional. Hopefully I will just come up with something new, something I’m still unaware of. Hopefully it will surprise me.
I for one am very much looking forward to seeing what she comes up with; I’m sure wherever she goes next, her work will continue to be remarkable.
Header image shows a painting of a woman against a bright orange background, one hand reaching to her neck and the other resting beside an artichoke. First inset shows Marcelina adding painted detail to a vibrantly-coloured print on the table, with other prints on easels behind. Second inset is an expanded version of the header image, with books on the table visible (titled ‘How to Fill the Void’ and ‘Hungry’) beside pomegranates. Third inset is a painting of a woman reclining on a bed, wearing only a black bra, reading a book titled ‘Empathy’. Fourth inset is a painting of a woman against a peach-coloured background, sat on a striped blanket and reading a book titled ‘Hard Being Me’. First inset via Instagram. All other images used with kind permission of the fair.