Interview with multidisciplinary artist Riccardo Matlakas
Five years after his first visit to Armenia, Riccardo Matlakas was back in Yerevan for “Drawing The Time”, a Street Art-Mural International Festival hosted by HayArt Cultural Center. For a month, he created anti-war murals in public spaces among fellow artists from Armenia and Ukraine, and enlivened the ICA Yerevan garden with his unique ceramic work. A great opportunity for us to get to know more about his creative journey…
How did you start engaging with art?
Riccardo Matlakas – I’ve always been very creative as a child, especially with drawing and dancing. I used to draw a lot when I was young, because it made me feel good. Later, in my teen years, I entered the hip-hop scene. Hip-hop, as you know, is made of several disciplines, such as graffiti, emceeing, DJing and breakdancing. It gave me the opportunity to discover different forms of art. I began singing rap and later, my raps became poetry. My graffitis turned into paintings, and dance evolved into contemporary dance and then performance art. The philosophical performances I stage nowadays are a way to keep that dance alive inside me. As a dancer, I have been very influenced by Butoh, a form of Japanese dance, as well as Contact improvisation and contemporary dance, which I’ve been practicing for many years.
"Land In Land" performance in Sofia, photo by Михаела Драганова, 2022
From the hip-hop world you moved to a more classical art education, studying sculpture at the University of Fine Arts in Naples…
R. M. – In a way, sculpture also led me to performance, because to me these two art forms are very connected. After my degree at the University of Fine Arts, I had a long break from school during which I continued practicing art as an artist. And a few years later, I did a Masters in Social Sculpture at Oxford Brookes University. I learned a lot from the philosophical approach of social sculpture, and especially from my tutor Shelley Sacks from South Africa.
This pedagogic approach also gave a political dimension to your art…
R. M. – Indeed, after those two years I became more interested in addressing social issues in my works. Basically I like deconstructing what exists. When I see that a country doesn’t function well, I try to deconstruct it, starting from scratch, to show human beings that they should behave as such. I think hatred mainly comes from misunderstanding. But misunderstanding doesn’t only come from language: it comes from not listening, not looking at the other person, not feeling the other person. After all, we live in an emotional world. With my performances, I try to deconstruct what exists in order to rebuild a better society.
"Melting Borders" performance in Yerevan, 2017, photo by Elizabeth Gerdeman
What would you say is the driving force behind your art?
R. M. – I’m a very curious person and I am also very skilled because I’ve been practicing multiple forms of art. I love all of them and I can’t let go of any! I have faced many injustices from a very young age and very soon, I felt what was not right. My driving force is really fighting injustice through spiritual growth. Because I also understand that I’m faulty as a human, having such a polluted mind. However, I found a way of cleansing my thoughts through Vipassana meditation, which I’ve been practicing for more than a decade. Art for me has something to do with God and spirituality. When I make art, it’s like I am praying. If I had a religion, It would probably be art. But meditation also helps me not identifying only as an artist and always reminds me that I am only human.
Could you tell us about your first artistic encounter with Armenia?
R. M. – I came for the first time in 2017 for an art laboratory led by Susanna Gyulamiryan (“Art and Cultural Studies Laboratory” - ACSL). As you may know, my work is very connected to the topic of borders, so I went to Artsakh to stage a performance called “The Last Soldier”. I did a Butoh-style slow walk in the streets of Stepanakert wearing a military uniform. I was holding a piece of tufa stone on my right shoulder – representing the past of Armenia – and a white lily flower in my right hand. The idea was to bring softness where there is harshness. I don’t think soldiers are bad people: they are trying to defend their country and all they want is peace. I wanted to embody the last soldier, a man that brings peace and not fighting. Imagine if soldiers of opposite sides – and people in general – adopted this mindset! Of course there are greater powers we don’t have control over, but if everyone does his part, I believe the world can change.
"The Last Soldier" performance in Stepanakert
In Yerevan, I also staged my first “Melting Borders” performance. With this action I wanted to symbolically melt down the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The flag colors melted over my head and my white shirt, which turned it into an abstract painting, which I call a “Sweet Flag”. It is the manifestation of shared humanity, and not of political borders. Cultures are all different and they should not be a reason to fight over which one is the greatest. We are all great and we are all rubbish! It’s like when you create a mosaic: after you’ve brought together your beautiful tiles, you always end up with leftovers.
Interview by Achod Papasian
Riccardo Matlakas (b.1982, Naples, Italy) is a London based multidisciplinary artist working internationally. He is best known for his multi-talented capacity in different art forms including performance, dance, painting and sculpture. He obtained a degree in Sculpture at the University of Fine Arts in Naples and an MA in Social Sculpture at Oxford Brookes University. Riccardo values the context he works in as the main inspiration for his work, finding a common ground with each culture he connects with. He creates cathartic actions and performances in the fore-front of current political, environmental and spiritual concerns by digging for the essence of humanity beyond race and custom. The artist often collects relics from his performances which later become objects of memory and contemplation. Riccardo Matlakas has performed and shown his work extensively in Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Palestine, Jordan, South Africa, Iran, Armenia, Russia, Myanmar, Mauritius and South Korea.
For more information, please visit www.matlakas.co.uk.