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sophia moffa: Artist of the Week

This week we will be talking to artist sophia moffa whose practice is focused on the interactions between the self, society and the environment; branching from commenting on contemporary issues relating to women's rights, privilege and inequalities within societies, which are re- evaluated in order to extract more human related questions. Her work is influenced by the belief that we live in an oversaturated environment, which clouds and persistently feeds the mind.

Image description: a landscape poster showing a photograph of a large open room with bamboo scaffolding on the ceiling, Hanging from this are a number of wooden chairs with two people sat high up reading. Bold white text in the centre reads sophia moffa, underneath in a smaller black font reads @sophiamoffa.

What kind of artwork do you make?

My practice is multidisciplinary and often the concepts influence the mediums of my work. Fluctuating between installation, sculpture, drawing, video, photography etc. I often work with natural materials that the passing of British seasons create. In autumn when the trees start shedding their leaves I tend to start working with leaves, in winter, branches, spring seedlings and in summer, flowers or seeds.

sophia moffa, photograph series – western waters, 2020

Image Description: photograph of trees and a blue bucket floating in the sky, the image looks edited although it is not it has simply been rotated as the landscape is the reflection on the polluted waters of the Birmingham canals.

Within a forest there are hidden networks and collaborations between species. If in a forest the mother tree gets felled, that felling will affect the thousands of trees that are invisibly connected through its roots.

The networks in a forest and the carefully balanced ecosystem are not too dissimilar to humanity, which can be equally connected. The decision I make here to buy a certain type of clothing or who I chose to vote for, doesn’t only affect me, but affects people and countries who are far away, yet still attached. My process of making work often questions the way western society lives, the way we influence other people’s lives and the recognition of privilege. By using nature and botanical elements I wish to question certain aspects in society and compare them to similarities found within nature.

You have stated that your work explores connections between the plant kingdom and society. How do you achieve this within your art?

I use natural materials because we are intrinsically bound to the plant kingdom. Trees once covered almost all land, and for as long as there have been people, plants have been at the centre of civilisation across the globe. They are our source of shelter, sustenance, fuel, tools, decoration, medicine, and myth. Converging from all over the globe to aid us in our day. We pour ourselves a cup of coffee brewed from coffee beans grown in Brazil, throw on a T-shirt made of Egyptian cotton and drive in cars fuelled by gasoline derived from cycads that died millions of years ago. Chemicals extracted from plants reduce fever, wheat sparked the end of one age and the dawn of another, and the humble potato led to mass migrations. I believe our existence is dependent and intimately entangled with plants. We believe them to be utterly different from our own existence and yet overlook their potential to be instrumental in solving society's most pressing problems.

sophia moffa, is the twisted stick any less of an oak because it fell on stony ground?, sculpture, 2020

Image description: a photograph of a sculpture. Is the twisted stick less of an oak because it fell on stony ground? –upside-down tree with its branches in concrete, off its root hangs a house made from leaves held down by a seed. The work is extremely fragile and balances thanks to a carefully selected weight keeping the work from falling.

I believe that the plant kingdom has much to teach. I use natural materials as metaphors to question human and social issues. For example, in my work “is the twisted stick any less of an oak because it fell on stony ground?” reflects on the strength and persistence of bonsai trees, where a seed will grow even in the least favourable conditions.

In the bonsai tree, we intentionally prune and restrict vital nourishments to an oak seedling, the same oak that in favourable conditions would otherwise become a majestic tree. When the limiting conditions are removed, it flourishes. The work “is the twisted stick less of an oak because it fell on stony ground?” is based on the parallel restrictions of plants and people. The propagations of a species are a vital part of most creatures' survival, searching for the ideal conditions to flourish. Yet, in the human world, this propagation is limited by documents, status, ethnicity and many more factors created by society. The word ‘diaspora’ is a term first coined by the Greeks, meaning the splitting of the seed. To be sessile is a plant's characteristic; unable to move, they must withstand and adapt to constantly changing conditions. Yet, withstanding harsh conditions is not unique to static beings, as the structure of society forces some to withstand equally persistent harsh conditions.

This work was made in response to the perilous condition of refugees in Europe and UK, where too due to harsh conditions in their homeland and their host country need to survive in the worst conditions.

How much importance do you give to titling your artwork?

I take a lot of time in titling my works as I wish the title to be an extension of the work rather than a mere name for the work. The titles of my works often come from research of the concept I am working on. In my video work, ‘disturbing the kings’ peace’ based on the poems of G.N. Saibaba, an artist and activist jailed for life for being a "threat" through his art and views to the Indian government. The title of the work is based on a British law where the breach of peace is illegal because it disturbs the king/queen's peace.

sophia moffa, disturbing the kings’ peace, video, 5:11, 2021

Video description: overlaid image of dark ground and plants with the writing ‘will you hear’ at the bottom of the thumbnail. In the video the poem of G.N. Saibaba is read out by an adult and repeated by a child with scenes of nature and deep dark water in the wind.

What kinds of materials and processes do you enjoy using?

It is important for me to be able to justify the reason I am using a particular material over another. I dislike how many sculptural materials have a lot of waste, for this reason I enjoy that part of my materials are organic and seasonal.

After my BA in sculpture, I was very concerned with the amount of non-recyclable waste sculpture created, I also had no place to store my work and I moved around a lot. During my MA, my practice became more performance and digital based and continued to be so for about two years after my MA. When I moved to Birmingham, I got a studio that allowed me to re-examine my sculptural practice. I became aware of how often my works even in the past had used trees and natural elements which created no polluting waste. I started collecting natural objects on my walks to the studio and around Birmingham and slowly it became instinctive how these natural objects were telling a story about humanity in a way no human made material had done so.

My process for making works is like a jigsaw between my mind, feelings, the outside world, and what I’m reading. Slowly as I work the pieces come together and they slot to create a finished piece and other times they remain in limbo until I find the rest of the matching parts, sometimes for years.

You've told us that you work in collaboration with other artists. Is this an important part of your practice?

I would love the art world to become more collaborative, it’s one of the few job roles where the multifaceted role of an artist isn’t shared. I love when within artist groups one can share tasks, mix creative ideas and collaborate on joint projects. This is something that isn’t critical for my practice but vital for my wellbeing as an artist. In collaborations we share ideas, help each other out and complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Working with artists who share this same value is extremely inspiring and rewarding, the most amazing ideas and projects often come out of it and create a support network that stretches across continents.

I have worked collaboratively with artists and artist groups throughout the world, in Singapore, Egypt, Israel, Germany, Bangladesh and many more. Thanks to these connections other projects and opportunities have emerged and I have gained so much knowledge of art scenes across the world and diversified my practice because of these connections.

Can you give us an insight into the experiences you've had during the pandemic and how you've adapted to still create art?

At the beginning of the pandemic like most people I felt quite confused and bewildered. To try and comprehend the situation I started making work about it and organised with ArtPro, an art organisation with whom I collaborate in Bangladesh, an online international exhibition asking artists about their take on the pandemic. Human nature in the end is fast to adjust and I embraced the fact I worked less on my other job and could spend more time in my studio. Perhaps thanks to the restrictions this past year and a half has become one of my most productive years, as more time, effort, and concentration on my art practice got me more exhibitions, commissions, and projects.

Borderless Lockdown, ArtPro poster, 2020

Image description: poster for the online exhibition organised with Artpro ‘borderless lockdown’ in mid 2020, illustrates the work of Anja Strelec with the list of artists taking part and information on the exhibition.

Can you tell us a bit about your experimental gallery Tape Modern?

Tape modern is an experimental and mobile art gallery that was based in occupied properties in and around Manchester, it was born through a collaboration between the Finnish artist Riikka Enne and myself, who after graduating from our masters were frustrated with the lack of affordable studio spaces and experimental exhibition spaces in Manchester. Therefore, we decided to create our own gallery by connecting with the local squatting community. Within these buildings we arranged a variety of events and exhibitions that allowed us more freedom compared to the more institutional and health and safety bound spaces that were available at the time.

Tape Modern, photograph, 2021

Image description: tape modern box at night in front of one of the squatted buildings in Manchester, this held all our tools and materials for setting up shows and events with wheels at the bottom for easy moving when we had to change buildings.

View the tape modern website here.

Through this collaboration we also created an artist dyad between the two of us called enne&moffa which mainly consisted in performance art works and happenings under a single joint artist name. This was a perfect example of a unique collaboration between artists where any idea was a joint project that often came from long conversations where our two-artist minds would merge to create work. Find out more here.

Much of your work is very performative. What draws you to the creation of happenings within the city?

Happenings are an intuitive, immediate, and out of the ordinary event that happens to happen. First created by the American artist Allan Kaprow. I started doing happenings during my MA in Manchester School of Art because of the ridiculous rules that bound artists working in what had become a very corporate institution. So initially the happenings I did were a sort of revolt towards the rules that surrounded the institution where I studied. After leaving university instead they became almost the opposite, satirical actions within the city where we used the unexpecting audience as critical mass. With enne&moffa we had started doing a variety of them throughout the cities we worked in. Although due to covid I stopped doing these happenings as interaction with the public became more restricted.

Are there specific artists of concepts that inspire your projects?

The artist, activist and architect Sofia Karim hugely inspires me, her activist and artistic work go hand in hand, the aesthetics of her work are extremely powerful as they are connected to the real actions she is taking to free artists and activists from unfair imprisonment, kidnappings, or torture across South Asia. Although, more often my inspiration comes from conversations I have with people, books I read or even events that have shocked me. I work with many refugees and conversations I have with them often influence the concepts I wish to pursue.

The artist Sofia Karim influenced my work after meeting her and being able to have conversations and share ideas on the concepts we were working on. I often see artists whose works I admire but rarely get inspired solely through this.

I enjoy following artists’ processes, in particular the methods they use to convey their concepts, such as artists like Tacita Dean, Donald Rodney, Eva Jospin, Christopher Samuel, Agnes Denes, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. These artists have such powerful, subtle, and open ways of making work that conveys the concepts in a mental and physical way without it being too leading.

What will you be making next?

I have just come back from two projects that ran over the summer, an exhibition in Germany with three other international artists in the Museum Kesselhaus and a collaborative installation in Rome, with the glass laboratory Pigreco Lab for the Villetta social lab.

I returned to Birmingham a couple of days ago and am eager to start working again on some projects I left unfinished using leaves and branches.

sophia moffa, little houses made from leaves, 2021

Image description: a group of tiny houses made from leaves on a black backdrop with lights inside causing them to glow Part of my work in progress for the concepts surrounding the home.

I am very interested in the privilege of the home which I have become particularly concerned with as I work closely with refugees that are awaiting displacement in hostels across Birmingham. The works I am making wish to question what it means to have a home and the fragility and strength that this space can have

For more information you can find me on Instagram @sophiamoffa or on my website

If you are interested in being featured as an Artist of the Week you can fill out a short application form here.

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