10 Minutes with Olha Pryymak

Olha Pryymak’s work is driven by curiosity in plant-human relationships, using oil paint as a tool to think through them. Painting allows for paying undivided attention to what is deemed important: the emotional flavour of  lived experiences with the  plants, on the way that the plants make you feel, savouring each brushstroke as a point of meditation on this interdependent relationship. These experiences usually stem from the performative side of Olha’s practice – staged encounters with plants in the form of participatory tea sessions – part Ukrainian peasant healer seance, part tea ceremony, rooted in her heritage of Ukrainian folk herbalism.  

Recent shows and projects include: Sensorium at Verv Lab, London, 2020; Herbal Tea Labo at AIR-Yamanashi, Kofu, 2019; This Instead of That at Lewisham Arthouse and Arthouse1, London, 2019. Awards included participation in London Creative Network, Space Studios 2018, studio residency at Florence Trust, 2015-2016; Bulldog Bursary with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and Heatherley School of Fine Art in 2012, BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery 2011.

For Open Space’s last 10 Minute Interview this year Huma Kabakcı talks to Olha Pryymak about her interest in botany, her paintings and more…

Make Me a Cup of Tea installation (2018)
SPACE LCN showcase
Courtesy of Olha Pryymak

You have a personal history which ties in with botany, how does this have an influence on your work and practice? 

Yes, I have a biographic reason to pursue the subject of plants, my parents work in forestry and my great grandmother – the village znaharka – was the person who knew the plants’ medicinal properties as well as the spells. I was not always celebrating this peasant heritage as it was considered uncool. Then a shock to identity with the Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbass in 2014 made me think very local and personal, and look  back to my rural roots that happen to be hugely interconnected with plant life. It’s only recently that this handheld knowledge has gained new cultural currency. 

Facing the imminent ecological crisis, an increasing number of researchers and intellectuals are talking of the “plant turn”. Fuelled by this dialogue as well as my personal history I aim to fulfil my job as an artist and bring together this hodgepodge of ideas for critical reflection and poetic interpretation through participatory performance and painting. My tea sessions are an invitation for  generous imagining and world building. They offer the participants a generative space for reflection on their personal encounters with plant life. For the upcoming virtual edition of the performance I am leaning into my heritage for a more playful and ritualistic approach. 

You won’t come with me, too comfortable where you’ve been (2020)
Oil on canvas, diptych
Courtesy of Olha Pryymak

Would you say that painting is the main medium you work with? 

Yes, I consider myself a painter. I was first confronted by that ”why do you paint?” question as I was beginning to develop my interest in medicinal herbs while at the Florence Trust residency in 2015. The question caught me off guard, it took me 5 years of experimenting with installation and  performance to answer it. I am very grateful for this detour because it allowed me to develop the participatory side that enriched and strengthened my painting practice. Now my medium choice is loosely seasonal: the activity around tea sessions performances normally happen outdoors and closer to midsummer. During the cooler months at the studio I translate these experiences in painting. Painting for me became a formal way to think through, slow down these encounters, not just reproducing, but reflecting on them with line, gesture and colour. It became the language that best suits this subject of boundary crossing between species. Acting as if some state of affairs is true or could be, it relieves one of a burden of authenticity – a perfect tool for exploring speculative scenarios.

Painting also provides an attachment point to the mind – a kinetic memory artefact.  As the brushstrokes are tracing the lived experiences and labour, the painting becomes  a temporary stored energy of that lived experience with a nourishing potential, an invitation to pay attention. It’s like a battery that stores sunlight/energy flow for a little or a while and needs a release. 

I realised you have been working with more intimate moments and details in your paintings recently, why is that? 

As I use painting as a tool for paying attention to lots of different interactions, I am going through all these possible forms of negotiations. Communication between species is a captivating subject: the “what if” the scenarios range from  consumption to sex, worship, farming, co-dependence, nurture, murder and everything in between. For me these promiscuous and lethally consumptive behaviours upend the human morals and  offer fresh perspectives. I tend to focus on the personal and emotional: exploring this subject  not by a rational thought but by the way the paintings make the viewer feel. This is where portrayed intimacy, small scale and zoomed-in detail comes into play. Intimacy  presumes undivided attention  and these devices best serve at holding that particular feeling in an otherwise easily distractible and fragmented mind. I want people to escape into their own proclivities about what they think about the non-human world and how they engage with it, which they may not have had the luxury of doing in their daily lives.  

Which five words would you choose to describe your practice?

Human-plant stories,  eco-fabulism, eco-fiction, painting, spells.

What are you reading at the moment? 

Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder’s Through Vegetal Being is the book I keep going back to over and over again. I am half-way through Natasha Myers’ Rendering Life Molecular  – a fascinating read on embodied knowledge in science. I have recently finished Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation and it left me wanting for more of this genre, so I am currently reading J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World. Overall, I find a lack of satisfying plant-related fiction that speculates about what could really happen but does not yet exist in recorded science or history. So your recommendations are welcome. 

If you could be any other species, what would you be? 

Hibiscus flower. This has been the plant I was obsessing about in the last couple of months. It is the focus of the tea sessions I am launching with the Virtual Care Lab in January as well as the protagonist of all the paintings I’ve been working on in the last 6 months. Hibiscus is an example of successful interspecies cooperation, economically and aesthetically. It is becoming an increasingly popular health drink and  even has its own emoji. Also as a Ukrainian living a larger part of my life in the West, I feel kinship with this exoticised diasporic plant with its African, Caribbean via North America roots.