Art & Mental Health in Conversation: An interview with Ukrainian Artist Margo Sarkisova
This interview was conducted before the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Margo Sarkisova had to flee her home in Kharkiv. She keeps producing art and reflecting on the current situation in a ‘war diary’.
The Art Unit is an online gallery selling and promoting works by emerging artists. The Art Unit launched in spring 2021 with a release of works by over 20 Ukrainian artists. We believe it is vital to support artists at the start of their career, as it becomes increasingly hard to maintain a career as an artist in the global art market. Emerging artists face various obstacles on their path, and I believe in helping them to speak up and share their stories.
Margo Sarkisova is one of the artists from The Art Unit’s first release. Based in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Margo produces beautiful original works that are full of personal messages from the artist. This interview gave me a chance to start a deeper conversation with Margo about her art practice, her mental health and more. I began our conversation by asking Margo if she could tell me about her development as an artist. What influenced her, and what, on the contrary, interfered?
This is a very good question! I can point out several factors that influenced me as a person, and that subsequently forced me to turn my attention to the topics that I work with as an artist now.
First of all — my family, and that I am the middle daughter in the family. According to my observations, middle children have a rather interesting place in the family system: a kind of link between the older and younger child. The middle ones are often overlooked while the older one is scolded and the younger one is praised. Therefore, I had many opportunities to reflect, to invent my own world, while all the adults were busy and did not take my various hobbies and thoughts seriously.
The second important factor that is deriving from the first one is the cultural background of my family. By nationality, I am an Assyrian (Assyrian people are an ethnic group indigenous to the Middle East, Assyrian religion was heavily influenced by its Mesopotamian predecessors and its culture is famous for elaborate stone carvings) on my father’s side and Ukrainian on my mother’s side. This polarity of two cultures has always created a certain conflict and contradiction during my growing up. Despite the fact that I was born in Ukraine, I was brought up according to Assyrian traditions and cultural codes. This created a certain “vacuum”, in which I was in the circle of my family and left it in a completely different Ukrainian environment, where those around me lived by completely different principles. I have always wondered: why is that? Why are the traditions and laws of my family arranged in this way?
And this gave me an impetus, after studying at the Academy of Arts, to study my family tree, Assyrian traditions, and the place of a woman in the Assyrian value system.
The same things interfered with the development of my art, only in a different polarity: attitudes acquired from an upbringing in a closed patriarchal culture, obstacles in the form of my father’s beliefs that my sisters and I do not need to receive higher education, as well as the political situation in eastern Ukraine (In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and invaded the Eastern part of Ukraine, an area called Donbas, many people left their home in Donetsk, Luhansk and other towns and cities due to military actions in the region; on the 24th of February in 2022, Russia started a full-scale invasion of Ukraine). I already had to leave the art school in the first year due to the political situation, and be transferred to the free hearing (a form of education, in which one can attend lectures, but does not identify as a student) in Kharkiv where I still live after 8 years (Kharkiv is a big city in eastern Ukraine, Kharkiv is one of the cities that is heavily bombed and shelled in the full-scale invasion by Russia, Margo had to leave her home for the second time and now resides in the Western part of Ukraine, which is safer).
Do you think mental health affects art? Does it affect your work?
I believe that mental health directly affects the art that an artist creates. For me, art is the most honest portrait of the one who creates it. Here, of course, you can also deceive yourself or the viewer, but this fact is always felt on an intuitive level. Therefore, looking at the work of one author, we can feel a connection with him, we experience feelings and emotions. And from others, we may feel only indifference and coldness. It’s all about the truth. And the truth is always bitter because one must, first of all, admit it to oneself — that is, the artist must, first of all, see the truth himself: himself, the world, and all their imperfections.
And in order to withstand such difficult experiences, it is important to have inner stability. And this is possible only if you devote a lot of time to your mental health, otherwise, you can very quickly go into addiction, self-destruction and waste precious energy, without which you cannot realize all your ideas and projects.
Do you think that art can help people? If so, how?
Art can really help people, but it has no such task. Art is not salvation or a solution to problems. It’s all about perception. The artist creates what excites him, but to think that it can help someone or change the world is very naive, I think. People can be helped not by art itself, but by the ability to perceive it, the ability to be sensitive, and attentive and develop the skill of interpreting the symbols that the form carries. For me, art is a mirror of the one who looks at it, so I would not endow it with the role and responsibility of being an aid in helping someone. People can help themselves, and art is only a tool.
You use a lot of symbols in your work, tell us why and what do they mean to you?
Smithsonian Education define symbolism as usually a solid, recognizable thing — an animal, a plant, an object, etc. — that stands for something that would be hard to show in a picture or a sculpture.
I really love symbols and they play a big role in what I create. I have formed a certain system of symbols through which I express my thoughts.
The first important symbol was ‘Garden’, as the device of the world and life. Later, a gardener appeared who works on the garden every day — his little universe; he puts things in order in the garden, thereby warning the world from chaos. And in the future, images began to come from these concepts: poisonous seeds are what a person who commits evil plants, fruit trees are a symbol of life and prosperity, the connection between the external world and the internal, and so on (about Margo’s works).
For me, symbols are the inhabitants of my world structure, codes that can be interpreted in different ways. Though for me, they have a certain meaning that forms the message that I carry through my work.
How do you feel about criticism, does it help you or, on the contrary, make you stop? Criticism can be very different, and at this stage of my life, I accept it only if I ask for it myself from a specific person. Otherwise, the unsolicited criticism and advice only violates my boundaries and has no value for me. Things like this should only be given upon request. What art formats do you like the most? Why? By my education as an artist I specialize in printing, so for myself, I highlight the importance of working with paper. But lately, my horizons have expanded and I try different techniques and combine them with each other. These include beadwork, patchwork and pen-on-canvas painting. I would also like to note that art has no boundaries and materials, the main thing is how much this material helps to express an idea. and at the same time, an art form can express nothing and be only a form, and that is enough. I would like to say thank you to Margo for having this conversation with me, which took place before the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on the 24th of February. Margo continues creating artworks during the war. As Margo said, art is a tool that can help people, it could be used for easing anxiety, level of stress and more. It is important to reflect on how professional artists are impacted by their craft and how it can help others.
Header Image by Margo Sarkisova