Tension between opposites

Interview with Roberta Kali Agostini

Heavenly Food
Heavenly Food
8 MAR 2017
by

I have often been struck by the power and intensity of the black-and-white drawings of Roberta Kali Agostini, who was born and lives in Poppi in the Casentino Valley in Tuscany. Here are her answers to some questions I asked her.

I know that for each of your drawings you have written a sort of commentary, which makes me wonder: which is born first, the drawing or the idea?

It’s true that for each drawing I eventually write a commentary which I store digitally and sometimes use for presenting myself to exhibition organizers and critics (I don’t have a website or use facebook). But my drawings aren’t illustrations of ideas, on the contrary. First I draw in a kind of subconscious process, a visual intuition rather like automatic writing. The self-commentaries arrive later. I put them alongside the drawings partly because people are often bewildered and insist on explanations, and partly because this self-questioning helps me to understand my own work, my inner world and its development. But while I’m drawing, I literally have no idea what I’m about to do. Since the flood of visions from my unconscious is often very swift and intense, and since it takes me a long time to complete a drawing, I’ve begun making written notes of these visions and set them aside for the future. The vision arrives in a flash, while I’m asleep and dreaming, while I’m meditating (I teach Yoga), while I’m singing, praying, or even directly while I’m drawing on the page. That’s why what appears always astonishes me.

The reason I asked that question is that I find a vigour and traumatic energy in the drawings that seems to go far beyond the commentary. Do you see them more as ways of releasing deep tensions and unconscious energies, or as rational responses to the violence of the world?

Over the years I’ve become aware of the therapeutic value of Art. I see Art as a way of preventing my inner channels from clogging and creating mental problems. In this respect I associate Art with the balance deriving from the cleanliness and purity of the soul. It is both a way of releasing deep unconscious pulsions and responding to the violence of the world, though not necessarily rationally.

All your figures are female; they resemble contemporary expressionist amazons. Only in Heavenly Food and Host Trees, Guest Trees do they show a degree of serenity. Knowing your calm and mild personality, the disquieting energy of your drawings came as a surprise to me.

As for my “calm and mild” temperament and the disquietude of my drawings, all I can say is that humans beings are complex. Psychology has reached the conclusion that we have various centres, various personalities: the idea of a single centre is obsolete. Yoga psychology has been saying this for ages, and explains the various centres and aspects of the mind by the fact that we are actually a centre of Supreme Consciousness and Beatitude which exists above and beyond all things, beyond both the mind with its various centres and functions, and the body. In Art, an aspect of myself is released that is not the same as that which emerges in my attitudes towards other persons. But this aspect exists, and, thanks to the psychological balance I’ve acquired over the years, I’ve learnt to allow an appropriate space for both the conscious and the latent tendencies inside me. The aim is to live in harmony with the universe. I haven’t always been mild and calm in the past. Art is good place in which to express disquietude and pain. There these feelings can touch chords that may charm or bring catharsis to the viewer as well as to me. In other words, they can become useful to the world and not just to myself. The sphere of Art is positive because the act of creation in itself is positive. It proves to me that I can control the disquietude within me. Otherwise, if this erupted chaotically into my life, I would run the risk of being misunderstood, ostracised, dangerous to the world, or, worse still, of succumbing to serious mental illness, something I’ve not always avoided in the distant past.

Sometimes you refer to your figures as female creatures, sometimes as women. Their bodies are taut, their extremities often dagger-like, their breasts like blades, their noses and mouths like sharp beaks or pincers. How do you reconcile this diabolical or grotesque aspect with your empathy for the plight of women victims of male violence?

By suggesting that it would be wise to treat women better because they are also expressions of Nature, and Nature is sacred. A society that fails to love and respect them, like one that fails to love and respect Nature, won’t last long. It will be continually exposed to natural disasters, famines, and so on… Ill-treating the other half of the sky instead of seeking a balance, a dialogue with it, means that in this or in future existences something negative will come back to punish us. The female creatures in my drawings warn us of this risk with their shapes: they’re transformed into frightening beings by the violence they’ve undergone, but they frighten us only out of a sense of compassion towards their attackers. They warn the observer and the ill-intentioned of the risks they run in the future if they ill-treat them. You might say they use their own image to defend themselves, in addition to warning others… I don’t depict diabolical beings but the Great Mother, who is fearsome in that she is part of the psyche of every woman: the negative elementary character of Jung’s archetype of the Great Mother. Each woman contains a spark of this archetype, of this divinity, inside herself. It is an invitation to all of us to become more aware of this spark and to nourish it. If the fearsome Great Mother remains buried in our unconscious, disasters will happen to us without our ever understanding why. Nor will we be able to derive anything positive from them, or from our own female aggressiveness. It’s important to understand that the negative and positive aspects of the Great Mother don’t belong to two distinct entities: they are like two different moods expressed by the same non-dual entity. Her malice always has a positive and evolutionary purpose. Roses need yearly pruning, don’t they?

The almost brutal, brash depiction of naked female bodies goes well beyond the erotic. This is particularly clear in the drawing inspired by fertility rites. Its atmosphere seems to me dense with violence, whereas in your commentary you stress its sadness. Are you aware of any tension between these two aspects?

I depict naked bodies whose aim is not to seduce anyone but to be a theatre of the human condition. It is a spontaneous choice of spiritual purity. As a rule, it seems to me that the naked body can’t lie, because it has fewer resources with which to do so. Similarly, if I’ve avoided alluring the viewer with colour, it is out of a desire for wholeness and silence, for a sense of purity. The weeping of one female creature during coitus with a dying tree, together with the calm face of the other who is simultaneously brutally sucking her breasts, allude to a tension between opposites which is one of the mysteries of existence. How aware am I of this tension? Let’s say that I allow it to flow with my breathing—I let it emerge by drawing without reasoning, freely, instinctively. Subsequently I try to become more aware of it through introspection. Often the curiosity and questions of people who see my works help me to do this, though I’m not always able to give them an answer there and then. At times I’m fascinated by the existential mystery unfolding in my drawings, as if it dwells somewhere deep inside me and is waiting for me to understand it one day. The philosophy of Yoga holds that the tension between opposites belongs to the world, to the sphere of multiplicity and transitoriness, and that it is an illusion. Underlying all things there is a single, not a dual, whole. To achieve unity with this substratum by transcending the tension between opposites is the purpose of Yoga and of my drawings insofar as they are a kind of Yoga practice. You could say that I use drawing to cleanse myself from the tension between opposites and the emotional constrictions stemming from it. Drawing helps me to transcend many emotions that would otherwise dominate my life and ensnare me. Drawing enables me to observe these emotions with a degree of calm detachment. I’m no longer caught up in a wild turmoil of clouds that confuse my heart. My feelings are out there, stilled, on the paper, where they become objects that can be scrutinised and made open to the curiosity of others.

Roberta Kali Agostini was born in 1974 near Arezzo in Tuscany. In 1992 she enrolled at the Istituto Superiore per le Industrie Artistiche in Florence. Shortly before concluding her studies, she left the Institute and devoted herself for a number of years to independent creative research. Subsequently, a profound personal crisis led her to burn all the art works she had produced hitherto and to interrupt all activities for ten years. Since 2014 she has begun to produce new works which have appeared in various group and individual shows, both in Italy (Florence, Rome, Venice, Forte dei Marmi) and abroad (London and Obernberg in Austria).