by Ana M
It has seldom thrived beyond the sphere of its legendary pioneers but impressionism still does, on occasion, offer up a contemporary talent of choice. London-based Oona Hassim pulls off a winning take on the genre, one so notable in fact that her works, several times exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, are now part of the London Institute Collection among other prestigious collections across the world. Often described as tying between figurative and abstract, Oona’s paintings and drawings centre on representing London’s urban life. MadlyJuicy met with the artist to discuss her approach to portraying the city’s cadenced ambiance, its physical structure and associated crowd that are all very present in her work.
MadlyJuicy: Is London where you’re originally from?
Oona Hassim: I was born in Zambia, but moved to London at the age of 3. I’ve also lived in beautiful Prague and Barcelona, but the vast cultural diversity and richness give London its unique dynamism. Living here makes you feel you’re at this central hub of pulsating energy. One can almost feel the layers of history physically built up upon one another. I examine these qualities in my work; the changes of tempo and rhythm, the layers of energy weaving through the city.
MJ: What do you find most inspiring about the city?
O.H: The way it bombards your senses constantly in every way, more than any place I know. At the same time, it has a kind of down-to-earth intimacy about it that cuts through all the glitz. There are smells of hot dogs and coffee, strains of music, wailing cries from Mosques at sunset, and the most beautiful array of colours and sparkling lights. It’s spellbinding and you’re left with a million fragmented sensations going through your head. The colours and tones of London especially are something I try endlessly to capture in my work.
MJ: Impressionism seems to be a particular influence in your work. Is there an artist you especially identify with?
O.H: The impressionists have been a great inspiration to me. I was initially fascinated by the way crowds in impressionist paintings are abstract close-up, a series of beautiful calligraphic marks. In terms of a fundamental influence, I would particularly cite Giacometti’s paintings and drawings. [His] method of constantly adding and taking away oil paint from the surface of a canvas has been a great inspiration. I work in paint and pastels by layering marks and then scraping them back and re-layering them numerous times, so that beautiful ghostly traces of the original marks and their vibrant energies are left. As with Giacometti, the original stages of a painting or drawing, however intricate, are largely annihilated by the end, leaving only these traces. Mathew Radford is a contemporary artist whose work I [also] love.
MJ: Is portraying protests like the one against the G20 different from your usual work?
O.H: Yes, the incredible force of energy from a directional crowd, such as a protest march, is very different. The emotions ripple through the crowd, building to a crescendo. Often there is a very positive energy. Everything is chopped and frenetic. There’s an undertone of latent rage, which can bubble up suddenly. This tense energy injects itself into the paintings. It’s [both] very exciting [and] difficult to try and capture this intensity of feeling.
MJ: Why crowds and concrete rather than landscapes, or faces?
O.H: I actually love sketching from all aspects of the environment within an urban or a natural landscape. I see my work as depicting the urban landscape, and although it’s made up of buildings and concrete I see it as just as much of a rugged organic landscape. Crowds are an integral part of the city and create its throbbing energy. My work is on the line between figurative and abstract, I don’t want figures to be overly delineated. I essentially don’t wish to have faces clearly depicted, to overly characterize a scene. So although there are occasionally hints at faces, I try not to over-define them so that it’s the general ambiance and space that is being conveyed. I want the viewer to have the opportunity to make up their own interpretation and story.
All images are courtesy of the artist.