Conceptual minimalism, politics and identity: a conversation with multidisciplinary artist Zoi Roupakia

Greek artist minimal art creative technologist
Minimal. Kiss.

We spoke with multidisciplinary artist Zoi Roupakia, an illustrator, engineer, and photographer who believes the simplicity of minimalism can lead us to greater depth and understanding.

It’s rare to find an artist whose work is immediately identifiable as theirs… as if it has its own hyper-specific flavor. There’s rarely any questioning of an O’Keeffe flower or Jimi Hendrix solo. I felt this way when I stumbled upon the Instagram of multidisciplinary artist Zoi Roupakia. Despite the popularity of minimal art, there’s something that defies words that made hers her own. And while there’s plenty of work out there that falls under the umbrella of minimalism, Roupakia’s work speaks to the power of what shines through when you pare down.

We live in an age where resources aplenty are at our fingertips, and one need not choose between being a writer, producer, working on an app, and making music. Roupakia is no exception to this trend. A machine learning engineer, she found her way to art via photography. While lately she’s focused more on illustration, her output includes photography, collaborations with fashion brands, and soon, jewelry.

Read on to discover more about Roupakia’s take on conceptual minimalism, the political meaning behind much of her work, and what it means to be of Greek descent in 2017.

You are quite multitalented. Tell me a bit about your occupation and background.

I am a machine learning engineer based in Cambridge, UK. I studied electrical and computer engineering in Thessaloniki and moved to Cambridge for postgraduate studies and research in speech recognition, with a short intermitted period in London where I did a research internship at Google. So my background is entirely technical.  In Thessaloniki, the photography club of Aristotle University used to organize (maybe it still does) a beginners course about analog photography and printing in a darkroom. It was my first contact with the world of photography and consequently art. But it was in Cambridge that I bought my first DSLR camera, and found myself more driven into this world. Gradually, I moved from photography to drawing and illustration art.

Man. Woman. Geometry in Nature.

Your work is ride ranging, from photography to conceptual, minimal illustrations. What mediums do you work with, specifically?

As I said above my first contact with art world was through photography. There is a certain level of immediacy, depicting an immediate presence to the world that I love, particularly in street photography. Initially, I tried more traditional mediums, photography film and printing and charcoal drawing. But now, I am more into digital mediums. I have tried various graphic art software and experimented with software that creates fractals, in an attempt to draw connections between art and science. My first minimal illustrations were drawn on my phone, and the latest on a tablet always using the touch screen in a finger-style sketching, and not digital pens. Recently, I also collaborated with a Greek fashion design brand, FALF Minimal Chic (Facebook @FALFminimalchic), to incorporate my illustrations into textiles and clothing.

Phaino shirt by multidisciplinary artist Zoi Roupakia in collaboration with FALF

Minimal art made by greek artist
Love. Couple. Minimal. One line.

As a multidisciplinary artist, what is your favorite medium, if any? Why? 

I don’t really have a favorite medium, or at least it is something that evolves and progresses. This period, I am exploring the artistic capabilities of a tablet, using the touch screen as drawing medium. As I work in a different field, I don’t have a studio or a specific time allocated to art. I love to put down my idea as soon as it strikes my mind. Tablet is portable, and touch screen gives me a sense of control and directness. However, I want to discover new digital ways. The project that I am slowly working on is to connect science, machine learning, and art. Programming could be used as an alternative digital medium, and new emerging technologies are unfolding new ways and directions for art.

Who are your favorite Greek artists, living or dead?

There are so many Greek artists I admire throughout history, but I will focus here just on the contemporary ones, except for Cycladic unknown artists. Cycladic art is for me the historical proof that art is timeless, is not aging; the geometric and minimal Cycladic sculptures are more modern and relevant than ever.

Apart from that, I get hypnotised by the misty and somewhat minimal photography in the movies of Theo Angelopoulos under the accompaniment of the music of Eleni Karaindrou. The team of Theo Angelopoulos, Eleni Karaindrou, and Andreas Sinanos in ‘The Weeping Meadow’, or Giorgos Arvanitis in the ‘Landscape in the Mist’, and the ‘Voyage to Cythera’ created an integrated result combining all the senses. I also admire Dimitris Papaioannou, the best contemporary visual artist and choreographer in Greece right now. Moreover, I love the work of the kinetic artist Panagiotis (Takis) Vassilakis with magnetic fields. I think it is the connection of science and art that fascinates me.

Greece means Manos Hadjidakis to me. ‘Gioconda’s Smile’ is my favorite album. Larissa (my hometown) means Thanasis Papakonstantinou; his use of traditional sounds in his music touch my heart instantly and unconsciously. Constantine Cavafy intrigues my mind, Odysseas Elytis, my soul. But there are so many others I could mention.

“Dance is the hidden language of the soul, of the body.” ~ Martha Graham

I love that in being minimal – just by omitting – you make space for so much more. Tell me more about your “Conceptual Minimalism” series. What brought you to this term? 

Minimalism in art is a movement initially emerged in the 50s as a reaction to the excessive expressiveness of Abstract Expressionism, and it has become a lifestyle choice nowadays as a way against consumerism.

I don’t view minimalism from the point of making space for more, but as a quest to find the absolute essence of a moment, feeling or idea. What remains of a moment once the noise is removed? What is needed to reconstruct it? A few simple lines and a concept tell a story, express an emotion, weaving reality. Plato, in his theory of Forms, argues that reality is represented by non-physical Forms, Ideas. I view my minimal illustrations exactly like that, the forms that represent reality. And then, my work goes a step further connecting these forms or signs to meanings, concepts; thus, the term of conceptual. It is a study of human perception, mean-making and understanding; a study of semiotics, the signifier object is my sketch, and the signified the meaning I attach through my caption, or the meaning the viewer has in his mind. It always fascinates me how human mind works. For instance, people see the most minimal abstract form of a kiss, and they think of love and so on; a tear is a heartbreak, handing holds companionship or in my latest work ‘Geometry in Nature’, few geometric symbols lines and circles depict the body of a woman and a man.

My new in-progress project illustrates and explains the above in a clearer way. Its title is Phaínō (Greek transliteration, Φαίνω) which means to show, bring to light, reveal and become evident. Inspired exactly by Plato theory and semiotics, I present three photos in a row. A photograph of a real moment, a minimal illustration, and the perceived meaning. This sketch is the sign-form; other photos of similar versions or moments could be represented just by that. Then, there is the interpretation, the understanding of it. In my first series, there is a photo of a mother hugging a kid while enjoying music in a street of Cambridge and a minimal illustration, just a few simple lines depicting the hug, which is perceived as Mother’s love.

(empty, I removed it from the list)

Your drawings in this style range from studies of dancers and movement (I adore..) to the moody “Smiling Depression” to “Athena, Doric Style.” What subjects fascinate you, and why?

I don’t have specific themes that interest me so that I will deliberately work on these. So far, the topics of my illustrations are triggered by my day to day experiences, my thoughts, my feelings, my readings or discussions with other people. I did “Smiling Depression” after reading an interesting article on this issue. Though 350 million people are affected by depression, according to WHO (World Health Organization), depression is many times undetectable. You see people smiling, and yet they are depressed.

The studies of dance came up as a subject after watching the absorbing movement in videos of the exceptional choreographer, Martha Graham. And ‘Athena, Doric Style’, or ‘Sharing. Cycladic. One Line’ are influenced by discussions about ancient Greek art. Some other sketches are more related to news, others to the depth of human interaction, cultural explorations or social and political matters. One thing is for sure that by following my artwork, someone can draw a timeline of my real-life mind-triggers.

Hidden lives.

Do you consider any of your art to be political? For example, the “OBJECTIFICATION OF WOMEN. STOP” drawing, which is a favorite of mine.

Yes, it is, or to be precise, some of my artwork is political. It is somehow difficult to ignore what is happening in the world, wars, political games, financial crises, human rights abuses, inequality, lack of freedom, refugee crisis, walls. The world is in turmoil. And some of my sketches, like the “From fear to hope. A frontier and luck” try to make a point.

Objectification of women. Stop.

Specifically, the “Objectification of women. Stop”, “Hidden Lives”, or “Generation’s hope” touch the issue of women’s rights globally. Of course, the problems are of a different magnitude in different places. India has a serious issue with rapes, Saudi Arabia gave the right to vote to women in 2015, and in El Salvador, they imprison women even for miscarriages, o falsely being accused of an abortion, as it is illegal. We are lucky for being born in the West; certain fights have been won here. But still, I observe the objectification of women in West culture, the imposed social and gender norms, or the discrimination and the wage gap in the work environment. I am an engineer, live in a world of tech, and yet when I go to tech events people always assume that I am an HR person or marketing, or I do promotion. Gender bias, conscious or unconscious, is all around us and we need to change that.
Do you think there’s anything interesting happening creatively in Greece as a result of the crisis?

Crisis periods mobilize people, and as a result of that, I think creativity is hatching in Greece right now, especially in the newer generation and in a wide spectrum of activities. Personally, I have observed a boom in new fashion designers and music bands. Cinema is evolving. Greece had two films nominated for Oscar this year, the ‘Lobster’ and ‘4.1 miles’, and three Greek photographers won the Pulitzer Prize a year ago. Finally, in the tech world, I have noticed that things have started to move in Greek startup world and entrepreneurship. I was recently in an international startup conference, and I was surprised by how many Greek startups were presented.

Our imagination flies — we are its shadow on the earth. ~ Vladimir Nabokov

Do you think it’s important for Greek artists – whether in Greece or not – to identify with their Hellenism? Why or why not?

I think it is important for everyone to identify, in the sense of “respect”, with his roots embracing elements from his culture. It achieves a continuity for his life first, and the art and the culture second. It also helps to avoid reinvention.

However, Ι think the key point is what we mean by “identify”. I concern about two potential traps for the artist. The first one is to trap himself in an urge to identify with that. The result of this is an outward and forcible expression of Hellenism through copying and repeating what people did centuries ago. Art is all about evolution. The Doric style is an ancient Greek style for instance. Expressing in a similar philosophy (or let’s say a minimal way nowadays) is a more profound identification than copying what ancient Greeks did. The second trap is to confine oneself in a false stereotypical interpretation of Hellenism or to idealize it. Then, the artist is not open to new ideas or criticism about Hellenism, repeating the same mistakes and not progressing.

Identifying oneself in a group is a human longing and need. Everyone belongs or wants to belong to a bigger group. I am a proud Greek. I grew up with some specific values, I view and interpret things using those inherent cultural principles, and it has become more apparent to me that certain images or sounds touch me more than others because of that. But I am not just Greek. I am a woman, a European, an engineer, an artist, a citizen of the world and each separate identity should not confine me, but give me something to go a step further. Openness is the key to progress and evolution in art, and anything else in life. I respect my roots. I embrace my roots. But roots are there to let me grow.

To keep up with Zoi and her work, follow her on Instagram at @zoi.roupakia

You can purchase Zoi Roupakia’s prints here.

Enjoy this interview? Read our piece on another Greek multidisciplinary artist, Loula Levedi, here.