Two white women with white neckerchiefs are pictured clutching rollercoaster ride bars while multi-coloured letters shout: “Stop screaming Barbs we’ve barely started the Rona Coaster!” This is just one of collage and mixed media artist Julia Mary Grey’s both equally hilarious and insightful Coronavirus-inspired artworks. Others picture 1950s women doing various things like cooking, skipping, on the phone- and even one of Keanu Reeves (as Neo in The Matrix)- saying things like “We need gloves. Lots of gloves”, “Pineapple beer is the new banana bread” and “Honestly you have no idea, being single in lockdown is just awful”.
Julia’s artworks have given me a good few, much-needed laughs plus food for thought during the lockdown SA is still “easing out of” (fool us once, Ramaphosa). They have encouraged me to check my privilege often and lent encouragement and humour to a tough and overwhelming situation.
So I was super excited to chat to her on her exclusive artwork for the cover of Three Magazine’s P.O.A (Plan of Action) issue.
Your COVID-19 Collage Series donates 10% of sales to The Constantia Heritage and Education Project (CHEP). Why is this project important to you?
The Constantia Heritage and Education Project is a call for former residents who were forcibly removed from Constantia under Apartheid’s group areas act to come together and map out the areas in which they lived.
“Leaning towards humour has kept me sane and upbeat.”
I grew up in Constantia and was already researching land and dispossession in this suburb so in 2016, when I heard this project was beginning, I contacted Terry Lester (CHEP’s founder and member of this uprooted community) to ask if I could be involved.
What I love about CHEP is that it is taking a complex issue like land dispossession and trying to create something new that would facilitate healing and document the rich history of a community before it is forgotten (in this way, providing verifiable proof of what once was).
Where did your journey as an artist start?
I have always made visual books. They were the initial places where I did a lot of exploratory mixed media work. I always find this quite a difficult question to answer because for the most part, kids are naturally creative and imaginative. Some of us just received the encouragement and support to continue making art or for whatever reason, decided to focus on it.
Why did the medium of collaging appeal to you most?
There was a time when I painted figuratively, but I get pretty bored with using paintbrushes for hours on end. I need multiple materials to keep me engaged. I like the physicality of having to switch from painting to cutting to gluing, it keeps me present. Having to get up from a canvas to dig around my studio in search of the perfect piece of found material is a way of staying present and intrigued.
Your COVID-19 themed pieces are humorous. Why did you take this tone to tackle the pandemic?
I guess the humour is just what came naturally. This whole crisis has straddled the divide between scary and absurd. Leaning towards humour has kept me sane and upbeat.
You mentioned that the collages address issues from a middle-class, white female perspective. Was this a conscious decision?
Yes of course. Working with collage for many years has taught me a lot about choice of imagery, subject position and voice. I am always careful when using imagery of people who do not belong to my demographic when a work is expressing something in my own voice. Not to say that I never step out of this parameter, but it definitely depends on the artwork’s message and how that message is framed.
“[The cover] piece is just a general statement of ‘where to from here’?”
Collage, which is really the appropriation of other imagery and reimagining it to create a new and meaningful whole, can be a really subtle and nuanced area to work in. The white 1950s suburban housewife is an image I feel comfortable using to express my humour while simultaneously realising that there are limits to what she can say.
Tell us about your Three Mag exclusive cover piece.
The piece titled “We’re Gonna Need a New Map” is not particularly funny in as much as it is just a general statement of ‘where to from here’? I love how Three Mag is attempting to be a pilot light for creatives during this difficult time, providing information and tools to encourage forward movement. We’re all a bit WTF right now (or at least, we have been at some point during this pandemic) and any voice that is encouraging us to steer calmly through the storm is one that I believe is of service.
What art projects that have developed during the pandemic stick out for you?
Comedians are the ones whose content I have valued the most during the pandemic.
What is the role of art in tackling current issues, in your opinion?
Another question that I always find difficult to answer. One for the art writers and historians. I find it tricky to think of art in this macro kind of way… What I do know, is that art can bring the colour and life and community collaboration to any organisation that is working for change.
3Qs with Julia
Me + what I do in 3 words/sentences: I make colourful stuff. I have faith. I know what it is to be extreme.
One random-ass thing about me: I have spent the last three years working on a visual book about psychosis. Or to be more specific, I experienced four psychotic breaks over the course of a decade and then made a book about it.
Collaboration is: Something I absolutely must do more of.