Super-talented new grad illustrator Oliwia Bober on her Polish folklore-inspired art

The best new talent we spotted at University of Brighton’s grad show also discusses being an immigrant illustrator in Brexit Britain.

As I was wandering around University’s of Brighton London-based grad show – part of the Free Range group of shows at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, and underneath Middlesex University’s impressive exhibition – one work immediately caught my attention.

I wasn’t the only one to be drawn into Oliwia Bober’s intricately detailed large-scale painting – every time I passed the area it was in, there were clusters of people around it exploring and getting lost in its terrain. The gouache-based work draws on Polish folklore and Oliwia’s feelings about her position as an immigrant in Britain as we approach Brexit. There’s also a pattern of isometric perspectives underpinning its compositing that brings to mind both MC Escher and Monument Valley.

After the show, I caught up with Oliwia over email, to find out more about the piece, her approach to her work and where she goes from here. She also discusses how her Polish identiy and British attitudes to that have influenced her and her art.

Neil Bennett: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Oliwia Bober: “I’m Polish and moved to England when I was 11. For most of my time here I lived in Oxford, until I moved to Brighton for university.

“When I was applying for Illustration courses during my foundation year, almost everybody on the visual communication elective applied to Brighton. It seems silly now, but I felt like one of the chosen ones when I realised that I had got in. I even told one of the tutors during my Brighton interview that I saw Brighton as the Vatican of illustration. I cringe every time I think about it, but at the time I was convinced that it was true.

“In many ways Brighton and the course surprised me. Although I think that it is probably better suited for those with a more ‘out there’ personality, it would be naive to disregard the immense impact it has had on the way I work. There was an emphasis of developing your thinking, asking questions and making sure that the media you use work with the ideas that you are trying to convey and not the other way around. I think that is the most valuable skill the course teaches you.”

NB: Who and what are your biggest influences as an artist?

OB: “Folklore – specifically Polish folklore – is an influence, but that’s a relatively recent development [for me].

“When I first moved here, the attitudes towards Polish immigrants were, at best, ignorant. My Polishness is something that I downplayed for a long time; as I don’t have an accent, more often than not I was able to keep it under the radar.

“Since Brexit, I have started to take pride in [my Polishness] and completely immersed myself in it. The aspect of folklore that I appreciate the most is its effortless preservation of culture and language.

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“Furthermore, Polishness is something my parents have always emphasised since we moved here. I was never too keen on folk art itself – in a way I found it tacky – especially if taken out of context of the time and location that it was originally made in. But there was a universality and familiarity about it. It always amazed me how as kids in Poland, myself and my friends were told the same sayings, words of caution or old wives’ tales.

“I don't see folklore as a thing of the past that has no relevance today – it’s something that is created as we go along.”

NB: It was your hugely detailed painting that garnered the most appreciation at the show (detail shown here). Tell us about the concept and inspiration for the work.

OB: “For a long time, immigration has been an integral part of being Polish. Almost everyone I know is affected by it at some point in their lives, whether it be themselves or indirectly through friends and family. A couple of years ago I stumbled on a book by Monika Szydłowska called “Do you miss your country?”. In it, she illustrated snippets of conversations that she has had with other Polish immigrants or Brits about Polish migrants.

"A lot of them played on stereotypical views of immigrants, but what really interested me was that the interactions described were not alien to me. I have either been part of similar conversations or heard of people being in those situations. I think the experiences described in the book would resonate with most Poles living in the UK. From that I realised that I don't have to look much further than to myself to [create artworks] about this subject.

"The painting is a collection of my experiences as an immigrant. The themes included in it are somewhat sombre, which is contrasted by the vibrant and colourful aesthetic of the whole image. I was a shy kid and the language barrier only heightened that. In the first year of living in England, I was almost mute. Making friends always posed difficulties, which to a degree that has carried on to adult life.

"The painting is kind of about that, but also about the people who have been supportive. On the one hand, it was an exercise in wallowing in self-pity; on the other, it felt extremely productive and therapeutic."

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NB: How would you describe the style you’ve used in this and other paintings? What appeals to you about it?

OB: "The style definitely worked to my advantage for this painting. What I was illustrating was quite personal and I was not comfortable putting it in plain sight. The overly decorative nature of the painting with hundreds of plants and colours deflect the attention from what’s going on.

"I also like the fact that it allows whoever is looking at it to see it how they choose. At first glance, it’s a pretty picture, they don't have to be invested in it or burdened with the content if they don't want to. I’m still trying to work out the balance between decorative elements and aspects which are essential in understanding the story – I don't want that to become lost or obscured."

NB: Why did you choose to work with a soft colour palette?

OB: "The colour palette developed over time, but it started off as a somewhat happy accident. I had a Brusho set left over from my foundation year. As a student budget was not forgiving of purchasing a decent set of gouache paints, I started with only white. Mixing that with the pigments naturally resulted in a soft pastel palette. Over time I started adding more vibrant tones so my paintings do not look dull or pale.

"[I always use gouache for my paintings]. I have tried acrylics, oils and watercolours in the past. I am a bit of a perfectionist and gouache does not leave streaks; unlike watercolour, when it dries. I also like that it dries matt. It has a tendency to leave a slightly more intense colour than what you see when it is wet. It is a nice way of keeping you on your toes, you never know exactly what you are going to get."

NB: I particularly love your wonderfully wobbly characters. Why did you decide to depict them in this way?

OB: “They were partly influenced by some of Romanian illustrator Aitch’s earlier drawings of people, and partly by life drawing. I always found bodies with folds more interesting to draw. Wobbly characters also leave a lot of room for anatomical inaccuracies.

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NB: How long did your large-scale painting [detail shown here] take to create?

OB: "I worked on it between January and May, although most of the time I was completing it alongside other projects. I am not a huge fan of multitasking, so it was definitely a challenge."

NB: Can you bring out the same aesthetic within the usually smaller scale and tighter deadlines of illustration commissions?

OB: "I’d like to think so. This painting has been the most ambitious and largest in calibre, but I had worked with all the elements in it to varying degrees before. It was uncharted territory in the sense that all the individual sections had to collate together and work as a whole."