Wednesday 29 April 2015

Interview with Nika Fontaine

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Nika Fontaine, an inspirational Canadian artist based in Berlin, Germany, coffin designer, curator of the Kitsch Lexikon and Kitschypedia. Her works consist of glitter paintings, sculptures, video, music, photography, and performance art. Hello Nika!
Nika: Hello Monika! Thank you for the invitation, your blog played a big role in my process of acceptance!
Monika: Thank you! Could you say a few words about yourself?
Nika: I very much like your introduction, maybe I can just make it more precise. I am French Canadian and I have been living in Berlin for almost seven years now. I started the transition process one year and a half ago.

Picture by Lucas Recchione for Artitious.

Monika: Your artistic expression covers a wide array of tools. What strikes me most is your interest in coffins … :)
Nika: Yes indeed, there is a big variety of techniques that I pursue. The coffin project is still only at its beginning, but I expect to make a whole collection of them. I have been fascinated by death for a long time. Most probably because I lost my father at a very young age, it brought me to question this universal phenomenon very early.
I remember one of my 5th-grade assignments; I did a speech about death and the possibilities of the afterlife and ghost photography. Later on, through painting, performance, and video, I explored that topic in various ways, but mostly with sarcasm and humor.
Personally, I am not afraid of death since I don't see it as an end but more as a new beginning. My goal with the coffin series is to bring some joy and celebration to the funeral tradition as well as a new understanding and appreciation of life by lessening the fear of disappearing.
There is also a play on the art market, that if someone decides to get buried in one of my coffins, the loop of resale and speculation is stopped. I can also mention my love for design, and I think coffins can be very seductive and fetishized objects. It brings to light a question about ego and vanity at the same time. On another hand, my first piece, Pimp my ride to heaven, which was produced for a show at the Deutschebank Kunsthalle in 2014, was in a way my own coffin where I buried my life as Nicolas to give place to Nika.

Installation view, Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle, 2014.
Picture by Daisy Loewl.

Monika: You use different media such as video, sound, photo, text, drawing, painting, installation, and performance. Which one is your favorite?
Nika: I started with painting and I think this will ever be my beloved medium. I wish I could compose music as freely as I paint... maybe it will come. The sculpture is very new in my practice, but I fell in love with it instantly.
In the near future sculptures, textile-based works, and fountains will definitely be as present as painting is for me now. I must say that I don't really enjoy performing in general... I just get so stressed... But somehow people keep asking me for more and I tend to just do it.
Monika: Your glitter paintings contrast lyrical spirituality with glamour and kitsch. Where does this inspiration come from?
Nika: For a long time spirituality has been my main thematic in many forms. I incorporate my beliefs and personal experiences in my works. This interest in the invisible started at a very young age under the influence of my mother and aunt who were into new age culture and dream exploration. One of my great uncles in Canada is a monk and as much as we in my immediate family were not very religious, we always had big respect for sensibility to it via Jean-Marc.
I believe in life as a quest for elevation and art as a means of communication and teaching. The kitsch and glam aspect of the work is mostly my visual interest. I used this aesthetic language to transmit my beliefs. Some projects are as well purely decorative and I am not ashamed to say so. For me, decoration is very important in the well-being of the soul. Having said that, there is always a part of it that tends to elevate the soul.

With her friend Valeska.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Nika: Yes, maybe too many actually... I prepare a series of exhibitions that will launch my career in a more international scene. In May I will be performing in a theater piece in Berlin for the first time.
At the same time, I keep on the development of the platform Kitschypedia and the curation of the upcoming exhibition in December about kitsch. The coffin project is as well one of my occupations, for now, it's the very beginning of it, but hopefully, this will be fully operational in 2017.
Monika: Is there anything like transgender art? What does it mean to be a transgender artist?
Nika: Of course there is! But I wouldn't say my work is ''transgender art''. Some people might associate my work with the queer culture solely based on my use of glitter and kitsch icons but that would be a mistake.
My definition of Transgender art is mostly art that expresses this topic as the main content. I personally don't want to address this topic all the time, though in August I will prepare a project, which is in this definition, transgender art.
To me being a transgender artist is nothing more or less than being a male or female or black or white or first nation artist. One can choose to talk about it if one wants, though life and art are not all about who you are. Of course, being a minority often sparks the need for expression and with the knowledge comes responsibility.
Therefore I will make this project in August, but I don't want to be exclusively identified as a transgender artist, but more as an authentic creator. There are many trans artists out there who are making a better job in creating political works. I leave it to them, and I focus on my strengths and interests.
Monika: Are you familiar with any works of other transgender artists?
Nika: I was approached by the collective Trans Time to be part of the next exhibition, which will be in Berlin in 2016. This group, curated and organized by the fantastic Ianna Book, comprises a very nice selection of talented Transgender artists. The most famous of which are Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst.
I try to keep updated with the trans artistic community as much as possible despite what I mention that I am not engaged on the same level sometimes.

Installation view, Kunstlerhaus Bethanien.

Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in Canadian and German societies?
Nika: I think it's better than ever. With people like Ianna Book organizing exhibitions like Trans Time in Canada and Germany, it raises the exposure of a multitude of artistic views from genderqueer artists.
The art world has always been more open than many other fields like science or business, that doesn't mean though it's fully inclusive. There is I think still more to be done in the art market than in the art world. In 2015 the art market is still mostly white male dominant, which needs to be changed.
In that sense, I can identify as an advocate since my ambitions are great and I wish to become the Martine Rothblatt of the art world. ;) I don't know many trans public figures in Germany, except a few artists. But in Berlin especially the acceptance is great. I would hardly think of a better place to transition. German politics is ahead of the Canadian one in that regard.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Nika: I started the transition process just before to turn 29. In some ways, it was very easy since my family and surrounding were very supportive. The hardest part was to come out. I first realized explicitly I was trans in 2010, but it took me 4 years to make the step toward acceptance and transition. My first souvenir of gender dysphoria goes back as far as when I was 4 yo. It never went away, but I just didn't understand what was that feeling, and then when puberty kicked in, I thought it was just a weird sexual fantasy, which I was ashamed of.

Project "Souls in a Box". Picture by Alessandra Mannisi.

After making more research and meeting transwomen with whom I could identify, I started to realize the nature of my discomfort. Shortly after starting HRT, I came out more broadly to my extended friends and colleagues and went on living full time in my own expression of femininity.
There are many obstacles in daily life, which first seem very hard but fast enough are easily manageable like the first time going out with make-up or in heels; the first time I wore a skirt or that I didn't hide my chest with a sports bra. As well as all the confrontations you get in public space, especially on the train.
The hardest thing was to develop confidence and patience, as nothing seems to go fast enough. 
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Nika: I met a few girls that really inspired me through social media and LGBT meetings. Randi-Lee, Ianna, Sophia, Michelle among others were very helpful in my decision-making. Laura Jane Grace and Lana Wachowski were very inspirational to me in their alternative style, courage, and creativity.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Nika: All those mentioned above and every single one that has the courage to come out and live their lives the way they want despite social pressure.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Nika: I was afraid to lose credibility in my work or to become unlovable. I was wrong.

Costume for DragQueen Event.

Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Nika: I think so. But let's not forget that many Transgender persons also identify with being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. For two years there has been a wave of media attention in regard to transgender issues and rights. People like Laverne Cox or Janet Mock are doing an incredible job to bring awareness to our cause. 
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Nika: Everybody can make a difference. I won't say that I am active in the political scene, but that might change one day. Michelle Blanc, is for instance someone who actively participates in the political landscape of Quebec. She is by her own presence making a bold statement but even more with her ideas.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Nika: Arrrggg.... I love fashion !! Maybe a bit too much. I love funky designs and colorful clothes, although I do love all black as well. Prior to study painting, I went to fashion school for 2 semesters and after that, I studied hairdressing. I play a lot with clothing and I am not afraid of strong fashion statements … actually, I love them! I was very eccentric as a teen and I still kept some of it. The chic/glam rock style is probably my favorite.

Starting transition. Picture by Stefanie Walk.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Nika: I think Love is primordial in humans. So it is for me, although I was not allowing myself to fall in love or even to feel before transition. I was shutting down all my emotions by fear of being hurt or simply by fear of being me.
Recently I was able to open up my heart again and by so, allowing me to connect to others. My nature is very passionate and that can be frightening for some people. But I love to Love!
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Nika: Maybe one day, but I still need to cultivate more wisdom in order to be very relevant.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Nika: Meet people online and in groups. Seek a therapist and get informed. Don't judge yourself, be gentle with yourself.
Monika: Nika, thank you for the interview!
Nika: Thank you Monika !

All the photos: Courtesy of Nika Fontaine.
Main photo credits: Alessandra Mannisi.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska

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