Interview with
Johanna Tagada Hoffbeck

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Could you share with us a bit about you and your background? What’s been your path as an artist?

As of today, I am working from my new atelier in Essex, is a four-minute walk to one the local forest. This year I turned thirty. While I have been active as a full-time artist and cultural practitioner for the past six-year, this is the first time I am to work outside of where I live. I feel quite excited about it.

I was born in rural Alsace and lived in the same village for the first eighteen years of my life, growing bilingually. While my mother's ancestry is mainly French and Algerian, I spend an essential part of my childhood with my paternal French Alsatian grandparents. My grandparents, who were discrete and humble people, active with the land via permaculture, having a garden, and orchards in the family for generations. My parents worked and still do at a factory. My father gardens and spends a lot of time outdoors. While I see gardening as a proper art form, and my grandparents had a sensibility and love of traditional craft, nothing predestinated me, it seems, to become an artist. I still feel surprised, really, that I may follow this childhood dream, and I am grateful.

Nature has always been for you a source of joy and inspiration for your daily life and art practice. Where does this bond comes from and how do you nurture it?

I imagine it is a part of my identity, as transmitted by my family and then nurtured through encounters of all forms, from insects to readings and, of course, places, and people. When something is part of oneself, at times, one might not even know it. I think it was more or less the case for this bond. When I moved to cities in early 2010, I realised my attachment to the soil, flora, and life in general. I had many questions; what is nature? Where does it start? Where does it end? How do I, do we treat life?

I was still eating animals at the time. My introspection on what I shall consider as being 'food' led me to a journey towards vegetarianism. For a few years now, my diet has been 100% plant- based. My sensibility towards life has multiplied as one of the outcomes.

I nurture this bond with nature through daily actions; trying to be be attentive to myself and others, enjoying seasons, growing organic food, being mindful of the things I purchase, and making choices with my budget, considering my waste, and spending time outdoors near home talking with other people. It does not mean being an eco-fascist, as some may imagine, on the contrary! And frankly, we might need some eco-fascists if humans are to have a future on earth.

I want to recommend that an excellent way to nurture a relationship with nature is to grow a bit of food even if one has not much more than a window seal as a growing space. It is so humbling and rewarding at once too. My artistic practice is profoundly intertwined with this aspect of my life and my advocacy for peaceful living.

You spent lockdown in rural Alsace, taking care of a garden, growing vegetables in an orchard. It’s the village where you spend your childhood and teens. Would you say this experience has changed your previous relation to nature? What have you learned from nature during these unprecedent months?


Like many, I see us, humans, as a part of nature. This period undoubtedly has strengthened my relationship with nature within and without myself. I realised how important the soil is also for my well-being.

In August 2019, I hit a very tough bit in my life. I lost to another suicide, one of the people that I love most. Death is something that I am very aware of, particularly my mortality. Yet to lose so suddenly one that is immensely loved can be traumatic, and strangely I had a hard time admitting this. Dark months followed. In spring, I was slowly recovering, and the garden, my relation with the soil, and all life that it contains provided me with strength. It made me comprehend on a practical level the importance of gardening in mental health. As a result, I have decided to study horticulture and give it a more prominent place in my work. I have beguna course since my return to England.

Of course, during these months, I learned a lot from my father. We create a new and much more mature bond. I am very thankful for this and his presence in my life.

I hope that in addition to the gardening practice I have since childhood and my experience working on and visiting organic vegetable farms, I may gain further knowledge to offer gardening workshops to children and adults along with the drawing workshops I love to give. I would love to bring to life a transnational gardening club for the cities where I can work and a drawing club to villages, including the one of my childhood. Let's see how things will develop.

Your works have often been described as soft and delicate, but they express intense feelings and emotions. Is this also the case for the pastel colours that define your aesthetic?

They bear a certain fragility. As I have said before, soft is not necessary an antonym of strong.
 I feel these colours are part of me. This palette is not like an art director's choice. It is how I express myself; they are one of my languages. For this reason, I enjoy working with graphic designers who perhaps will bring about another aesthetic, which will make for an exciting conversation.

 

Your practice is composed of photography, drawing, publishing, film, textile and installation, sculpture, films. Is there a significant common thread that binds all your work?

I am the tread, and the works through in many mediums come to life through the eyes of a painter. The themes I explore seems to enjoy visiting each of the technique I employ. I feel amused by that at times. When I worked on Journal du Thé, suddenly tea scenes seeped into my paintings - both as a subject and as an actual media, using tea as a natural dye. There is something relatively freeform about the way I create, and there is a lot of Love and joy involved.

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How much do you reveal about yourself in your artworks? Would you say that your daily life is aligned with your artistic exploration?

My pains, struggles, and anger are not necessary feelings I have, which I reveal fully in my work. I suggest these eventually, like in my exhibition Take Care (Nidi Gallery, 2018), or in my paintings through which I hope to shed some light on diversity in horticulture.

The reasoning for such expression is simple: I firstly create to feel good, better, creating as always been a manner of feeling safe, balanced, have fun. I make, at times, without necessarily having in mind that there is an audience. Later on, I noticed that I love sharing that feeling with others, hoping to make them feel well.If I attempt to use art to express my sadness, I feel even sadder. It is not therapeutic for me that way. I instead rather cry, walk, drink tea, and change the course of my actions. Yet, I am slowly carving a space within my practice in which my grief may rest as an upbeat sentiment. The process is slow and must mature.My artistic exploration frequently echoes my daily. There is a certain and natural timelapse between my life, my experiences, and its representation in my artworks. For example, some of my recent paintings of Alsace were created on my return to England.

A sense of harmony and calm is always present in your works. What does self-care and well-being mean to you?

Making has always been a way to care.

The harmony and the calm that are perhaps instilled in my work are the ones I seek for my inner self and attend to convey. My creative practice, as gardening is, is also a spiritual practice. It allows me to reflect, immerse, find myself, and be more compassionate. It is a continuous exploration of the past, present, and future.

Self-care for me is offering oneself what is right for one's health, mental and physical. Giving at times also comes with subtracting, for example, taking away a quantity of time online.

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And beauty, how would you define it?

As existing through a multiplicity of forms, times, spaces, colours, textures, tastes, sounds, feelings, and gestures, I imagine that something that is at the essence of beauty must birth from a good intention.

 

You have an editorial project devoted to your passion for tea, ‘Journal du Thé’. What have you learned about and from this ancient soothing ritual?

"Journal du Thé" is a project developed and pursued in collaboration with my dear friend, graphic designer and art director T.S. Wendelstein. We met and shared our first cups of tea in Berlin, where I lived for four years. In this publication series, we explore the space surrounding a cup of tea, and after a few years, I feel sure to say that it is infinite. From seeds to plants, processing, packaging, selling, preparing, serving, tasting. And also all the arts, crafts, architecture, literature, arts, and so forth. 'JdT' is also an international community who approach tea as a chance to create conversations and engage with one another.
There is so much I learn from 'JdT' and its collaborators. Firstly, the importance of making time for contemplation. I've been able to begin to explore India's native herbal teas and I've learned that Japanese tea ceremonies are not all equal in terms of rules and codification. But the most important part I see within the tea ritual is this sense of community building. 

You’ve been living in and travelled to different countries England, Alsace, India, Japan, and your own north-African heritage, how would you say those places and cultures have influenced your work?

Different cultures and faiths shape me indeed; my heritage, my husband, a British-Indian Sikh, and the positive experiences of frequently working in Japan, for example. Yet, the experience that has formed me most and defined how I approach my work is not to fit a box.

Growing up, this could be a painful and tricky experience. Being both French and Arabic and having Christian, Jewish, and Islamic ancestry came about as inconceivable as a teenager. It is what I was told too. It could only clash; it seemed. As I grew up, I understood that it was not an inner confrontation and that trying to conform was impossible, at least for me. It somewhat freed me as I left France aged twenty. Particular readings brought me to understand I do not need to fit to be me. I am thankful to my predecessors, inspiring women of colour like Trinh T Minh Ha.

If certain people don't understand 'what' I am when they see me, that is fine by me; there is time. This deliverance from 'box fitting' allowed me to create and be comfortable with plural forms.

Living and traveling in different countries, for me, has proven that what matters is Love, and Love is universal. I cherish a particular memory, that of spending a Friday morning in Alsace with my grandmother eating her delicious homemade apple pie drinking an Indian Chai. My mother-in-law gave me the latter recipe—my grandma spoke Alsatian, and I replied in a mix- match of French and the local dialect while we enjoyed this snack. In the evening, I was back home in England, food from the French gardens in my luggage along with cuttings of plants to repot. Soon after, my husband Jatinder and I sat in our neighbour's home, eating spicy Gujarati food for dinner as they celebrated an auspicious day. As we went home, I remembered that the evening before I had eaten my mother's tasty vegetable tajine. In both places, I loved and felt loved. It is such a feeling I try to put in my works.

Artworks and photography by Johanna Tagada Hoffbeck

Portrait by Jatinder Singh

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