Estonian World talked to Marita Liivak, a young rising star of the Estonian art scene; her latest exhibition, “Lasnamäe – Beginnings and Endings”, is inspired by the infamous Tallinn neighbourhood.
Marita Liivak studied at Tartu Pallas Art School and the Accademia di Belle Arti Catania, in Sicily, Italy. She has developed her own particular style and been noticed within the local and international art scene. Liivak creates in an intuitive manner, mixing acrylics with oils and spray paints on canvas or cardboard. She usually begins each piece with colourful abstract layers and then begins to identify and develop the shapes within, finally developing the details of the finished painting.
Through her art, she portrays her experiences and engages in topics that are oftentimes uncomfortable, which include mental health, sexuality, awkwardness, and candid moments. Her pictures somehow seem to be a movie that the viewer is already inside. If post-nostalgic sentimentalism was a thing this would be it – looking at her pictures invokes imagined and mixed memories of when you weren’t there.
Her latest exhibition, “Lasnamäe – Beginnings and Endings”, is inspired by the Soviet-era Tallinn neighbourhood, Lasnamäe. It was exhibited throughout the summer in various galleries across the Estonian capital and will now travel to Viljandi, where it will open at the Town Gallery on 5 October.
What would you say your art is about?
My art reflects my personal joys and struggles, a journey through the depths of my own mind and emotions. It is a means of catharsis, a release of pent-up feelings that I can’t express using words alone. Through the bold and bright colours I use, I aim to capture the intensity of these emotions, to make them come alive on the canvas.
At the core of my art is a love for drawing, a passion that has been with me since childhood. I find solace in the strokes of a pencil or the flow of a paintbrush, as if the act of creating art helps me navigate through the complexities of my inner world.
Through my art, I aim to express and explore the vast spectrum of human emotions, and often, I delve into the realms of mental health and express it through large scale female figures. I am not afraid to tackle taboo topics, as I believe that art has the power to not only spark conversations, but also evoke empathy and understanding.
Art has been my tool for overcoming personal issues and battling the inner demons that have haunted me. It has provided me with an outlet, a safe space where I can confront my pain, fears, and anxieties head-on. Each stroke, each line on the canvas becomes a step towards healing and introspection.
Ultimately, my art is an intimate reflection of my journey through life so far. It speaks about my personal stories, my growth and my desire to create something meaningful. I hope that, through my art, others may find solace, inspiration, and a reminder that no matter how challenging life may be, there is always room for beauty and growth.
What is your latest exhibition, “Lasnamäe – Beginnings and Endings”, about?
This exhibition is an exploration of my childhood memories, drawing content from my experiences of growing up in this infamous neighbourhood in Tallinn – Lasnamäe (the Soviet-era district of grim tower blocks that was built in the 1970s and 1980s to mainly house the cheap labour from the rest of the Soviet Union; the district, today home to over 100,000 people, was not completely without Estonians, however – editor). Through the artwork, I invite viewers into a world seen through the eyes of a child, capturing the innocence, wonder and vividness of those formative years.
During the year I spent preparing for the exhibition, tragic events took place in the very same place, adding significant depth to the exhibition and changing it from a simple childhood reminiscence to an emotionally difficult juxtaposition of the best and worst in life.
These are memories of my home, showcasing the streets, houses, and landmarks that shaped my upbringing. This nostalgic journey allows viewers to reminisce about their own childhood experiences and connect with the universal emotions associated with those early years.
However, woven within this nostalgic tapestry are the shadows of recent traumatic events. My memories are now clouded, and my perspective altered by the recent violent suicide of my cousin. This duality of light and darkness intertwines throughout the exhibition, creating a deeply complex and emotionally charged narrative. The topics of depression, addiction and suicide aren’t directly part of the exhibition, but they are implied. I choose to refrain from my usual candid descriptive style due to considerations for the viewer and my family. I don’t think the viewer signed up for the gruesome details behind my colourful images and I don’t consider it my place to throw it all at them without warning.
Through the artwork, I seek to explore the themes of resilience, survival and the power of memory. I delve into how our perceptions of the past can be affected by traumatic events, emphasising the importance of processing and healing from such experiences.
Ultimately, this exhibition is a poignant exploration of my journey through life in this one location where I spent so many years, inviting viewers to navigate the terrain of their own memories, embrace their unique narratives and find solace and connection in the shared human experience of resilience and growth.
What experience and thoughts do you hope visitors will take away from viewing your works and from visiting the exhibition?
I hope to inspire others to embrace their own pasts, both the happy memories and the traumatic ones, and find creative ways to explore and express their feelings. Art became a path to healing and helped me process my trauma. It allowed me to transform the darkness of my experiences into a form of beauty and reminded me that there is still light to be found in even the darkest of situations.
Can you share a few stories behind your paintings from the exhibition?
The first story is about the painting called “Betu”.
My uncle used to have this female AmStaff terrier called Ralfa. When Ralfa had puppies, my uncle decided to divide them among the entire family. From then on, I grew up surrounded by this one beautiful dog breed. One of those puppies, called Betu, given to my grandparents, was the most special to me. Although she had never being trained, Betu was an elegant dog with impeccable manners. If someone did something stupid in front of her, she would silently judge you with her subtle gaze. We grew, we played and we spent wonderful time together. I knew that when I grew up, I would want to have a dog just like her. Her face is home to me.
The second story is about the painting called “The View from His Room”.
I didn’t expect that the funeral would need to be arranged so quickly. The scariest part was entering the apartment again. After the police procedures, I had to order a postmortem cleaner. Another new piece of knowledge – there is such a thing as a post-mortem cleaner. Why he looked like Sideshow Bob (a character from the long-running American cartoon series, The Simpsons – editor) and hummed the McDonalds theme song while wiping dried blood with a cloth, I didn’t want to ask.
We looked for my late cousin’s phone, letters, files – anything that might help us understand. Why did all of this happen? Why was his phone missing? I know that he had made multiple calls, talking with his best friend and therapist. Last thing he said was, “I have been arrested and taken to the Pärnamäe police station. I will be kept here for 24 hours, don’t look for me and worry until then.” It was strange because Pärnamäe does not have a police station. Only later did we find out there is a crematorium there.
Can you tell us about your artistic journey? How did your style develop and how does it change with time? How do you see yourself evolving as an artist? Was there someone or something that inspired you initially?
One particular aspect of my artistic process is that, since the very beginning, it has always been accompanied by music. The melodies and songs from my favourite artists became the soundtrack to my creative journey, guiding my hand and infusing added depth and emotion into each piece. It is a harmonious fusion of my two passions – art and music and I never cease to be fascinated by the chain of inspiration. Something inspired the musician to write the song and now I’m inspired by the song to create an image.
My drawing style has gone through many phases – at first, I started by copying the cartoons I was watching as a little child. Later I started pursuing a realistic style and learning the basics of drawing; Then came the internet era and I found anime and manga and that took over my style. Later I deliberately moved away from anime back to a more realistic style, ending up somewhere in between the two styles – pretty much where I’m still today, somewhat realistic, somewhat cartoonish.
I didn’t start painting until I attended the university. At first, I aspired to paint as realistically as possible, but the university didn’t appreciate that much and they directed me to a rather more abstract style. After some resistance I embraced the abstract as well as bring back my illustrative-drawing style.
I think that today, my style has remained quite recognisable for a while now although I keep evolving, experimenting with colours, canvases, materials and subjects.
My very first inspiration was my mother. She’s good at drawing too and she would draw these beautiful women in long dresses, riding horses. I’ve actually made a comic-strip about it.
How do places you visit influenced your work?
If you mean the places of Lasnamäe, they surely did due to the fact that I grew up there. Otherwise, I’m less inspired by places and rather more inspired by people.
What is on your mind when you are painting?
Usually nothing, in the sense that during painting, especially the first stages, which are highly intuitive, I just go with the flow while listening to music. Music guides me through my emotions and how to express them. Later I will think about composition or if I’m painting a person, whether or not they are communicating the emotion I’m trying to put onto the canvas.
Do you think an exhibition itself can be considered a form of art separately from the individual works on show?
Definitely so. This exhibition represents a full circle of certain of my life experiences. This exhibition travels back to when I was just a kid, sitting in my room in the dark until too late, drawing and dreaming about the future – the future, which is today, when I get to be a full-time artist and have these exhibitions. I can’t say that this is exactly what I imagined because I couldn’t envision it in such detail, but generally, yes. From this point of view, it’s a precious space for me personally and I’m inviting people inside the world I was created in.
How do you think AI and technology in general can enhance the visual arts? Or does it distort or lessen the role of artists?
I hope that AI will find its place as a useful tool for people. There will probably be an adjustment curve for artists and all creatives but I’m staying positive and I’m sure that however AI evolves, it will never be able to fully replace the human touch that we appreciate in art and hopefully just be an incredible tool for artists to implement their vision.
Do audiences matter to you? Do you think that people have certain expectations of what “good” art is?
Audiences matter to me tremendously in the sense that I couldn’t be an artist for a living without them nor would my work be half as fulfilling as it is. Of course, I could still be an artist without an audience, but I think it’s the shared human experience that gives art its incredible value.
I’m sure that we all have some expectations as to what “good” is and I think it’s absolutely fine. Like everyone, I have my own opinions on what’s good which is very subjective and dependent on different variables.
Can a small country make an impact in the world through culture?
I think so. As “she said”: Size doesn’t matter!
How would you describe the creative scene in Estonia?
The creative scene in Estonia is forever evolving and I appreciate that a lot. In every field I see newcomers who are more and more talented and it’s a great comfort to me. It also seems to me that as the country grows older and evolves people also learn to appreciate art more since they no longer have to worry about survival. Hopefully it will stay this way and we can keep growing.
What would you say is the most interesting project you’re currently working on?
I’m working on a project that’s kind of an “artistic-scientific experiment”. I’m experimenting with women and their body images and finding out if and how art can affect the way we see ourselves. I won’t tell you how exactly, but hopefully we’ll be able to exhibit this project next year.
Do you have a dream project that you would love to implement one day?
Not exactly since everything I’ve thought of, I’ve started creating. There are some dream projects that are outside of creation and more about management but I’m going to see where life takes me with those.
Marita Liivak’s exhibition “Lasnamäe – Beginnings and Endings” will be open at the Viljandi Town Gallery from 5 October until 30 November 2023.