17 QUESTIONS FOR 17 ARTISTS
You have such a rich inner world. Can you talk about the lore and personalities behind some of your characters?
I get inspired a lot by cartoons from my childhood. The more abstract monsters in Adventure Time always fascinated me. They feel inviting and sweet while also being strange and maybe off-putting to some people. When I’m making them, their personalities come through while I’m sculpting. As I make each one I think about the type of environment they could live in, and what they would like to do. Sometimes it’s based on how they look, but it’s usually just the vibe I get as I create each one. I work very intuitively and only have a solid plan for how my pieces will look about midway through the sculpting process.
Ato-Obong Akpama (PG Picasso)
How did you get the nickname PG Picasso?
I got the name PG PICASSO from some college friends. When I first moved to NYC, people would always ask where I was from, and I would say “PG” forgetting that people outside of Maryland probably did not know that meant “Prince George’s county” in Maryland. People would be like that’s “Ato from PG”. This one girl found out that I could paint, and she was like, “your name should be ‘PG PICASSO.’” I liked it, and on the same day, I removed Ato from all my social media and put PG PICASSO.
Your gradients remind me of Latinx children’s books I read growing up. Does your work reference cultural material from your childhood?
While I wouldn’t say I draw direct inspiration from cultural children’s books, my work is absolutely a reflection of my childhood. Since both of my parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean island of Curaçao, I spent a good chunk of my childhood surrounded by the colors of the island. Every building is painted with a beautiful pastel or jewel tone. I thought it represented the liveliness and beauty of the paradise and its people, a quality I strive to reflect in my artwork. I also grew up with Caribbean art and folklore in my home, as my parents are both incredibly culturally reverent. Nena Sanchez’s otherworldly portraiture, our collection of colorful Chichi dolls, and vibrant picture books about Anansi the spider all played a strong hand in my current use of color.
You’ve said you reference your own body in your art. Is there any other muse you would consider for your work?
Yes, I take a lot of inspiration from Ana Mendieta’s earthwork series. I really appreciate how she captures the human body in relation to nature. I feel it has always influenced how I portray my figures, specifically the figures I paint that are silhouettes of bodies.
Do you have a favorite musician you listen to while painting?
I don’t have one set musician, but lately, I’ve had a lot of Utada Hikaru on repeat, particularly the M-flo remix of their song “Distance.” I love to find one great song or album to have on repeat while I’m working, and they have so many great projects.
Your fluorescent work has a cartoonish touch that embodies Gen Z. Do you see yourself working with media outlets that share a similar aesthetic? (MTV, adultswim, etc.)
Yes, I would love to work with media outlets such as MTV and Adult Swim. Growing up, I spent a lot of time watching cartoons, especially on Adult Swim. I would say cartoons influence my work style because I’ve always thought of how expressive cartoons are, which goes hand in hand with the expression and emotion I want from my work. It would be cool to work on animation with my art and get into the weird obscure cartoon scene because I feel like I could make some pretty awesome stuff.
Your works include a lot of text. Which phrase from one of your paintings do you think best embodies you?
That’s a tough question, because I often use text to encapsulate fleeting emotions or experiences in my work rather than overarching concepts or values. If I had to choose, I would say the phrase that best embodies me is the “I Love You’s” scrawled across my work Tainted Love. The painting is about the journey of learning to give and receive love after overcoming trauma. I want to be someone who radiates love and caring energy to those around me and can accept that energy.
Can you speak about your choice to use materials such as graphite and toned paper?
My art acts as many things, but it is primarily a form of journaling. By eliminating color and working with graphite, I can work quicker and have a more immediate and direct relationship with my work, diluting the raw emotion as little as possible. The toned paper came from wanting to have a middle value so that the image was more interesting than just black and white, and the paper also has an aged quality that makes it feel like a nostalgic memory.
When was the last time you felt moved by a photograph?
I actually don’t have an answer for that.
You’ve said your work is inspired by video games and publications like queer cult-classic XY Magazine. Could you recommend a piece of media, an album, an artist, or anything that you think encapsulates the essence of Gen Z?
The media I’d choose to represent Gen Z would be Sophie’s “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides Non-Stop Remix Album”. Sophie’s music has often been described as “providing catharsis through her beats.” She uses her music to explore and redefine themes of self-acceptance and identity. Sophie’s music serves as a reminder that using art to explore your identity doesn’t have to be sad; it can feel strange, fun, and beautiful. This album epitomizes these ideas to the fullest extent.
The songs I want to highlight from the album are: “Whole New World (Sophie and Doss Remix),” “Infatuation (Lichtbogen Dreamin’ Remix),” and “Whole New World (Big Kiss Remix).”
When was the last instance you felt like time was passing differently?
Time is always passing strangely. It is never linear. The procession of time feels especially warped during long periods of inertia (like the year 2020). It feels strange also in spaces of liminality. These can be physical spaces like hotel rooms, or psychological, like the summer in between school years. Another space in which time distorts me is the physical and psychological period of nighttime. Nighttime is when shapes take on new forms, and the once familiar becomes uncanny. It’s when our mind’s wall of preconceptions falls for a short period, and we are suddenly open to new ways of seeing and being. Lastly, time feels less personal when confronted with sublime images of nature. A sunset on the horizon, a vast night sky of stars, or even just the infinite line of the ocean extending all remind me of a time that exists outside of myself and humans.
When was the time you felt the most calm?
When I had the chance to hold my sleeping nephew at the hospital the day after he was born. As he’s in my arms, I’m watching him breathe so peacefully, not knowing what this life has in store for him. It was as if my whole world paused at this moment, and all the chaos had been silenced. So much peace entered my body as I welcomed this new life into the world.
Do you take inspiration from fashion when developing your art?
I take inspiration from fashion and its ability to speak volumes through clothing. Fashion can describe race, gender, occupation, time period, and more, making it an amazing tool that is crucial to pay attention to. My favorite fashion style to draw inspiration from is Black American 80s-90s fashion, specifically in NYC.
What do you hope other Bunong people viewing your work will feel?
I want other Bunong people to feel seen. I want them to feel proud of our heritage and our uniqueness. I want my work to be something they can relate to but interpret however they want. Overall, I just want them to know that our existence is alive and thriving in more ways outside of our ancestor’s past tragedies and trauma.
There are a ton of hidden details within your artwork. What is your intention behind including these small, individual moments?
The small details represent the chaotic good and different thoughts in my mind. Sometimes people jokingly tell me that they want to take a peek inside my mind and when I thought about it, it felt necessary to add these details. Similar to how you can only really know someone when you take the time to know them, you will only find these details when you take the time to see the work!
Where did you learn to cut paper?
While living in the remote town of Ramgarh in the Indian state of Jharkhand, I observed and learned from the Chero tribesmen making ornate drawings of deities with layered wood veneer. While in school, I discovered a way to get a similar effect by using card stock instead of painted wood veneer. My professors and peers helped me hone the specifics of the technique.
Can you speak about how the religious iconography in your paintings relates to your personal experiences?
I grew up very religious, born into an organization called The Family that observed their own denomination of Christianity. I became more familiar with religious iconography when I got my bachelor’s. I began to use it to elevate my work to a higher degree of importance than I felt the topics would typically get. The issues are more personal and usually involve gender.