Suzanna Petot is a curator, art professional and writer. She is from Queens, New York but currently lives in London. She has been passionate about art since she was a little girl and now works on many different and interesting projects. Suzanna strongly believes that art is a powerful medium for communication and also something that helps people to become more aware about important issues such as feminism, gender equality and anti-racism.
We can start from the beginning of your career. How did you get close to the world of art? Is there a particular moment that you remember even when you were a little girl, in which you said: “Yes, this is my path, this is the way I want to follow?”
Yes, definitely! I have a memory that is not really my memory, it’s something that my mum remembers and she told me the story so many times that I feel that now it’s mine. I’m really lucky because I grew up in New York City where we have these amazing museums but my parents didn’t take us there often, but I remember that when MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, was closed for renovation in the early 2000s, they moved the collections to Queens so it was easy for us to have access. My mum says that she remembers taking me to an exhibition about Matisse and Picasso and the competitive relationship they had between each other. Apparently I had absorbed all the information from the age of six and I was going around talking about it and people began to follow me: a little tiny girl who was talking about Picasso and Matisse. So I think from there, seeing my interest in art, my parents started to take me to museums more.
Yes, so I guess that your favourite subject at school was art?
Yes, and I wanted to prove to my teacher that she was wrong because she believed that I wouldn't be a good artist. So as a teenager I started taking art classes at MoMA which offered an opportunity to make art without judgement. It was also where I learned about careers working in museums and I realised it was something I wanted to pursue.
Do you try to focus on contemporary art? Or even in other art movements?
I do kind of both. I would say my main focus is on contemporary art, though with the interdisciplinary project, "Decorating Dissidence", that I work on with Jade French and Lottie Whalen, the project does look back into the world of modernism but always with a contemporary lens.
“I think that in the first instance art can bring awareness to these issues and then allows people to have further conversations”
Actually I saw on your Instagram profile that you follow many artists. When you have to choose an artist to expose in your exhibitions, how do you choose? I mean, firstly you try to understand what you feel when you stare at the artwork or maybe you can try to understand if people can appreciate the works of the artist? How do you choose?
It’s a great question! It’s really hard to choose because there are so many people who make beautiful artworks. I use Instagram a lot to be able to find artists and I think it’s really useful for artists to show their portfolio in an accessible way. From there I try to see what kind of shows they’ve been in, what other artists were in the show and then try to figure out the kind of concept they’re building with their practice as a whole; I go to their websites and do some reading. But I do honestly use Instagram a lot to see how people present their work and how they make it. Instagram offers you a really nice view: they show their studios, you can see what other artists they are interacting with, so I use it a lot to be able to research.
Elena Aya Bundurakis, Soft Anatomy from Eating Magma series, 2017-2020
Yes, I think Instagram is really useful because you can understand a lot about an artist. Currently you are working on two different projects, the first one is “Decorating Dissidence” and the second one is the “Arts Council Collection”. What are they about?
Well, I’ll start with “Decorating Dissidence”. Mainly it is an interdisciplinary project about bringing awareness to craft - so whether that’s textile or ceramics or woodwork and we try to showcase people who are working in those mediums especially in the UK and with a feminist approach: looking particularly at artists who are trying to break boundaries between disciplines, gender, class, race, and sexuality. We put together exhibitions, events, workshops, podcasts and we have an online journal. Regarding the Arts Council Collection, I am the National Partners Programme Administrator and the Collection is the largest national loan collection of modern and contemporary British art. I am part of the team that helps to get artwork from the collection to partner venues in the UK. We don't have a physical gallery space so we loan the works to galleries and museums across the UK through this partnership programme.
Regarding the boundaries and barriers that often divide people, for example themes such as feminism, or maybe also sustainability, do you think that art can play a huge role in trying to destroy these kinds of barriers and boundaries?
Absolutely. I think that in the first instance art can bring awareness to these issues and then allow people to have further conversations about issues regarding sustainability, feminism, racism or colonialism. Then from there we can have more discussions with people who have different perspectives. I think art allows you to have a really creative way of seeing a diverse range of perspectives. As human beings it is really important to understand that we all have different life experiences and different ways of seeing the world. Art can improve the knowledge of how people are living or what they are going through.
Yes, art has to be something constructive and not destructive. So maybe art can be like a window?
Yes, that is a good metaphor. One of the artists I worked with for K-Gold Temporary Gallery, Elena Aya Bundurakis, made a really nice metaphor. She said that a camera is like a mouth that consumes the world, but is also like a hand that touches things. I really like the idea that a camera or art in general is a mouth that gets the first taste of the world but it is also a hand: it captures what is around.
You told me that you also work for the K-Gold Temporary Gallery and you curated an exhibition which is entitled “Go straight until you find the sea”. What is it about?
The exhibition focused on six women artists working with photography and moving image: Arunà Canevascini, Andi Gáldi Vinkó, Martine Gutierrez, Samira Saidi, Lucie Khahoutian, and Elena Aya Bundurakis. The exhibition was inspired by the legacy of the seventh-century BCE ancient poetess Sappho, who was from Lesvos island (where the gallery is located). Her work was controversial because it is incredibly direct and expressive, mainly about female desire and love. There have been a lot of people in history since who have read into her work and draw a sense of queer love from it, but we don’t know for certain whether that is a correct reading into her biography or not. Regardless, I wanted to choose artists who are looking at love, desire, magic and the body in really innovative and evocative ways. The artists all investigate these themes in different ways using photography: how intimacy, nature, and magic can be seen in the everyday and what these moments reveal about identity, whether personal or collective.
“it is really important to understand that we all have different life experiences and different perspectives”
Do you believe that in some way the native place of an artist can affect the way in which they see the world and make art?
I think so, absolutely. We all are affected by the environment we live in. No matter how long you live in a place, its environment leaves an impression on your soul. I really believed I have been affected by every place that I lived in, whether it was New York City or Italy or living in London. They definitely shaped my worldview so I definitely think it is the same for all artists and musicians: where they lived, the environment, the buildings, the people they interact with, the food, the culture...etc. can come through in their art.
So in a sense art follows what society proposed and promotes
Yes, I think for example that feminism and gender equality have been in art long before now, I think it’s more that society is finally taking these issues seriously, and we are having larger conversations about it, and now perhaps people feel more comfortable showing their art. I think definitely now seems to be the moment we can have these conversations, because we need to. There are so many things that need to be changed and art allows us to begin to have these conversations.
“Art can improve the knowledge of how people are living or what they are going through”
During the last two years we have been through a difficult moment due to the Covid pandemic. In your opinion, how did the world of art suffer this kind of war that we are living through?
I think it’s impacted the art world in some very challenging ways. Obviously the pandemic has been really hard for artists and artist professionals because many shows were cancelled and the galleries were closed, causing a lot of people to lose their jobs. Added to this, the Government hasn’t supported artists or the arts anywhere near enough. On the other hand, I think that a positive outcome from the pandemic is that people seem to be more open and willing to talk about “Black Lives Matter” and racism in the art world, mainly due to the resurgence of the BLM movement in June 2020 and the fact that since more people were at home and on their phones - the violence was harder to ignore. Also a lot of people who lost their jobs in the art world due to the pandemic were working class, queer or of Black and/or South-Asian descent (specifically in the UK). This has prompted important conversations about racism and inequality in the workplace, and I really hope these conversations continue beyond the pandemic. For many, it has also been easier to access the arts thanks to more exhibitions and events moving online due to Covid, and I also hope that stays as well since more people can engage with art this way.