Damien Cifelli, is a self-taught multidisciplinary artist from Edinburgh, now based in London. His work explores a fictitious land named Tarogramma. Inspired by personal histories, the creativity of the diaspora, ancestral stories and recent collective experiences, he has built a detailed culture with its own aesthetic, way of living, and understanding of the world; one that is at once alien, and eerily similar to our own.
He has exhibited internationally and was shortlisted for the East London Art Prize 2023, UK New Artists Award 2022 and Delphian Open Call 2022. He has upcoming work at Whitechapel Gallery and Moosey Gallery.
Hi Damien, Thank you for sitting down with me. First question that I always ask. How does a regular day look like for you in London?
I get out of bed between 8 – 11 am, depending on whether I’ve remembered to set my alarm. Then I go to a cafe or park in Dalston and write for a couple of hours before heading to the studio and painting until around 7-8pm. Often there will be something in the evening; a gig, an exhibition opening, the theatre or just the pub. The pub is a very important part of my process.
Being that you were born and raised in Scotland, what brought you to London?
I was drawn by the bright lights of the big city. I actually hated it to begin with, mainly because of the filthy tap water, but I eventually came to terms with it. Once you get used to London it’s hard to leave. There are always exhibitions, theatre, gigs and just a lot of things going on. My work is an output of everything I absorb and there’s so much to absorb in London. Also flights are cheaper and it’s always a few degrees warmer. It’s no Edinburgh, but it’s alright.
With that in mind. Growing up in Scotland, what kind of kid were you? What did you enjoy doing and how did you spend your time?
I was very interested in everything. I used to read a lot and make a lot of stuff. I was very interested in people too. I would stare at them right in the face from very close range like a little oddball. Edinburgh has the biggest arts festival in the world for the whole of August, so there were a lot of interesting people to stare at. I think I was just absorbing loads of information, some of it comes out now for no reason and gives me inspiration for an artwork.
Alright, so when did you start to paint, and when did you start taking being an artist seriously?
I got to it a bit later. I did a masters in Architecture, then I worked in lots of different jobs and lived abroad, before deciding to paint. I put on my own exhibition in Edinburgh in 2019, mainly because I had no idea how being an artist worked and it forced me to create a body of work. Then in lockdown, I was living in an empty palazzo in Venice and started making lots of work and discovered the style I have now. Since then I’ve been a full time artist.
Let’s talk about your work now… I’m thinking that “Tarogramma”, is a good place to start. Can you tell me about that. What is it? And what does it represent?
Tarogramma is a fictional land. It has a detailed culture with its own aesthetic, way of living, and understanding of the world. The paintings are a visual representation of the place and the people, like documentary images of a new world. It’s fictional anthropology, a way of telling a story through art.
Do you remember when you first came up with the idea of “Tarogramma”? And what is it about a parallel universe that intrigues you?
I’ve always been intrigued with the idea of parallel worlds or hidden cities. As a kid, I was fascinated by adventure novels and explorers: the idea of discovering a new place. I realized that if I created my own world I could use it as a vessel for all the ideas I have.
I think it says a lot about humans that we have been creating alternative worlds as long as we have been around. Whether it’s a way of escaping our reality or thinking of new ways of living. It’s a rich vein for an artist to explore.
The various scenes of everyday situations. Sometimes more surreal than others. How do you come up with them?
I get a lot of my inspiration from travelling, the different visual cultures and how much they change in quite subtle ways. I’ll see something and it just clicks and I have an idea for a painting.
Please correct me if I’m wrong… Looking at your paintings, fashion, football and luxury seems to be an integrated part of your work. Sometimes more subtle than others. How do you feel about that statement? And what does fashion and football mean to you?
I’m very interested in tribalism and identity, how we choose, or are chosen by, these things and how we express them. Fashion and football are two visually clear examples of identifying with a specific tribe, but it could also be religion, gender identity, politics or many other things.
Can you walk me through your creative process. From beginning, to end result?
I work in an intuitive way, having had no formal art training. I learned by doing lots of very bad art. So I really just experiment until something looks the way I want it to. I’ve refined my process over the last couple of years, but it’s still trial and error. I usually have quite a clear picture in my head of what I want to make and just try to translate it onto the canvas, or into the sculpture any way I can.
Ok Damien, so I know that besides painting, you’re also making various sculptures out of wood and ceramics, along with flags and necklaces. My question is. How did you get introduced to that? And what makes them some of your preferred ways of expressing yourself?
I studied architecture and spent a lot of time in the workshops making models, which I really enjoyed, and I think that’s what has translated over to my art. I had a jewellery company for a while where I made everything myself, before realising I could bring all these things together in my art. I like to have a range of objects alongside my paintings as I think it better immerses you into the world of Tarogramma. Like artefacts in a museum, it shortens the distance between the fictional and the real.
What motivates you?
The cost of my rent
How would you describe a perfect day?
I once saw a man trying to take his jumper off over his head while cycling, and he ended up cycling straight into a big hedge. So just seeing that again would be great.
Alright Damien. I always ask these two questions at the end of an interview. The first is. What’s your favorite movie(s) and why?
It’s a pretty cliche and obvious answer, but it has to be ‘The Godfather’. My Grandma watched it every day growing up so it’s ingrained deep in my brain. Recently, I really liked ‘Aftersun’, and not just because the director is from Edinburgh
The second is. What song(s) are you currently listening to the most right now?
Continuing the Edinburgh theme, anything by Young Fathers.