Martha Zmpounou combines figurative and abstract elements to explore complex themes such as codependency, trauma, and human relationships. Over time, her work has evolved from challenging commercial fashion imagery to pursuing a more universal and emotionally resonant understanding of beauty.
Martha Zmpounou – My art predominantly falls within the realm of the figurative, but I enjoy exploring the boundaries and coexistence of abstraction and representation. The human figure—particularly faces and bodies—often serves as my subject matter. However, I see these figures as canvases for exploring broader themes and concepts that I might be pondering. It’s not so much about achieving a likeness to a specific person or image; it’s about the process of transformation.
Kelly Foster – Where do you draw inspiration from?
MZ – My work can draw from personal histories, mid-20th-century photography, found objects, or other starting points. For instance, my “Mother and Child” series explores codependency and intimacy, and was influenced by my own personal trauma. In another series, I may focus on themes like memory loss or grief. In essence, I view the human body and face as vehicles for expression and communication of various ideas.
KF – I’ve noticed a consistent style in your work, whether it involves portraiture or multiple figures. You skillfully incorporate abstraction and colour, which seems to serve as a window into various emotions and experiences. Can you talk a bit about how you use colour in your work?
MZ – Colour for me is largely mood-driven and instinctual, although I usually start with some sort of colour palette or direction in mind to avoid getting lost. The dominant colours will often depend on the mood I’m in or the atmosphere I want to create in relation to the theme. In the end, the colour scheme might change entirely during the creative process. It’s a dynamic aspect of my work, influenced by the medium, the surface qualities, and my own state of mind.
KF – It’s interesting how the figures in your portraits tend to blend into the background. It creates this atmospheric colour where the face appears to be an extension of the environment. You mentioned sourcing images from various places, including personal photos, and combining multiple portraits to create an ambiguous figure. This figure doesn’t necessarily represent a specific person, but more of a generalised facial expression.
MZ – At one point, because I was involved in the fashion industry, I was heavily influenced by it. The imagery for some of my earlier work was sourced from fashion. A few years ago, my focus was on deconstructing and challenging commercial fashion imagery to create something more ambiguous—something that strikes a balance between seduction and repulsion.
Lately, I’ve been looking into images that are more universal—those that evoke elements of the collective subconscious. My aim is to create artwork that isn’t explicitly tied to a specific era. I might start by combining different vintage images or faces that attract me. I often begin with a collage and then work from there. Sometimes the theme or the feeling I want to communicate changes during the process. For instance, I aim to create fictional characters that are both strong and fragile. I always focus on the gaze and the eyes because it adds a layer of interaction, questioning who is observing whom.
KF – Your technique has evolved from your experience in the fashion industry and your initial focus on beauty standards. There seems to have been a transition from questioning those standards to a broader, more universal exploration of human beauty.
MZ – While fashion often glorifies perfection and beautification, I wanted to challenge that, but also aim to create something beautiful in my own way. The word ‘beauty’ may be considered cliché in the art world, but to me, all the works I appreciate have their own unique form of beauty. Whether it’s the technique, approach, or concept, there’s a harmonious element that makes the work beautiful in my eyes.
I believe all artists are in some way seeking their own form of beauty, whether that’s through colour, subject matter, or their unique worldview. And these works can take on different meanings later, either through the eyes of the viewer or through the artist’s evolving intentions.
KF – I love that you’re thinking about beauty in this overarching, philosophical sense. Something can look ugly, eerie, or mysterious, but still be considered beautiful if it has emotional impact. You seem to be adding your own kind of mystery or sensation into the image, making it less about just a face and more about something else.
MZ – Absolutely. These works are not really about the face; the face is more of a starting point, a vehicle. I like to start with something figurative and then transform it into something else. For me, it goes from specific to generic. The face is the perfect canvas for starting the process of abstraction. It’s a universally relatable and emotionally powerful subject.
KF – That’s fascinating, how you’re using the face as a sort of anchor. I’ve noticed that you’ve explored themes of love, intimacy, and bonding in series like “Lovers.” Could you tell me more about what draws you to these themes?
MZ – The “Lovers” series started as an attempt to move away from faces. Initially, I was focused on the combination of figures in terms of form and composition. Most artists I admire have tackled sexual or erotic imagery because it’s part of our lives and an excellent way to explore the dynamics and intricacies of human relationships. The series became quite popular, and as I’ve developed it, I’ve discovered different layers and coexisting ideas within it. It’s not just about eroticism; the use of colour and brushstrokes can evoke feelings about relationships in general.
KF – Absolutely, it’s something we can all relate to. I like how you use abstraction to make it less straightforward. Your use of fluid colour blends the figures together in a way that’s abstract yet suggestive. It hints at a composition and figure but never reveals the full picture, encouraging the viewer to engage with it more deeply.
Do you feel your works on paper are distinct from your oil and canvas pieces, or do they all blend into a single body of work?
MZ – I can’t stick to one idea, style, or subject for too long; it feels uncreative. I’ll continue to work on paper for practical reasons, but I also want to transition the qualities I’ve discovered into other media like fabrics. Every surface and medium has its unique qualities, so the aesthetics will naturally change. I’m currently experimenting with fabrics because they’re easier to handle and more durable.
KF – That sounds like a natural evolution of your work. The way you describe it—playing with absorption and the nature of the fabric—adds another layer of complexity and dynamism. Your work seems to have both a universal quality in the portraits and also touches on very personal topics, like your own life experiences and trauma. How do you balance the universal and the personal in your work?
MZ – I think it varies between series. For example, when I’ve done traditional portraits of friends, the approach is different. In those cases, it’s not about the universal; it’s more about capturing the traditional qualities of a portrait. So, it really depends on the series I’m working on. Some series may focus more on the personal, while others tap into more universal themes.
KF – When you’re working, do you typically use a live model or do you usually work from images?
MZ – I mostly work from images because I don’t have the luxury of a permanent live model or the time to always have one. Between my roles as an artist, mother, and teacher, time is limited. I might occasionally sketch during an event or when friends are around and then work from there, sometimes combining those sketches with photographs.
KF – Do you sometimes start with just an idea or a memory and then look for images to complete it?
MZ – Yes, often I’ll start with washes on paper without a specific face in mind, and the image evolves from there. If needed, I’ll then look through my archives for a person that can inspire me to complete that particular image. I actually prefer this approach sometimes because it allows me to play more with abstraction.
KF – It’s interesting how, after doing this so many times, the process has become almost subconscious for you.
MZ – Yes, exactly. I think this happens for all artists who have explored a theme extensively.