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Exclusive Interview: "Embrace Your Cringe, Weaponize Your Shame" - Dominique Cheminais Discusses Liberating Artistic Expression


Dominique Cheminais, artist
Dominique Cheminais in her studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

Allow me to introduce you to a captivating artist you won't want to miss: Dominique Cheminais (b. 1984), an emerging talent from South Africa who deftly straddles the worlds of literature and visual art. Based in Cape Town, Cheminais is a self-taught painter whose creations are a testament to her rich imagination and narrative depth. Her paintings are infused with elements from her literary works, resulting in vibrant visual narratives that brim with fantasy and intrigue. Using bold brushstrokes and abstract forms, Cheminais breathes life into her characters, placing them within dreamlike landscapes that showcase her technical prowess and innate storytelling ability. Her unique fusion of literature and art offers captivating insights into the interconnectedness of creative expression across mediums, making her a must-know artist in today's art scene.


Cheminais's artistic journey is as intriguing as her creations. Following her acclaimed exhibition "For Esme with Love and Squalor" at Blank Projects in 2010, she embarked on a hiatus from painting to focus on fiction writing. Her literary prowess shines through in works like the collection of short stories "Slim Foot on the Neck of a Dead Lion" and the novel "The Animal Breaking Through the Flesh," captivating readers with her distinctive narrative style. Her recent novel "Indefinite Holiday," soon to be published in the US through Pig Roast Publishing, marks a new chapter in her literary career.


Since re-entering the art world in July 2022, Cheminais has made waves with exhibitions at venues such as the FNB Joburg Art Fair with Stevenson Gallery and solo exhibitions at THK Gallery in Cape Town. Her participation in group shows like "Rabbit Hole" at One Park in Cape Town and "The Warmth of the Other" at Everard Read underscores her rising prominence in the global art scene. Her upcoming solo exhibition "Three Great Loves" with Strauss & Co for Art Club promises to be a highlight, coinciding with the launch of her new book "The Maze," concluding the acclaimed Many Shallows series.


Without further ado, delve into Cheminais's captivating journey and gain an intimate glimpse into her world by exploring my exclusive interview with her below.


Dominique Chemanais artist
Dominique Chemanais' studio in Cape Town, South Africa. Image courtesy of the artist.

Could you share a bit about your background and what initially inspired you to pursue a career as an artist? 


From a young age, I dreamed of having a career as a painter, but in 2010, I stopped painting entirely and started writing. The reason for this wasn’t that I didn’t want to paint anymore; I just had no idea what or how to paint. Each work I made left me feeling unsatisfied, and eventually, this frustration made painting a chore rather than a pleasure. My husband Zander suggested that since most of my heroes were writers (Kafka, Camus, Nabokov, Salinger, Ishiguro), I try to express myself through words instead of images. I found immediate freedom in writing. Suddenly, the frustration was gone, and I was free to empty my mind and go onto the blank page. I spent the next ten years doing this and, over that time, wrote six books.


In July of 2022, I was in New York at the Metropolitan Museum, and I stumbled upon a painting show of one of my favorite artists, Louise Bourgeois. The paintings were small, intimate, and dreamlike. As I wandered around, I could feel something shift in my mind, and suddenly, out of the blue, the desire to put paint on canvas came rushing back. For ten years, I’d had no interest whatsoever in painting, and the impulse was both strange and beautiful. When I returned to Cape Town, I started painting immediately. Luckily, my husband is also a painter; his studio is in our apartment, so it’s like living in an art shop. I had all the paint, canvas, and paper I could wish for.  The decision to use the characters and scenes from my books as inspiration for my paintings was a simple one. The last decade of writing provided the perfect content, and the characters that I had created with words were longing to be made real and reexplored and reinvented. 


Dominique Cheminais, artist
Dominique Cheminais, "Cracked Vessels, Evil Vapours" (2023). Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and THK Gallery.

Could you walk us through a typical day in your life as an artist living and working in Cape Town? 


We wake up pretty late. Zander and I are night-time people, so we only usually get to bed at 3 am. We spend our nights sitting and chatting in either his studio or mine. Luckily, the ground floor of the building where we live was vacant, so about a year ago, we rented it out for my studio. Most days, I go down to the studio around 2 pm and work until the evening. Then I’ll go upstairs and have dinner and then sit in the kitchen and make drawings. Drawing is an integral part of my practice. It takes time to figure out what the characters look like, and making multiple sketches for each painting helps. We have a lot of friends in Cape Town that are artists or in the art world, so we go to a lot of openings and events. We have a nice balance in our lives between holing up and working and shutting out the world and going out and being social. Cape Town is a great city for artists. There are a lot of people doing cool things, and there’s always something happening. 


Dominique Cheminais art
Dominique Cheminais, "The Love" (2023). Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and THK Gallery.

Do you have any pre-painting rituals or routines that help get you in the creative zone? Perhaps a favorite playlist, podcast, or quirky habit that sets the mood for your painting sessions?


When I come down to the studio, I like to sit quietly and look at the work before I begin. Doing this is important because often, when I start painting, I stop thinking. I often get so caught up in what I’m doing that I forget to stand back and take stock of what I’m actually making. I also spend a lot of time in the studio just hanging out with Zander and discussing the work. It’s great to have someone whose opinion you trust implicitly, and talking about the work really helps with the decision-making process. 


Dominique Cheminais, artist
Dominique Cheminais, "Opal Melena and Lester" (2023). Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and THK Gallery.

Balancing both writing novels and creating paintings is quite a unique combination of artistic talents. How do you find that your novelist experiences influence your painting approach, and vice versa? Do you feel that your skills in one medium inform or enhance your work in the other?


Honestly, since I started painting almost two years ago, I haven’t written a single word. I just stopped right in the middle of a new book I was writing. It’s like a switch flipped in my brain, and all I can think about is painting all day, every day. The impulse to write and create stories and characters has vanished for now. It feels almost like I spent the last ten years doing research for paintings, and now I finally have everything I need. Perhaps after I have exhausted my supply of inspiration, I’ll have to go back to writing again, but right now, my focus is on painting. That said, the books do provide an almost endless stream of content. It’s extremely fun to play with the characters and allow them to tell me how they want to be portrayed visually. Sometimes, they come out looking quite different from how I wrote them. I’ll be drawing a character, and suddenly, they want to be wearing a large black hat and striped pajamas. I don’t really question this, but simply give them what they want. The books are just the jumping-off point, and I allow my imagination to completely reinvent the characters if that’s what is necessary. 


Dominique Cheminais, artist
Dominique Cheminais, "The Demon Escapes, Study" (2023). Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and THK Gallery.

The imagery you create seems to blend elements of surrealism with a touch of nostalgia. What draws you to this aesthetic, and how do you believe it enhances the viewer's experience of your art?


I’m fascinated with world-building. None of my novels are set in any historical or contemporary time or place. Inventing the world totally allows me to bend reality and the way the characters perceive it. In writing, I also draw a lot of inspiration from my dreams, and I think that lends a nostalgic aura to the works.


Dominique Chemanais, "Milena on Fire" (Triptych) 2022, Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and THK Gallery.

I'm intrigued by your painting "Milena on Fire" (2022), which resonates deeply with me as a depiction of human vulnerability amidst external scrutiny. Could you share the inspiration behind this piece? The juxtaposition of the figure analyzing themselves in the mirror while being observed by a crowd feels both emotionally charged and beautifully relatable. What was your creative process like in bringing this compelling imagery to life?


The character Milena is trapped not only in her life but in her feminine body. Her room serves as a prison. In the book Many Shallows, she thinks that if her bedroom were a dollhouse, she would surely be the doll, so perfectly her outward appearance matches her pretty plush surroundings. The distortion of her body and her reflected image on fire represents her frustration with being female. The painting is a depiction of the horror of being alive and the inescapable fear of judgment that comes along with being a woman.  


Dominique Cheminais, artist
Dominique Cheminais, "The Demons Starting Singing at Midnight" (2023). Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and THK Gallery.

Your art has been described as nightmarish and sweet, invoking many emotions. How do you hope viewers will engage with and interpret your work?


Part of the reason why I stopped painting was that I couldn’t paint the way I thought that I should be painting. My images were always too cartoonish and too kitsch for my liking. It’s taken me ten years to accept myself for the artist that I am instead of berating myself for not being able to live up to some perceived idea of what a painter should be. I understand now that painting does not need to be beautiful or good in a traditional or academic sense. The marks you make do not have to be pleasing to the eye in order to form a compelling image. A lot of people perceive my work as quite ugly, and I must admit that sometimes I do stand back and look at what I’ve made and think, "Wow, that is truly a hideous painting," but this makes me happy for some reason. My paintings make me smile; I love that they are a grotesque onslaught of saturated colors and ridiculous characters. In an interview with Lisa Yuskavage, she said, “Weaponize your shame.” This resonated with me deeply. By embracing my cringe and allowing myself to just create without self-doubt, I have finally been able to tap into the pure and simple joy of painting. I hope that people will take away from my work the fact that you don’t have to wait for permission to do what you want to do. You can allow yourself the freedom to just be who you are and not be afraid of how the world may respond to what’s inside of you.


Dominique Cheminais, Artist
Dominique Cheminais, "Justine Possessed" (2023). Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and THK Gallery.

Your paintings often feature figurative elements, such as houses with anthropomorphic features or elongated figures. What significance do these recurring motifs hold for you?


In my paintings, the rooms and the spaces that the figures inhabit are characters in themselves. Each chair, table, teacup, and wall has its own personality. Often, the figures are locked in a battle with their surroundings. The characters and architecture of the spaces interact with and distort each other. The edges of the canvas are the defining boundary of the work. Within this contained space, I often contort the figures and their environments, forcing them against this boundary to create tension and a heightened sense of drama and emotion.


Dominique Cheminais, Artist
Dominique Cheminais, "Tea Party" (2023). Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and THK Gallery.

Final question, if you were hosting a dinner party and could invite any artists, living or deceased, who would make it onto your guest list? And perhaps more importantly, what dish would you serve to impress your artistic guests?


My guests would be Jordan Wolfson, Lisa Yuskavage, Josh Smith, James Ensor, Louise Bourgeois, Francis Bacon, Tal R, Sarah Lucas, Katherine Bernhardt, and Philip Guston. I really can’t cook, so I wouldn’t serve them any food at all. I’d just ply them with vodka on an empty stomach and have them tell me all their secrets.




Stay up-to-date with the artist here: Instagram: @domini_chem


If you're interested in purchasing art by Dominique Cheminais, visit Strauss & Co's online auction during the May Art Club event on Tuesday, 7 May, at 6 pm. The event includes a book launch and Q&A with the artist and author. Paintings from her book "The Maze" will be exhibited, with the first seven lots available during the session and additional works for immediate purchase.



 



Hello! I want to underscore the importance of transparency in my work. I maintain no affiliations with the artists or galleries showcased in this interview, and I do not gain financially from any resulting sales through the provided links. My ethical stance extends to not accepting money from artists for features, as I firmly believe in recognizing talent based on merit rather than financial incentives.


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XX Jenny


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