ELIZABETH WIRIJA & STAZI GENICOFF
By PHILO COHEN Photography NATALIE YANG
Thank to Natalie, I came across Stazi and Eli, and got to talk to them about what they do and how they do it. When looking at their work online, I perceived for both of them an advanced identity of work, and a very strong message. Both multi-talented women create work as a display of their beliefs. From the people they choose to work with, to the final result of their making, they are both driven by choices reflecting who they want to represent, and why. I am admirative of the powerful work they make, and of the resonant message they carry. In this conversation, I asked them how they nurture such full-bodied styles while still making work considering culture, and people.
Philo Cohen: Who are you? What do you do? Where are you from?
Elizabeth Wirija: My name is Elizabeth Wirija, but I prefer to be called Eli. I am originally born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia. I am currently 22. I am an artist. I hate labelling myself a photographer, or a designer because I think that it limits me and puts me in a box. I don’t want to have to cater to the specifications of that box. That is why I just like to call myself an artist. As an artist, you can create anything, and anything you touch becomes art. As a person, I would like to think that I am a passionate individual who is compassionate about people, kind and thoughtful. I have always wanted to spread love.
PC: When did you come here?
EW: I came to New York around 5 or 6 years ago to pursue art school. I went to school for Graphic Design at SVA.
PC: How is labelling yourself taking freedom away from you?
EW: My spirit is such a free thing. I hate specifying it. It does not allow me to try out different things. If I were to call myself a photographer, and I decided to put out a clothing line, for example, somebody will say “How are you as a photographer designing clothes? You should not be able to do that.” If I just say artist, I can just make anything that I am feeling. I think that creativity is formless. When you put a medium to it, it is able to express itself through that specific medium. I believe that anything that I experiment with will be great, and it is just about having fun in the process.
PC: I feel that a lot. I have a very hard time labelling what I do as well. We both come from outside of New York, and I know that for me, moving here triggered a big change in my way to think about myself as an artist, as a maker. Could you tell me a little bit more about what you were doing in Jakarta?
EW: I started taking pictures when I was fourteen. My family used to go on a trip to a different part of the world every year. My dad used to bring disposables and film cameras when we would go on these elaborate family trips. He took me to South Africa, Paris, America, different parts of Asia and he would always bring this camera. I was fascinated by it. Every time, we brought the camera home, and he developed it, and showed me our family photos. I thought that it was amazing how you could capture all that with such a small object. I asked him to lend me a camera, and started playing around and learning. What I was making when I started off was very different. I was just seeing what was interesting and took pictures of it. I did not think too much about concepts. Being fourteen, you are so instinctual. I push myself to continue to practice using my intuition. However, I now have a way more concept based way of thinking when I am taking photos. I do want to plan certain aspects of the shoot. I think of aspects such as styling and location a bit deeper, I want to tell a story.
PC: How did you keep this freedom and instinctual thought process when you started making work in studios?
EW: I only got into shooting in the studio very recently. I prefer shooting outdoors, because the environment is constantly changing and it inspires me. In the studio, the location is less important than if I were to shoot outdoors. I can really focus on other aspects of the shoot. For example, I want to start experimenting more with lighting, and the studio is an interesting place for that.
PC: What camera do you usually use?
EW: A Canon 6D.
PC: My next thought is on social media, and how platforms such as Instagram give access to photography to everyone. How do you still manage to put your work forward and build a portfolio on such program where everyone has the freedom to post whatever they want?
EW: I like the idea of making everything accessible, that is happening right now with the Internet. It allows people to create. Social media is a tool. You have to know what your intentions are when using it. For me, treating it as a platform to showcase my work is to take it seriously while having fun with it. It is all about presentation. In real life, if you meet someone for the first time and you present yourself in a way that makes them question and realize who you are, then they will see you that way. If you show your Instagram in that same light, people will treat you that way too. However, there are downsides to it too. You, then, have to constantly portray yourself in this light. Vulnerability is not much of a thing on social media. People do not want to ever be seen as vulnerable.
PC: What are your thoughts on that last aspect of it?
EW: I think that is pretty unrealistic because as humans we go through so many different emotions. For us to only show our highlights to others is very taxing and it is not real. I think it is important to be real, and talk about things that matter to you. If you are showcasing a too highly positive aspect of yourself on social media, then when you are showing something different, you are not catering to who they want you to be, and that feels incoherent.
PC: That’s a funny thing. Art is all about having emotions and sharing them, and suddenly we come across this platform where they are limited. How do you feel like this part of visual culture, that is social media, influences social change?
EW: I think that social media is a very important medium. People do pay a lot of attention to it. I read a study the other day, that was saying that the attention span of our generation is constantly reducing. But I believe that it is not because we are not reading as many books as past generations. We are reading tweets, articles, even though in short forms, we are reading a lot. It is just in a different context. Social media is all about teaching people how to behave in such technological times, teaching them social behavior. If you post things that have a value and a purpose, people will catch onto that. For example, I used to post a lot of landscapes, before I started to gear more work towards portraiture. With portraits, I feel like I can speak more on issues, and social change. Realizing that, I started digging into myself and what I think is important in this world. As an artist, you have that power to influence people, and you should use that. It is our responsibility. We are given this passion, and this talent; our duty is to move the world in a better place.
PC: How do you make this change happen in your work?
EW: For me it is about social issues, being a woman of color in this world and what comes with that. Being an Asian woman, how does that influence the way others treat me. How I can bring diversity into my own work. In media there is not enough representation of us. I took that upon my own hands. I only shoot people of color, I want that to be a base in my work. I am creating my own media. If I am the CEO of my own platform, I can create anything.
PC: I love the idea of being the CEO of your own platform. It is so great. I am especially interested in it because makers are always growing. Their identity as a person, parallel to their artist self is constantly shaping itself into different forms. How do you use your identity and its evolution to create this idea community, and to make new work?
EW: I think growing up as a woman of color, in Indonesia, women are not treated as equally powerful beings. My dad is pretty traditional, and he would often question my behavior, asking me to be more feminine. But that is just not me. Women there are seen as worthy only when they are the wife to somebody’s family. Coming out here, I have the power. We, women, do have the power. Society’s construct makes us forget that. We are made to forget that. I think that the fact that I experience discrimination and prejudice, being an Asian woman in this world, obviously affects my work. It is such a big part of my life, I cannot evade how people treat me. I have a series called Noriental, which is based on showing different variations of Asian women. I started it because I feel like in media, and in our lives, we are always perceived as submissive and obedient. It is a misconception. Simply by looking at my mom, I realize it. My mom is such a powerful individual, she stands on her own, she kept her last name, and she has always been her own. You cannot own her. I grew up with an Asian woman, and we are not what society think we are. I know who I am. I am not that. That is why I am actively trying to reverse that stereotype. I take it into my own hands. You have to know your identity. If you don’t know your identity, people have the power to control you, they have the power to tell you what you are. We need to look within ourselves and see who you are as a person rather than who someone perceives you to be. Often times, people have all these ideas about us that are not ours, and we start thinking they are ours just because people put us on this programming all of our lives. I am in the process of unlearning a lot of things, and knowing that some ideas are not even mine in the first place.
Philo Cohen: How do you manage to keep your strong identities and your work aesthetic when working in collaboration?
Stazi Genicoff: Eli helps me a lot. I am so grateful for her. We have a similar vision when it comes to shining a light upon people of color, and breaking down gender norms and rules. We casts our friends, or people from Instagram. Then I’ll style or she’ll style, we’ll come together and brainstorm on how we want it to be. We just work really well together. It is really a give and take.
Elizabeth Wirija: I think that one of the most important things when you are collaborating with someone, is not to impose your personal views, and to give and take. It is an energy exchange. You want it to be reciprocated. We constantly bounce off each other and reflect each other. As Stazi was saying, our messages are pretty similar, and we have the same intention. Once the intention is set, I believe everything is going to be beautiful. It is very important to have an outside perspective. When you are just working alone, it is a one track perspective. It is important to have different ideas floating around.
Photos from Eli's series Noriental "based on showing different variations of Asian women."
Philo Cohen: You are a multi talented maker. I’d like to know a bit more about who you are and how you became the artist you are today?
Stazi Genicoff: I was born in New York and am currently living in New Jersey. I moved around quite a bit in my youth. When I was younger, I would visit my father in the city every other weekend. I have always had this love for New York, how diverse it is, and how you are constantly exposed to many different things. My mother is a hairstylist, and I would consider her an artist as well. In her youth she did fashion illustration as well as murals. For me, as far as the jewelry is concerned, I have always loved making jewelry from a very young age. My mom would get me these books that had wires, and beads. I would follow the tutorial and make jewelry out of that, or make things with yarn and give it to my mom or my friends. My dad used to work for a phone company, and when we’d visit him, I would always make things out of the wires that were on the floor. I have always been really crafty with little things, loved detail, and made pieces to adorn myself with. I make things my own. I cut and customize everything. I think that is where my creativity stems from: wanting to make things personal, and special to me.
PC: And how would you define your practice?
SG: I do a lot of different things because I feel like as artists, it is important not to limit ourselves. We can express ourselves through so many different ways and I do whatever I want. I model, I sing, throughout high school I acted, then jewelry making. I enjoy makeup and photography. I feel like there are no rules, I just do it.
PC: To focus a bit upon the technical part of your work, I’d love to know a bit more about the material and color range that you use when making your jewelry. How did you manage to build such strong and original identity?
SG: I found low cost materials, looking through different shops, and browsing, I stumbled across the silver chain. Then going to another place, I found the blue chain. I, then, decided upon the length. I have the longer pair, because I think it is delicate when the jewel hits the collar bone, and the shorter pair. I think as far as for this line, I really wanted to shine a light upon people of color, and make sure it was clear my jewelry was not gender specific. This is for everyone. I don’t think that anything should be gender specific. I just wanted it to be beautiful. I wanted diverse casting, young people that are creative, and that I find to be interesting. People who inspire me.
PC: How are other cultures influencing your making?
SG: I think that our society is hyper masculine. Men have become afraid of embracing their feminine energy. Jewelry should not be gender specific at all. I always feel like “Why can’t everyone wear this?”. Even when it comes to clothing, a skirt, everyone should be able to wear a skirt. You can wear whatever you want, it is not defining who you are. If you appreciate it, if you feel like, it is lovely, wear it! I think that in a lot of different cultures they have realized that. It is more about the details.
PC: You were born in New York, which is, today, one of the most advanced and open minded place on Earth. How do you use your work to educate people, and make them aware of social issues?
SG: As far as Flourish Wear, I think that it is clear when one sees the models that I choose that I don’t really care for gender roles. I don’t really know how I deal with it on my own platform, but I definitely talk about it often with friends, because it is very important. For example, I feel like being Black is something that I have spoken about. As a person who is biracial, I identify as a Black woman and embrace my Blackness. I have encountered so many micro aggressions that pushed me to love that about myself. To say “I am so proud to be a Black woman” is beautiful. Society tells us that we are not beautiful. That is what I have spoken about mainly, on my own platform.