After a stint in London, French illustrator Agathe Dananaï is back in Brussels, where she studied art at Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts and ran non-profit art space Brussels Art Department in her living room together with her fellow artist housemates. Her work has been published in Le Temps, Kairos, Agir par la Culture, and others. We recently discovered her compelling drawings of mundane everyday life scenes on her Instagram account @agathedananai, and wanted to find out more. Here’s a chat with Agathe about her practice, different art scenes, and favorite pens.
You’ve developed your very own distinctive style, which is one of the hardest things to achieve as an artist. How did you get there?
I guess just by drawing a lot. After finishing art school I left Brussels and ended up having less space to work. I had to readapt the way I work, and after a few hesitant drawings, I found what I enjoy doing and kept working in this direction. I’m not really into experimenting with loads of techniques – it’s more of a slow evolution of the style.
You moved from Brussels to London. How do the art scenes compare?
I actually moved back to Brussels in September! I like the fact that London is much more diverse and that there’ll always be something to discover, but I also find Brussels easier to navigate. It’s reassuring in a way, and it seems, in my experience, less complicated to land projects or create contacts. I think the main thing with London is distances. Even though you know there are lots of great independent art places, most of the time you just won’t go there because you don’t have the time. It’s more about your local life whereas here it’s easy to walk almost everywhere, and that makes life way less stressful.
When / where / how often do you draw?
I’ve learned to work with less space so I just need a desk and some light to draw. I do it in the daytime as I find the daylight much better. I’d draw every day if I could but reality doesn’t always allow that. The first lockdown was actually great for that.
What are your inspirations?
My work focuses mainly on everyday life, so I guess it is also in a way one of my main inspirations. I’ve noticed that I’m mostly driven to true-to-life subjects in books, cinema, and podcasts. I guess it’s just more relatable. In terms of visual art though I think I prefer it when it’s fun (doesn’t mean it can’t be serious) and not too beautiful. To name a few: Soufiane Ababri, Simon Hanselmann, Jules Magistry, and Adriana Lozano.
Can you describe your working process from idea to final piece?
A big part of my process consists of finding interesting pictures to work around. I do spend a long time scrolling on people’s socials, either looking for something specific with a hashtag or just going from one profile to another. I work around themes so I gather pictures around s topic and just start drawing. I guess a series ends when I get bored of that theme, can’t really find any more interesting pictures to work with or when another theme becomes my new obsession. There are recurring subjects in my drawings though, as if the series was never completely over but rather continuing to exist partially inside other ones.
You also do illustrations for newspapers – how is that process different?
I find that my work is mostly defined by the subject I’m representing. So whenever I’m working on a topic that’s not normally interesting to me as an art subject, it gets complicated to go where I normally go and produce something that meets the article’s needs and mine. It’s always interesting to work on challenges like that and that gives me a new way of thinking things through.
What are your tools – what kind of paper and pencils do you use?
I use a black ink Rotring, 0.10, and alcohol-based markers. I find them great to blend colors, a bit like watercolour, but I enjoy the practicability of the marker more. I started using Bristol paper as it’s smooth and I broke too many Rotring on regular paper.
What do you want to evoke in the viewer? Who are your illustrations for?
What I want to evoke is just the everyday. I’m not interested in depicting beautiful people doing nice things. I want the viewer to see a very mundane representation of life, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes boring. I want it to be relatable and to evoke old pictures you took with your friends on your disposable camera during holidays, or the picture you posted on your blog when you were in high school trying to be cool, or the one that’s been taken at your first party where you kissed that ugly guy. I think what I want to say is, it’s okay to be lame.
You publish a lot of drawings on Instagram, where I discovered them actually – how important is the channel for an artist these days? What has your experience been with it?
I think it’s a great space for art as it’s easier to share your work there rather than on a website. It’s super easy to discover cool artists on it as well. Obviously it’s not like seeing the artwork irl but it’s quick and easy to feed your image needs. I discovered so many good artists through it and keep doing so every day. You get to know work you wouldn’t know otherwise because it doesn’t get published on other platforms.
A lot of your work seems to deal with issues such as feminism and social media, but also pop culture. Can you elaborate a bit?
I am interested in those issues because it’s something you have to deal with in your everyday life. I think I found a way to talk about these things without having to make my drawing a strong official political statement. I don’t want it to be too assertive because for me the main theme is the celebration of people, in all their realness. I prefer using humor and yes, using lots of references to pop culture. It’s a way to desacralize the drawing and to send the viewer back to a certain time, when we used to wear certain clothes or listen to a certain kind of music. Fashion has an important place in my drawings too because this is what creates the character. A bit like in real life actually.
Which one of your own drawings is your favorite and why?
I don’t have an all time favorite, but if I have to pick one, I’d say maybe this one. I like the fact it’s deromanticizing teenagehood and that it’s just depicting it in all its glory, with pony bedsheets and a bad haircut.
What do you enjoy the most about what you do?
I find it quite relaxing to draw and color. I usually listen to podcasts when I do so, so it’s also a way to take some time to disconnect and focus on something else.
How did you score commissions from newspapers? What advice would you give aspiring illustrators?
Either someone offers you a good opportunity or you just have to get in touch with newspapers and magazines you like, hoping you’ll get an answer. My advice would be that even if you can’t make a living out of it, just keep doing what you like and make sure you take some time to do so.