A contemporary Malagasy artist living in New York, Elsa Åkesson explains her extraordinary journey, her many roles in art and her incredible Malagasy heritage.
Can you tell us about your background?
I am Swedish, Malagasy, born in Madagascar. At the age of 9, I attended a boarding school in Switzerland. Then I went to business school in Madrid, which is completely the opposite of art. After Spain, I moved to London to study plastic art. I am a contemporary artist, who specializes in oil painting. Other than that, I like to collect some art. I also had the opportunity to interact with the art world in other ways, for example by contributing to art magazines. I also have my own business, Spongy Bags, which creates sustainable artistic packaging. I think I wear a lot of hats in the art world, but I want to be recognized as a major artist. I will say that I am known in the art world as an artist who painted the young children of Madagascar.
How did you become an artist?
It started when I was 16 in school. I had a very good art teacher who really pushed me to paint things I never thought I could paint. He really pushed me beyond my limit. There I discovered that I could paint, and I had a talent for painting. But at that time, I wasn’t serious, it was just a hobby. After I entered business school in Madrid, I found that I could not devote enough time to my painting as I would like. I understood that art was really my passion, and that I was fortunate to have this talent. And I found that the more I painted, the better I was. I got to the point where I realized that all I wanted to do was paint and I had talent, so I saw that as a sign I couldn’t ignore. I decided to stop studying and enroll in an art school. This took me to London where I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Art London. After that, I decided I needed to make a master to understand the art market. Because I think that’s what most artists lack, they have talent, it’s amazing what they do, but in art schools they don’t teach you how to sell yourself as an artist. So I did this master’s program at Sotheby’s.
Now, I’m an artist, I like what I do, it’s my passion, I live and breathe art. I just love. Now I can say I am a professional painter and have been doing it professionally for almost three and a half years.
What are your influences and inspirations?
My influences are mainly in my country, Madagascar. I especially enjoy painting and representing the children of Madagascar. I think there is such purity and incredible joy in the way they live, they are very happy. What really hurts me is that the children of Madagascar, when described in newspapers and around the world, they are always described in a very painful and sad way, whereas growing up in Madagascar, I found that they were really happy, me. it would even be said that they seem happier than many people I meet elsewhere. They have a joy that is really unique and extraordinary. They deserve international recognition. Often I try to give back to the community what they gave me, when I sell my works I try to help as much as possible. Through my art, I really want to respect Madagascar to the best of my ability, respect cultures and show their beauty to a wider audience.
Madagascar is one of my biggest influences, but as a woman, I am extremely inspired by female figures and I love to explore the female body and figure in my art. Each of my works is really a self-portrait, because even if I paint for example a picture of small children from Madagascar, I will always include in this painting something that represents me in a certain way. . For example, it could be the color of Sweden. I’m also a very neat and clean person (which is kind of funny for an artist) and I think my paintings are a representation of that as well. They are very clean and tidy.
You are a self-taught artist, it is very impressive. How did you do?
I tried to mix colors. My father was an art collector, so I grew up with art around me. When I started painting, even though my paintings weren’t very good, hearing from my parents and people around me that my paintings were so good made me happy and pushed me to paint more. So I think it was the positive encouragement that really helped me. In terms of techniques, I just explored different ones, I went to art stores and since my dad really loved art, he was willing to buy me a lot of materials, so I indulged in trying different techniques and paints. Then I worked with some artists who explained to me how to use paint and who acted as my mentors. It also allowed me to learn about painting and the work of an artist.
You are currently in the Master Art business at Sotheby’s art institute, why did you choose it? and why did you choose to do it in New York?
The master will really understand the market and have this advantage as an artist. Because if I want to make money with my art, I have to make sure that I increase all my chances of success and the only way to do that is to understand the market and the different sectors of the art world. How are their thoughts, and how they work in general. In this art market, I can make sure I really differentiate myself from other artists and I understand the market to which I fit. I think this is very important for the success of an artist, you have to understand the market where you want to enter.
The master takes a year, but I did my first two semesters in London and I decided to do my third semester in New York because the United States is the first country in the art market and more definitely New York the number 1 Being in London for almost 5 years, I really had the opportunity to work on the net, understand and land in the local art world in London. Since the United States is home to the largest art market in the world, I found that it was very important for me to get out of my comfort zone in London, because I had already built my network of people, people started to get to know me. So that’s really my comfort zone. I decided to get out there and explore the New York art market and check out the different opportunities available here for early career artists.
What is your favorite thing about being an artist?
My favorite thing about being an artist is first of all to paint, and being in my comfort zone, in my world of art and creativity, is really what I prefer. It’s almost therapeutic, because I paint hyper-realistic paintings that require a lot of patience, so I grew up a lot in the process of creating art, which is relevant to my life and I can use in my life, like patience. That’s what I like and the second thing I like is networking and meeting people. I have met many wonderful people in the art world. I learned a lot from them. Meeting and socializing with people is what I like, because as an artist, yes you have to paint, but I would say half the time all you have to do is socialize, work on the internet and get to know people, and I like that , and I like people in general. I can say those are the two things I like the most. I also love to travel and being an artist really allows you to travel a lot and that makes me very happy.
You are half Malagasy, have the recent dramas in Madagascar had an impact on your paintings?
Impact on my art, I just want to paint more about my country and more to represent Madagascar through my art. Because again, yes Madagascar has really suffered, and I know that first hand because my family has been affected by this. We really work very hard but at the same time, the Malagasy, when there is a problem, they do everything to get out and when the problem is over, they continue to take advantage of joie de. vivre and so no matter what happened I think Madagascar will give another reason for the world to represent Madagascar in a suffering way and it just gives me another reason to paint them with their real eyes that no matter how much pain they go through and whatever they go through they always end up at the end of the day with the joy of living and thus inspires me to paint more about them but not only of them but of painting them in such a way that you can feel their eyes glow. my painting, their joy, their innocence, their purity and their happiness. You see you are really happy with nothing, money cannot buy happiness. Many superficial things do not buy happiness. I really want to show that happiness is worthless.
What work are you proud of?
Perhaps the work I’m proud of is a painting I painted in 2019, Happiness is a choice II. This is a picture of four small children in Madagascar. Their eyes are shining on this painting, it is one of those paints where I put more patience and attention. I spent 4 weeks, every day, working on it. This is a painting I offered to my boarding school in Switzerland for an auction they organized to raise funds for a good cause. This is a painting that I am very proud of. I was a little sad and at the same time that I was gone, this painting is so hyper realistic, even more beautiful in the photo. People thought I was pasting a picture on the canvas.
Discover Elsa Åkesson’s world with her website and in instagram
Interview with Aurore Hurstel