Pregnant with her first child, Androulla Michael, (friend, fine artist, and NUA alumni), has been surviving an extreme reality of lockdown, and so, an extreme version of home, ‘foreign familiarity’ and closeness. I arrange to talk to her about her latest creative venture, Cross Project, and how she has used her creativity as a vehicle for distraction, strength and purpose in a time where these things can be somewhat distant.
Informed by our communication through technology and the invisible, I will take you with me on a fictional socially-distanced walk with the artist herself, to discuss her current project and contemplations on dealing with the self in a socially distanced world.
Androulla’s Mercedes is parked outside her Camden home – the perfect giveaway as to where I can find my friend in the London suburb street that she now resides in. She greets me at her front door wearing her signature black leather jacket and jeans.
Physically, she is different from our last meet up several months ago; she is larger, blooming with the physical changes of pregnancy. Her skin and radiant warm eyes tell of her Mediterranean heritage. Her speech is as cool and energized as ever, backed with the wisdom gained from her spiritual groundings.
A British Cypriot, Androulla’s family’s journey to the UK is shaped by the story of love, escape and the dream of something better. The constant variable in her understanding of ‘home’, has always been her faith. Spiritual and meditative references run in the very fibers of her projects, allowing their messages to be received, interpreted and understood by any receptive audience. The techniques employed by a woman of the modern world – battling with the struggles that this comes with – means that traditional understandings of ‘home’, a connection with a higher spirit and the exploration of one’s own human condition, is translated and rediscovered for and by a modern audience. She does this by making herself the subject. Her project, My Diary #Selfie of a Nobody (365 days) – featured in Vogue Italia – showcases this in the most tender form. Here, in a ritualistic routine, Androulla would remove her daily cosmetics, using her makeup pads to record her face as the receptor; the pads becoming spiritual invocations: her cosmetic emblems conceptually likened to the Shroud of Turin.
Turning the corner, we cross to a leafy entrance to Hampstead Heath; even London’s trees seem physically different, blooming with the pregnancy – the potential – of cleaner air…
Androulla started her Cross Project over two years ago as a way of focusing her energy into a positive outlet; at the time she was recovering from a mentally abusive relationship. She reminds me that it was going on long walks, like the one we are on now, that helped her regain strength, improve her mental wellbeing and find creative inspiration. Androulla – ever the optimist – on these long walks, began noticing “marks that gestured the sign of the cross”. She continued to find these symbols in the banalities of everyday life, appearing in the shadows of a tree, in the cracks of floors or in the meeting of clouds and the infinite blue. In seeking counsel from her Spiritual Father, she began to understand these signs as a point of positive focus, and then photographically recorded them.
As we walk, I express my inability to understand how seeing a shape resembling a plus sign, or cross, can be digested as a visual of positivity in a time of darkness. She explains that “when we’re in times of trouble, we see everything in a negative light…”. This I understand. She continues: “In this space, I’d go on long walks and always find myself fixated on the horizon. But the horizon, to me, looked like one long ‘minus sign’, a definite negativity wherever I went. I figured that if I kept walking, eventually I would find something to subvert the horizontality of what was in front of me. Soon I would find a tree, or a crane, or a building that would turn that ‘minus’, a negative, into a ‘plus’, a positive, quite figuratively.”
I’m silenced by my internal processing. Androulla’s capacity for turning a relatively simple concept or act – as in the selfie diary – into something of philosophical weight and profound beauty, is fascinating.
At the top of the summit we take rest on a bench. I look out onto the London skyline and horizon.
“I believe that when something bad happens, you have to continue to move forward. It’s the only way that you’ll find a point for positivity to re-enter…”, she reflects. “Being pregnant in lockdown has meant a double dose of anxiety and sense of vulnerability, but continuing the project has helped me in maintaining a healthy mental and physical state.”
We enjoy the new quiet of the heath and the city in the distance. I look to Androulla who assesses the verticals and horizontals en masse, strewn in front of her. I understand that what she sees in this moment is a city of “via crucis” – physical markers of her journey in finding her positive self. She agrees: “every mark on the landscape is a tablo, part of a voyage of discovery…a metaphor for positivity”. We laugh at our own pretentiousness.
The project then, is a synchronization of Androulla’s energy, perfect timing and her ability to see, making the photographing of these moments something miraculous. The intersections of lines captured in her photography – with their ephemeral existence caught in moments between boundaries of space, light and shade, past and present, memory and anticipation – have a greater weight than the more permanent fixtures of similar forms that hang on the walls of religious buildings. These moments, paired with Androulla’s acute photographic sensibility, create arresting images that themselves offer comfort, illustrating the crosses as ubiquitous, and omnipresent in the nature of ‘the day’, ready to be discovered by those seeking.
I walk with Androulla back to her house. We are but a few weeks from her due date, and having seen her physically on this fictional walk, my mind strays to thinking of her person, swollen with an unseen beauty and immeasurable potential. Her physical body, the walls of the uterus and the membranes of the amniotic sac within, provides the security akin to the walls of our homes. The umbilical cord and placenta provide the nourishment of our gardens and kitchens; and Androulla’s spirit, the warmth of a mother, family and friends. Despite adversity, she is providing the ultimate home, a chrysalis: the ultimate embodiment of togetherness. I think of the Dalai Lama’s words on pregnancy and opportunity: “…nothing beautiful in the end comes without a measure of some pain, some frustration, some suffering…” – how poignant.
I ask my friend: “What happens now?”. She responds: “As long as we have our imagination, we’re not alone”.
Words: Sean Hendley, Storehouse Content Team
Illustrations: Androulla Michael, @androulla_michael