YARA + DAVINA are an artist duo based between the UK and US. With their own art practices, they decided to collaborate and formed a partnership in 2015. Through their art, which is usually site specific, they tackle a range of issues from geo-politics, lessons on love to mental health. Subverting and using everyday pop culture in new ways, their previous work has taken on the shape of jokes, mini golf and tattoo parlours, making it playful yet poignant. With their most recent work Arrivals + Departures about to open at BAM in New York, we talked to Yara and Davina about their working relationship, the lessons they’ve learnt along the way, and how Covid has impacted their work.
You both have your own art practices but decided to collaborate and form a partnership YARA + DAVINA in 2015. Can you tell us a little about your journey, how you met, and what made you decide to collaborate?
We met in 2005, the year we both graduated from art school. Yara was at Slade and Davina Goldsmiths. A friendship blossomed out of a mutual respect and admiration for each other’s practice. We developed a deep relationship based on our shared passion for social practice art, that was accessible, playful and engaging. Over the years we started to support each other more, both in life and our art practice. We saw each other as critical friends. We occasionally collaborated, and always found it fun working together, sharing ideas and the workload. When we became mothers in 2011 we both struggled to continue our full time art practice and be present mothers. We didn’t want to give up either, so we decided to try and job-share as a way to continue having a full time presence, and also be present as parents. It was not just about problem solving, but about both sharing a vision about the role and function of art in society. Our shared ideals about making work deeply rooted in meaning making, with the public and for them, and sharing a similar visual language meant it made sense.
You’re located in different parts of the world, Davina in London and Yara in California. How do you make the geographical distance work for your partnership?
We have found a way to make the time difference work to our benefit. Working across time zones means we both can work over the course of a 18 working hour day, taking different meetings depending on our differing schedules. We make sure that every working day we have set hours that we are both working together online, which is vital. We have different relationships with institutions in the UK and US, which we both can foster.
How do you find working as partners? Do you always agree, or do you have different ways of thinking and working, and how does it show in your practice?
We absolutely do not always agree and think it would be very boring if we did! We both look at things from a different angle. Yara is naturally more invested in the political angles, while Davina is more invested in the social and emotional aspects. We challenge each other, unpicking every idea, and see our differences as our biggest strength in our collaborative practice. It allows us to work together to create a well rounded approach to making Social Practice art.
Who or what has influenced you the most?
We have been influenced by a lot of feminist activist art from the 1970s, which when you look closely at the approach, was actually the beginning of Social Practice art but with a strong focus on feminism. Their work clearly explored gender inequality, which, as we can see, is still very present when it comes to visibility for artists who are mothers. Of course there are good artists that are parents but as Tracey Emin said “There are good artists that have children, they are called men”. In terms of artists, we are both influenced by Emily Jacir, and her cheeky sense of playfulness in engaging with larger political issues. Aside from artists, we are deeply influenced by popular culture, and how we can find meaning by subverting or using everyday pop culture in new ways. What motivates us both is the potential opportunities art gives people, to make change through meaning making.
What lessons have you learnt along the way?
We have found strength in working together. We can be bolder, more ambitious, share our networks, work in partnership, and take more risks. When you’re working as a duo you have to put your ego aside, and think of a collective approach. It is not one of our ideas, but both of ours. We have learnt to trust one another, be critical with each other to further our thinking and how to feel comfortable being vulnerable with each other. Through working together we have learnt to be better listeners, and how to unpack ideas quicker and better. We are still learning how to value our time better, which is our ongoing battle.
Your work together is very site specific, and you’ve created artworks for multiple world leading art venues and public organisations. How has Covid-19 affected your work together and as individual artists? Has it been a positive or negative experience?
This period of unrest has highlighted how vital our collaborative relationship is in our personal lives. The value we place on each other and our joint practice was our anchor in terms of getting us through these really tough times with its many changes. The fact we are accountable to each other has also been a motivating force, to work every single working day. Clearly it has been a negative and challenging time also. All of our projects have been delayed by months if not longer, but we have been very fortunate that one project in particular Arrivals + Departures has become even more timely and relevant. We have turned this negative of delayed or postponements into positives. We have found that institutions working with skeleton teams, and reduced budgets, doing anything they can to make our work happen. This belief and support has been humbling and astounding.
You mentioned Arrivals + Departures, your artwork at Somerset House in Autumn 2020. How do you decide on what issue you will focus on? Can you tell us about this process?
Generally we respond to a context of a museum or institutional commission. Within that we think deeply about the site, context and who the audience will be and how they will engage. We love this challenge of responding to a brief, where we make meaning out of whatever set of requirements are put before us. It is this process of ideation that makes us feel most alive! Sometimes we have exciting ideas that we just develop out of conversations and Arrivals + Departures was one such project. Davina originally had the initial idea in response to a civic space that registered births and deaths. We extended the idea to create a public artwork that could exist in different contexts. This has really been a labour of love, as it took over four years from our conversations about developing and expanding this idea, to realising it at Somerset House. This was a very different process as we were lucky enough to get the support of Artsadmin, our producers, on board to make this large scale project exist.
Can you tell us more about Arrivals + Departures which will be opening in New York shortly?
Arrivals + Departures is a large scale interactive public artwork exploring birth, death and the journey in between. It’s really very simple in it’s form, as it takes the recognisable form of a station or airport arrivals and departures board, however the public are invited to share the names of people who have arrived (born) and departed (died). The work becomes a site to celebrate a birth, pay tribute to someone living or commemorate a death.
It’s opening this month at BAM in New York, sited outside Brooklyn Borough Hall from March 14-11 April. All of our work is site specific, so in this case our public programme of events, which are integral to the installation, will be exploring loss during covid, alongside a focus on racial and social injustice.
For us, this public artwork explores a myriad of things. It opens up conversations about death and dying, which pre-covid was incredibly urgent. The work, which is essential about the act of naming, asking us to think about who gets named and the engaging with the politics of who is honoured through our public sculptures and memorials and why. Fundamentally it looks at ideas around public art and agency. In this instance the public chooses who gets named, and in doing so have agency over this public sculpture.
What have you found to be the most effective ways of getting commissions?
We are fortunate to be in a position where organisations and institutions approach us now, so we have not had to apply for open call for a while now. We have a fairly unique approach to art making, which we think put us in a good position, and word of mouth is very effective. We are committed artists, we are hard working, and very dedicated to our vision on making art more accessible. Working with a producer is incredibly useful, and we are lucky to be supported by Artsadmin. We work with two brilliant producers there, Nicky Childs and Mark Godber.
Do you have any advice for artists starting their career?
You have to apply to a lot of projects in the early days, and always, even at our stage, learn to live with unsuccessful applications. Realising that not getting a commission is not a failure, but part of the job, can really be important. You can’t feel demotivated, but just hone your grant writing skills, and keep going.
What’s next for you?
For March to April 2021, Arrivals + Departures is having its US premier with BAM, outside of Brooklyn Borough Hall. This kicks off the 2021 tour of Arrivals + Departures which will then go to Brighton Festival, Norwich & Norfolk festival, Milton Keynes and Freedom Festival in Hull. We are working on 2022 plans for the tour also. Covid delayed a large-scale public art work we began with the National Trust last year, called Kick Off, which we are now starting again. We are presenting Opinion Poll with the Bloomsbury Festival in 2021, with plans to tour in 2022. We are also working on a new large scale, long term commission for a major London museum in mid 2022, as well as a few other projects up our sleeve that we can’t discuss yet!
Yara and David by Hugo Glendinning
Arrivals + Departures at Somerset House by Somerset House Trust
Arrivals + Departures by Tom McClaughlan