Interviewed by Phoenix Alexander and Jo Lindsay Walton
This interview first appeared in Vector 295.
Hi Alexis. Could you introduce yourself and say a little bit about your background?
Hello, my name is Alexis Panayiotou. I’m a fine artist and a drawing tutor on the BA: Fashion course at Central St. Martins.
As you know, this is a special issue of Vector focused on Greek SFF. So our first question is: do you consider yourself a Greek artist?
I think of my identity as mixed or somewhere between cultures. I was born and raised in London. My parents are both Greek, from Cyprus, both came to London very young, my mum nine and dad fourteen. They have lived here ever since. I have never been to Cyprus so I only have a vicarious idea of the place, through my parents and other relatives, and a bit from TV and radio.
I grew up in a Greek household, eating Greek food, hearing Greek music every day. Greek was my first language until I started school, although now I only have a rudimentary grasp. At home I was steeped in Greek culture and as a young man I would have described myself as solely Greek, and I remember feeling very lucky and proud to be so.
As for ‘artist,’ I’ve only recently started being comfortable using the term — it comes with lots of lofty aspirations! When I was young I drew a lot, like most kids, so there were always parents or teachers telling me I was an artist, or that I would be one.
Were you into science fiction back then?
As a little kid, I loved science fiction and fantasy imagery. I think it came from an interest in mythological monsters, which sprouted from an obsession with dinosaurs. Like a lot of kids. I loved the Ray Harryhausen films. They had it all: dinosaurs, classic mythology. I loved his Sinbad films, and Jason and the Argonauts. My dad took me to see Clash of the Titans, and my one enduring memory is that when the boatman Charon opened his hand for payment to ferry Perseus across the Styx, everyone in the cinema erupted into laughter. Including my dad.
I remember pestering my dad to take me to see The Black Hole as well, when I was about six. I drew endless pictures of the robot Vincent, and even more of the black hole itself. I was fascinated by it. It was depicted as a giant swirling mass in the film. The movement was captivating, something about the vastness. Kind of sublime, I guess.
And that interest stayed with you, right?
Definitely. Part of the attraction was fear, I think. I remember watching an episode of Space 1999 but I wouldn’t come into the room — I would only glimpse through the gap in the door as this monster rampaged through MoonBase Alpha, throttling everyone in its path.
I enjoyed watching Doctor Who. I have often thought of the Doctor as a mixture of Gandalf, Sherlock Holmes and Bugs Bunny, a kind of wise-cracking space wizard / detective with an eccentric dress sense, who always wins. Then there were the wobbly, rubbery monster outfits. In a way, they were absurd, but I think this gave them a tangible, visceral, nightmarish quality that you maybe don’t get with modern CGI, although years later when I was 19, I was completely bowled over by the effects in Jurassic Park. I went to see it 3 times, It’s the first time I remember seeing CGI on that level. I was astounded and It fulfilled a childhood fantasy to see living breathing dinosaurs. It’s not an experience that can be recaptured and watching those films now wouldn’t have the same impact I imagine for a modern audience, CGI is everywhere now, but Jurassic Park was a game changer, I think, and I still remember the thrill of seeing it the first time, it brought the impossible to life. It was the perfect story really, to introduce this new level of realism, it was about bringing dinosaurs back from the dead and the technology did this for the viewer. Still, I have a nostalgia for those old Doctor Who episodes, and as a 6 year old I found those wobbly alien effects equally arresting, and even more horrifying.
What is it that’s so compelling, do you think?
I don’t know, but it’s those moments of terror that have stuck in the memory. Tom Baker’s horrified expressions, his crazed wide eyes when confronted with danger, Romana backed against a wall by the Daleks in ‘Destiny of the Daleks’, or Scaroth peeling back his face to reveal himself as a cabbage-faced cyclops in ’City of Death.’ Peri having her brain removed in the ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ was particularly disturbing. Fortunately by the end of the season, she’s been saved by Brian Blessed.
Thank you, Brian Blessed.
Also thank you to the viewers — I believe they tacked that on, after there were so many complaints! Incidentally, Brian Blessed as the leader of the Hawkmen in Flash Gordon was my first crush. At least that’s the only way I can explain it. I didn’t realise it was a crush at the time, but looking back, I guess that’s what it was. I remember thinking about him all the time and really wanting to be his friend.
Everyone remembers their first crush, but can you remember your second crush?
Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future. In Space 1999, the main attraction for me was Maya, the shape shifting alien with bobbly eyebrows. She was the most exciting character for me, though I hear some aficionados prefer pre-Maya Season One. I was often more interested in, or identified more, with the girls in the stories: Romana in Doctor Who, Sapphire in Sapphire and Steele. I loved Wonder Woman, I preferred the Bionic Woman to the Six Million Dollar Man. I think it’s probably still the case now.
Did you read SFF as well?
I was really into the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, although that was partly about the imagery too. They also introduced me to wonderful illustrators: Iain McCaig, John Blanche, Ian Miller, Russ Nicholson. I would spend hours copying their illustrations. I began collecting comics when I was about thirteen. I started with The New Teen Titans, attracted by the incredible artwork by George Perez. He would do these amazingly detailed crowd scenes with loads of characters, and I was always so impressed with his attention to detail, the creases in fabric, the curls in the hair. I remember reading The Hobbit at school, but I found Lord of the Rings too heavy-going. I read it later, when I was about twenty-two.
I also enjoyed John Christopher’s books: The Tripods, Empty World, A Wrinkle in the Skin, The Death of Grass. They were often set in a post-apocalyptic world, and the imagery appealed to me. There was a kind of futuristic nostalgia. Much more recently I went through a John Wyndham phase too.
Do you have a favourite character from mythology: one who particularly inspired you?
I have rarely consciously referred to Greek culture to make work, but once again it’s the female characters I seem to be most drawn to, Medusa, Penelope, Medea. The character Circe from the Odyssey has always been intriguing, and has at times prompted ideas for imagery, although I have never actually made any of them! At least, not beyond initial thumbnails or preliminary work which were later abandoned.
But the ideas linger and I am always drawn to the character, not just her appearance in The Odyssey, but also when she surfaces in the work of others: Waterhouse paintings, or her appearance in Ulysses 31, or George Perez’ iteration of Wonder Woman. I haven’t read the Madeline Miller novel yet, but it’s on the list.
What is it about Circe that draws you?
I’m not sure. Perhaps making a piece will shed some light on that. If I hazard a guess, it’s something to do with the idea of a woman with power and an interest in witchcraft. My most recent idea for a piece would involve taking painted images of people and cutting and re-collaging them into pigs or other animals. I like puzzles, and I think part of the appeal of this exercise is starting out with a restricted set of ingredients, being restricted to the parts available in the original image to carry out the transformation. I’d like to explore how far brush marks and areas of colour may or may not lose their original meaning when taken out of context, how to reconstitute them into the new shape, and how these marks can communicate differently in their new position. The creative process as an act of magic: “How do you turn a human into a pig?”
That sounds fascinating.
I did once partially try the idea using a photograph and I liked the result. I remember reading in an essay on Seurat, by John Russell I think, about the universality of the dot. A dot could be part of the ear of a monkey as easily as part of a tree or the surface of the water. It’s also a daft fun exercise but that’s also part of the appeal. I want the work to have humour if possible, although it could just as easily turn out pretty gruesome.
I might try this one in a small way as a sketchbook exercise. During the lockdown I did a lot more sketchbook work and smaller things on paper out of necessity. I was reminded of the value of working through ideas in a more economical way.
What about other mythological figures? Earlier you mentioned Medusa.
The traditional idea of Medusa is of an apparition so hideous that one look will turn to stone. I don’t really like many depictions of her. Ray Harryhausen is immune to this assessment, obviously. I do like Cellini’s sculpture. Much as I love Caravaggio’s painting, I’m not that keen on his interpretation. Although I do like the idea that his Medusa is a self-portrait: it puts a whole other spin on the image and retains your gaze as you search the face for a likeness, effectively fixing you and turning you to stone. Perhaps I do like that picture after all.
In a similar way I like the idea of the character retaining her great beauty and the idea of a woman so beautiful that the temptation to look is irresistible, yet to look would mean death. I think this is a much more interesting idea for a painting and perhaps would also hold your attention in a similar way to the Caravaggio.
With Penelope, it’s the idea of stoicism, patience and cunning in the face of mounting pressure. One image comes to mind as a possible candidate for development, of Penelope shining her husband’s bow, preparing it for the suitors to try and have a twang. It’s a bit mixed up in my mind with the image of Kate Bush and her Cello in the Baboushka video, almost comically sexual, but also I see it as a bit Burne Jones or Waterhouse in appearance.
Let’s not forget Medea.
I saw a great program late one night about twenty years ago now, about staging a production of Medea with a group of students. I remember in the scene where Medea is deliberating whether she can kill her children, the director bound the actor with rope to give a visual for the internal struggle. I was very struck by that, the actor would struggle against the ties which held her in a very awkward position, while asking herself if she could really carry out such an act, and this infused the delivery of the lines. It was a simple, obvious but very effective device, and made for a very striking image. I’d like to use that somehow. It would be more of an abstract piece I think, working with the materials that make up a painting, canvas, stretcher as well as the paint, and exploring the idea of tension.
But in the past, you haven’t thought that much about your Greek cultural identity when you create art?
I haven’t consciously drawn on it, although I guess it’s inevitable that it has influenced me in some ways.And recently, in the last couple of years, I have thought more about my background and its relation to my work. There is more awareness of cultural appropriation today. My students are much more conscious of this than I was when I was a student. So yes, I have found myself thinking much more about my own cultural background, what it is and how it could or does influence the work I make.
The issue for me is working out exactly what I can legitimately refer to as my cultural background. I was born and brought up in London, and while I identified as wholly Greek as a young man, I have never been to Cyprus or Greece, so I have no direct experience. I loved Greek mythology from a very young age, I guess that’s the most obvious reference. I could put a lot of that down to those Ray Harryhausen films, as well as being taught all that stuff at school. There was Greek mythology, but I don’t remember there being much emphasis on other mythologies. At least, not until secondary school at least when we had Religious Studies.
So how do you navigate those intersections of a Greek/English identity?
It’s strange making a distinction between Greek and English, because I was born here and I am British, and my parents have lived here pretty much all their lives so they too are British. But the family home was in many ways a different country to what lay beyond the front door.
I was very aware of that, and I imagine it must have been even more so for my parents and their families when they arrived in the 50s. The inside and outside coexisted harmoniously for the most part, for me at least, and walking through the front door was a seamless transition, although there is a tiny sense of separation which I have never completely shaken. I have never been completely comfortable describing myself as British even though I know this is accurate. It’s the Greek identity that remains dominant in my mind, even though I don’t feel I can legitimately or completely describe myself as Greek either.
So that Greek identity is very much mediated by your parents and other relatives.
Insofar as my parents’ professions might fall within the remit of cultural background, my dad was in the rag trade, working as a pattern cutter. He ran a little production factory with his sister. This was in the 70s and 80s, and I think for a lot of Greek Cypriots a common profession was either to work in a fish and chip shop or in the rag trade. I loved going to the factory when I was very young; I loved all the giant rolls of fabric, the huge cutting table, and all the noises from the machines and irons, the different coloured rolls of cotton thread — it was visually very stimulating. And of course seeing my cousins. However, as soon as I was old enough and my dad got me in to help out, I wasn’t so keen. I would mark garments for buttonholing and I would man the button machine which sewed the buttons on. I would also sort out sizes and do the general cleaning up of the garments, which involved cutting all the loose cotton ends left by the machinist, attaching the tickets and then bagging the garment to make it ready to be shipped out. I would also go in and help him lay up the fabric so he could cut the markers (the marker is the arrangement of pattern pieces for the garment). That bit was much more interesting to me: layering the fabric on the pattern cutting table, around 100-130 layers, eight metres long, and then watching my dad cut out the shapes. He’d use an upright electric saw and manoeuvre it around the pattern pieces, which he had arranged as economically as possible and drawn out on a long piece of spot-and-cross paper, which was then laid on top of the fabric. The stack of layered-up fabric was around 30 to 40 cm high, sometimes higher depending on the thickness. There was something very satisfying about watching the pieces being cut and as they were pulled away from the bulk of cloth like little islands, you could see through all the layers of different coloured fabric. It looked very beautiful. I’m very glad of the experience now when I look back on it, although at the time I often resented it and wanted to be hanging out with my friends instead. There have been ideas for work which have come from those experiences, although as of yet they are only ideas. But I think I will try them out at some point. I would love to make a joint piece with my dad. It would take space and money, though, to produce a piece of work like that.
Do you ever think about visiting Cyprus?
The idea of a visit to Cyprus is becoming more pressing as I get older. I want to try and have a more direct experience of Greek culture: something I feel I am missing. A close relative told me once that I need to go to ‘understand my roots’ and this idea has become exaggerated in my mind. I imagine daft things, like that the moment my feet make contact with the ground I will feel some kind of strength or invigoration, or perhaps eating the food grown there or being exposed to the stronger sun will activate dormant genes and complete me somehow. During a visit to the hospital recently my dad was tended by a nurse who asked him if he was from Crete. His great-grandfather came from there, and she named the village and said she had been there and that everyone looked like my dad. This is a bizarre and wonderful image; I love the idea of a hidden village somewhere in Crete where everyone looks like my dad, like something out of a Chris Cunningham video. I don’t really expect such a dramatic result from a visit but I still wonder what it might reveal or awaken.
Alexis, thank you so much!