It’s Family First For Debuting Artist Ilona-Estelle Westman Sonko
"Creating this series has really been a full emersion into expressing what I’ve been keeping to myself for so long."
Earlier the month, debuting artist Ilona-Estelle Westman Sonko exhibited ‘Family Matters’ – a collection of artwork exploring the notion of family – at gallery HADA in Stockholm. She tells us about giving herself a one-year-deadline for the project, about struggling with the feeling of ‘not existing’, and finding the courage to express her ambition to be a full-time artist.
What’s been on your mind lately?
– The feeling of silliness when looking at fear in hindsight, the high that comes with a realized dream, and what my next move is going to be – all, of course, linked to the exhibition. But also, some real-world stuff, like my daughter who I love more than anything else, and the baby currently growing inside me, constantly kicking to reminding me of its existence.
You’ve been pretty much under the radar as an artist so far – tell us about yourself and your background.
– I was born and raised in central Stockholm in a blueprint household of two parents and two children. I now live in Nacka with my husband Lamin and our daughter Eila, awaiting our second child in December. I’ve had an aptitude for sketching and painting for as long as I can remember, and it was in many ways nourished by my parents who are both in a creative industry.
–I remember trying to sketch people that I had seen in the streets, or the women and men in the magazines that my mother brought home from her travels around the world. The human being has always fascinated and frightened me the most; our innate ability to do both good and evil. And I’ve used painting as a way of trying to uphold a balance between those sides. So, every time I saw, heard or read something bad, I’d try to counter it by painting a motive portraying the good in a person. Until fairly recently, painting has been a form of flight, a place for me to distance myself from outside stimuli and make sense of things, at times to a point where my disappearances became a running joke amongst friends.
– I’d say that 98% of my artistic ability comes from self-practice, which I have then built on with studies at Stockholm Art School and Idun Lovén Art School, as well as holding art classes for children in Fisksätra. But even though I’ve always dreamt about being an artist, it’s not until very recently that I’ve had the courage to openly express my ambition to make artistry a full-time occupation.
You recently exhibited a series of paintings as a debuting artist in Stockholm. What has this experience been like for you?
– It’s been amazing. I’m still in a bit of a post-exhibition haze! I started painting this series a year ago, right after I had been on parental leave for about a year. During that time I had set up one single goal: to put everything aside and give this dream all I got for a year and see if I could make it fly. So, I was full of so much energy and motivation from the get-go. Since then I’ve spent what feels like endless hours in a closet-sized storage room working towards this exhibition.
– Due to the fact that I’ve never really showed anyone my work, I’ve also had to struggle with the feeling of ‘not existing’. I haven’t even had an Instagram account until the day before the exhibition. So, with the exhibition, a large part of it was about exposing myself to other people’s views of my work. And I can honestly say that I haven’t had a single second of regret. Having family, friends and total strangers there to share the moment with me is one of the greatest things I’ve experienced in my life.
The beautiful series is called ‘Family Matters’ – how did you find this theme?
– Going into this year, I had my mind filled with precious moments that I wanted to recreate – moments with some of the people that mean the most to me. Some of these I had pictures of that I had taken during the past six years, so when I got to work I did so at lightning speed. About halfway through the year I started having some self-doubt and couldn’t really see the red thread, so I invited my best friend, Mabintou, who is featured in two of the paintings, over to the studio. She made me tell her about my feelings around each and every motive and slowly a pattern started to appear. It was all about those I care most about; the ones I owe it all to; the ones who bring joy, strength and belief. Family.
What does family mean to you?
– Everything. I grew up with my parents and an older brother, then I met Lamin six years ago and that expansion of family and the love that has come with it is indescribable. His sisters have become my closest friends, his mother is the strongest woman I know of, and his brothers are like my own. The clashing of our worlds has proven to me how elastic the notion of family really is, and I feel grateful for it every day.
What did the process of creating this collection of paintings look like?
– I’ve never been so focused on anything in my entire life. At times I had six hour sessions where I was totally lost in trying to perfect a facial expression. Creating this series has really been a full emersion into expressing what I’ve been keeping to myself for so long.
What will be your next move as an artist – what’s on the horizon?
– With all that’s going on around us, I’ve been really concerned about the future and the thoughts of the young people that will have to cope with much of the unrest that we’re causing now. So chances are that the next thing will have some sort of youth theme. But nothing set, as said: I’m still in a haze.
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