Petra Valentová: I like how many people are reacting to the current situation – with responsibility and solidarity

Petra Valentová, photo: archive of Petra Valentová

Petra Valentová is a Czech-born, New York-based conceptual and multimedia artist whose work frequently explores questions of identity. With her adopted city greatly impacted by the coronavirus crisis, she discusses her latest projects and more in this interview from the Czech Center New York series Artists That Never Give Up in the City That Never Sleeps.

Petra Valentová,  photo: archive of Petra Valentová

How long have you lived in New York? How has New York influenced your work, how has it inspired you?

“I first arrived in New York in December 1997.

“In 1999/2000, I took part in the Cooper Union exchange program for one semester. Thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship, I studied at the Hunter College, CUNY from 2003 to 2005, receiving my MFA there.

“Since then I have been living more or less with some breaks in NYC.

“I have a strong group of friends from different backgrounds, which has a big impact on my daily life.

“I am part of the city, its dynamics and diversity, which is directly reflected in my work.

“My husband is from Rajasthan, India, and so my work reflects all three environments – Czech, Indian, American – which I think is quite typical for NYC.”

Bagru,  Rajasthan,  photo: Photographers of Tilonia,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
What are you currently working on? What are your upcoming projects?

“For the last few years, I have been focusing on issues of cultural appropriation, collaborative design, hand-printing in India, ethical work with craftsmen in the woodworking village of Bagru in Rajasthan, blueprinting in the Czech Republic, specifically in Moravia, and sustainability.

“In addition, I am working on a series of wood prints, abstract cyanotypes based on the flora around me, and sewn images.

“Basically, all these projects are based on what is happening around me and influenced by whatever environment I am in.

“The rural environment of the Hudson Valley [Shawangung] in upstate New York, where we have a house, also influences me a lot.

“My projects are based on long-term personal cooperation with craftsmen and my goal is to further cultivate and develop these relationships.”

Your work has many layers – combining conceptual art, design, and traditional craft, bringing together the pressing issues of the present, such as the sustainability of a product in consumerism. One of your most interesting and fascinating projects is your recent work with patterns, namely the study of ancient indigo technique in India compared to the tradition of blueprint in Bohemia. You create your own original designs that often reflect the environmental and social context. Can you tell us more about your creative process and the direction you are aiming at?

Works by Petra Valentová,  photo: Czech Television
“One of the main goals in my projects is to point out that crafts are like ecosystems: in the case of traditional Indian woodworking, many communities (farmers, form makers, print makers, dyers, and the laundry community) are all involved, linked, and essential for the maintenance and continuation of the craft.

“It is important for me to include all these communities and recognize their contribution.

“I also like to point out that it is necessary to approach the craft communities empathically, recognising the historical context and mechanisms of power that still exist in today's world.

“That is why I work mainly on the principle of co-operation, I function more as a curator, a medium.

“I cooperate with a group of women printers, which I lead so they can create their own work, which enables them to become more emancipated.

“When I work with handmade printers in India and blueprint workshops in Moravia, I create a certain abstract bridge; in both countries, the masters and craftsmen are extremely interested in and fascinated by technology from the other side of the world, both the similarities and differences.

“Regarding my own designs, I work a lot with the subject of Anthropocene, global warming, water loss and local flora.

“Cracks, whether they are dry soil, cracked asphalt, or cracks on glass or ceramics, represent to me a record of time, being the witnesses of human activity and behaviour.”

The current coronavirus situation has affected the entire cultural sector. Has it impacted you personally or professionally?

“I have two boys aged 8 and 10, schools are closed, so we have temporarily relocated from NYC to Ulster County in upstate NY.

“Everything has slowed down, everyday life and work. The days are somehow simpler and I would say calmer.

“I had several exhibitions planned for abroad, which have either been postponed or cancelled altogether.

“In India, as in other countries, everyday life has slowed down, printing has stopped, craftsmen are staying home.

“But it is not such a big change for me, because in my work, the technique of hand-made wood printing, which I mainly work with, is slow, limited, there is no need to create a massive amount of material that no one needs.

“I personally am enjoying time with my family in the countryside, surrounded by small farms.

“I am closely following the situation in India. I am concerned about the families of printers with whom I have become close, but they are all acting responsibly, so hopefully they will be fine.

Petra (Gupta) Valentová is a conceptual and multimedia artist focusing on questions of identity, memory, textile and craft of hand block printing and dyeing as well as cultural and intellectual rights of indigenous craft communities. She works with artists and designers in the US, India and her native Czech republic. She works with block makers and blue print (indigo) workshops in the Czech Republic and with indigenous printing communities in Bagru, Rajasthan in India. She has exhibited extensively nationally and internationally including at the Czech Center New York. In 2007 she published the book Searching for a Sámi/Cookbook and her work can be found in several public and private collections around the world.

“I believe that once the situation calms down, my cooperation with workshops in both India and the Czech Republic will continue without any major problems.”

Many people find comfort and broader perspectives in art. As an artist, what helps you find balance and support in times of uncertainty? Do you have any encouraging thoughts to share?

“It is certainly the close collaboration with the people I have been working with for the past few years.

“The awareness of a certain responsibility toward the women and the printers with whom I work, and also personal relationships with form-makers and printers in Bohemia and Moravia.

“My projects are built on long-term relationships, which gives me a sense of support and optimism.

“I really like how many people are reacting to the current situation: with a responsible attitude, solidarity between people, sewing facemasks, help, sharing, and kindness.

“I believe there is a lot of goodness, and interesting and inspirational things around us.