Intimate Knowledge: An Interview with Sophie Utikal

by Aoife Donnellan // May 28, 2021

Sophie Utikal’s textile work focuses on the body as a source of information. Her large tapestries depict femme bodies in various states of repose. Utikal’s creation of tactile, intimate worlds invites us to consider the potential for expression beyond language. Her work is often in pursuit of knowledge beyond empiricism, focusing instead on knowledge available as a result of the qualitative effects of experience. Utikal’s textile work focuses specifically on women of colour, using her own body as a point of departure. It examines the ways in which the physicality of bodies can mediate pleasure, trauma, and independence, as they continue to be active participants in their own healing process.

The materiality of Utikal’s work is powerful and inviting. Her use of pastels and soft textiles provides a setting through which to question the power of representation, physical intimacy and self-validation. Utikal sews each work by hand, often choosing black thread for the stitching, which contrasts with the otherwise pastel tones. This visible connection between body and background reveals a compelling intimacy in Utikal’s work. The choice of contrasting thread is a Colombian practice handed down to Utikal by previous generations of women in her family. It highlights the agency of personal history and how it informs our connection to our immediate surroundings. This combination of intergenerational skills and Utikal’s personal pursuit of understanding beyond rationality persuasively reminds us of the importance of listening to our own physicality. Utikal’s work is currently exhibited at District Berlin in the group exhibition ‘Picking out images from my soul’s eye,’ curated by Verena Melgarejo Weinandt.

a textile piece with a women lying on a bed, covered in what appear to be bones

Sophie Utikal: ‘Crisis,’ 2020 // Courtesy of the artist

Aoife Donnellan: Often, your work features faceless femme bodies in scenes of varying tranquility. What inspires the themes in your work? What do you hope to capture?

Sophie Utikal: In my works, I leave the women without a face to direct the attention towards the expression of their bodies. How do they hold their shoulders, is their belly relaxed, their chest open? Our bodies say so much, but we usually do not listen, this is why I want to emphasize the body more than the facial expression.

My work is inspired by feelings and how they travel through me. I always use my own brown body as the storyteller, hoping to give solace to other brown bodies who grew up in a white society, like me. I want my images to tell them, “you are not alone in this.” I like to create moments of passivity in my works, because you need to slow down if you want to feel what is going on. I believe that in calmness there is potential for intensity, but I am still exploring this myself.

The women in my work usually represent an aspect of me: something I am dealing with or that I would like to un/learn. But I also like to use my art to look into the future. I love the work of Octavia Butler and try to imitate her in creating new fictive worlds while commenting on the present.

a colorful textile work of a woman rides on a donkey through a passage

Sophie Utikal: ‘Una Herida es un Portal,’ 2020 // Courtesy of the artist

AD: As you’ve mentioned, your work uses your own body as a point of departure, what part does intimacy have to play in your work and practice?

SU: Intimacy with myself is important in my process of creation. I need to be honest and make space, so that I can go deep into what is there. I think the power of my works lies in their display of vulnerability. To reach that point you have to take off your armor and look into the truth. Sharing this with others is the most challenging for me, and I would not say that I am very good at it. Still, I hope to learn more from the women in my works. I admire how brave they are.

a textile with a dark background, a woman in the foreground lying naked and wrapped in a snake

Sophie Utikal: ‘Desire,’ 2021 // Courtesy of the artist

AD: Your participation in the exhibition ‘Full Melt Down’ explores the notion of “radical softness.” How would you say your work and practice interacts with this idea?

SU: ‘Full Melt Down’ was a choreographed guided tour by Claire Lefèvre for a production she had at K3 Tanzplan / Kampnagel in Hamburg. Claire invited me to create the scenography for a radically soft space for the audience to be gentle and vulnerable with each other. Of course, my works which are made of textile were very fitting and also the colors I use are very harmonious and usually pastel.

During the process we had an exciting email conversation about softness in connection with vulnerability in general. I believe that being vulnerable is not always nice and pretty, it can be messy, disgusting and also terrifying. There is a great text by Alexis Pauline Gumbs in her book ‘M:Archive – After the end of the World’ about this (“ […] she scrubbed off layers of her skin. she pulled out most of her hair. and at some point she blacked out, exhausted. and the dark room held her. […] ”). There is always a real risk in being vulnerable, of actually getting hurt and making everything worse. So it is comprehensible that we choose not to do it, even though we miss out on a big part of ourselves and our lives. Another interesting aspect that Claire brought up is the difference of chosen vulnerability as a practice versus being actually vulnerable in the world.

a textile work depicting two people draped on a couch with stars on a black background surrounding them

Sophie Utikal: ‘Sharing Deeply,’ 2020 // Courtesy of the artist

AD: In work like ‘For Most of it I Have No Words’ you explore transitory moments between actions, feelings, and events that are beyond linguistic comprehension. What effect does the scale and materiality of your work have on the intimate themes it sometimes depicts?

SU: I believe that my words are limited in their expression, especially when it comes to feelings. Whereas in my art, expression has more possibilities and that is what I investigated with this series. It is also the title to my exhibition at Galerie im Turm in March 2020, which was my first solo show here in Germany. I never had so much space available and I wanted to experiment with the size of my works. How would it be to take up the entire space and to dominate with the softness of my works? I created my own stage and sewed works that went up to five and seven meters. I enjoy going as big as possible, it makes the work more powerful, it creates a world of its own and becomes more immersive for the viewer.

This article is part of our feature topic of ‘Intimacy.’ To read more from this topic, click here.

Artist Info

Exhibition Info

District Berlin

Group Show: ‘Picking out images from my soul’s eye’
Exhibition: Apr. 2–June 4, 2021
Bessemerstraße 2-14, 12103 Berlin, click here for map

a textile work on black fabric with a brown skinned woman holding her hand to her forehead

Sophie Utikal: ‘Falling Apart,’ 2021 // Photo by Bahar Kaygusuz, courtesy of the artist

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