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The Metamorphic Self
Body, Vision and Transfiguration in the work of Cristina Francov

The artist talks with Robert Shehu-Ansell

Cristina Francov, at times identified under the pseudonym ‘Naagrom,’ was born in March 1989 over the arid terrain of the city of Aguascalientes, Mexico. An early fascination with the esoteric mysteries seemingly encoded in the works of the great European masters developed into an interest in photography. In this discipline she is entirely self-taught, but a limited academic foundation in the methods of oil painting and drawing has led to her becoming recognised, both nationally and internationally, for her contribution to the art of digital manipulation in Mexico.

Marked by an unusual visual maturity, Cristina’s work offers us visions and allegories through a series of self-portraits that employ a transfiguration of her own body. Such images seem as humanistic, carnal and colloquial as they are fantastic, mythological and obscure. Now armed with a degree in Graphic Design, here she talks about her work.

RA: Do you remember the first moment a work of art held a magical power for you?

CF: The first time an artistic piece burned a mark, indelibly perhaps, upon my mind was during childhood. I was carefully observing the many little characters in ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch. In those days my mother sought out and collected art books, and it was among these that Bosch and Dürer, and many other great artists, filled the open pages with images that were strangely pleasant to my eyes. I think it was here that began the pure fuel which feeds my imagination…that fascination for the grotesque in art.


RA: And the grotesque is often even present in the margins of formal religious art…

CF: Yes, despite the careful strokes, outstanding chromatic use, and the angels and maidens of overflowing dimensions and serene porcelain faces, very frequently can you spot a homeless person, a stray black dog wandering or, what most intrigued me at the time; the theme of fleshly death presiding over the people… beneath their own ceilings, over their own plazas and bridges… the symbolic and the supernatural over the same canvas. It seemed a premonition of a dim and deeper truth in what I saw.

Auto-inducido rincón del vientre, digital media, 2010.

RA: Was this kind of religious art a strong early influence for you?

CF: Magnificent works of art bearing a distinctive religious seal were the threshold between what I saw in my books at home and what led me to investigate other artists who steered away from such classical and clerical commodity. And of course, as I advanced through the centuries of art history, I developed a persistent interest in all those mysterious characters who didn’t appear to fit in…


RA: Have any particular artists inspired you?

CF: ‘The Black Paintings’ among other works by Francisco de Goya, to cite one of many examples, became the quintessential source of my artistic inspiration. But also the simple yet truthful sketch ‘Automatic Writing’ by Max Ernst, as well as exceptional and strange works by Giorgio de Chirico, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Claude Verlinde. These all grounded my inspiration and exploration of the dream-like themes, and this manifested in my personal work… and I feel that, ironically, it is very distant from the modus operandi of the surreal manifestation of the avant-garde. After all, I’ve always found it a devious and dual game… seeking to align my work with the manifestations of others. They probably had a simple light of inspiration completely different from mine.The lightning bolt that finally struck me came directly from the work of William Blake, Jean Delville, Xul Solar and of course Osman Spare. By this time I had already taken a workshop in engraving by invitation of one of my school mentors, who is also a magnificent artist. Blake’s work inspired many techniques for me, thanks to his Poetical Sketches and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Although engraved works did not become my strongest element, they did bring the incorporation of the mixed techniques that led me towards digital manipulation, and of course, my creative soul was being reconfigured with the vitality of myth, with a rapid charge of fire and allegory, symbolism, simplicity, mystery and ritual.

RA: Were these artists the primary reason for your interest in magic?

CF: There were other incentives which stirred an unexplainable and unwavering interest in me towards magic… the marvelous thing about Mexico is that, like many other developing countries, traditions are a deep hollow where people live impassively. In my earliest years I met a couple who were craftsmen and were always downtown on Saturdays. They taught me – with great empathy – herbalist methods and the basic notions of prophecy, and afterwards we would sometimes take trips to places where they would usually go to live, as well as practice their art.


RA: Did this initiation influence your creative life?

CF: It pierced a focal point where curiosity would filter into my head. I spent most of my time involved in research and investigation instead of actual field practice, at least in aspects concerning magic, but I avoided excessive theorizing and contextualizing and instead emptied my beliefs and amalgamated all this light into a more personal and creative flow.


RA: The ‘creative flow’ is something all artists will be familiar with… how does it work for you?

CF: For me the creative flow is a blood relative of inspiration. I find the source of this in music, nature and its sounds, dreams and spiritual changes that are constantly tied to my physical and mental development. I really like to take my time to meditate, and I do it often because it represents my primary creative moment. Sometimes the relish of doing something comes without respecting my other activities, beginning with sudden flashes in my mind. Then I suspend it all, rushing to capture and enjoy what I’m experiencing internally. On occasion I try to set certain sigils in order to bring these creative perspectives into my hands harmoniously, but I rarely succeed in the action. I’ve even considered means by which I might encode an emanation to suit personal limitations, rather than to surrender to it, to live it, and to understand it clearly. I’ve grown-up during a time when a spiritual avidity and magical matters have broached mainstream culture – most of the time in a vulgar manner – but it has facilitated access to the work of many extraordinary artists and authors. It has given opportunity to study the relationship between art and the occult through works that would have been difficult to seek out in so little time, so far from their source. Despite my declared love for these legendary creators, artworks and masterpieces, I think it a fatal error to try to replicate an atmosphere created by another artist. Our hands freeze, our soul is blinded and our voice silenced. Not to mention that severe inner turmoil regarding who we are and what we do… I think pretentiousness leads to an ignorance of the nature of our own results. If I start to find empathy with something there is a penetrating stab into the beauty of that essence, to that creative flow. However, using the feelings that emerge from these manifestations are, undoubtedly, an important creative driver.


El trigono de las lesiones, digital media, 2010

RA: So how do you see your own work in relation to the tradition of self-portraiture?

CF: Originally I started this practice because of the lack of models, but then I realised the many advantages. It is indeed within this tradition that I find motivational points in common with many other artists throughout history. It has been a very broad point of analysis for artists, for critics, and for audiences. It touches the playful, the autobiographical, the obsessive, the critical, and most of all, the introspective. Often it has to do with what you want to see, appealing to that unreality. Its an idea that Kant has touched on, referring to that resemblance of what we want to notice, even though it might be something inconsistent with what we objectively see. So I have worked as my own object of desire, validating personal concepts that represent those deep inspirations… which is something very tricky.


RA: Would you say that being your own ‘object of desire’ can become obsessive?

CF: The repetitive roles are an undeniably obsessive behavior. In my series ‘Temples of Ether’, being vulnerable to desires and vulgar misadventures, the resulting work gave way to psychological disturbance and disruption that would gradually gain ground in my life… but certainly, I think the biggest contribution is the unraveling of inner matters. I have addressed the action of self-portraiture as an actress who declares her beliefs and interests, but above all, as someone who adopts passionately the act of personal assessment, transfiguration and change… to see oneself and allowing illumination by stronger lights from the unconscious.

Durante Las noches yo…, pencil and charcoal, 2011

RA: Your self-portraits seem in perpetual metamorphosis, as is your name. Spare talked of the ‘faveolated Ego’, so would you say these portraits represent aspects of yourself? Are they a map of your experiences, or of your psyche?

CF: All artworks are a kind of self portrait, but perhaps when we think we are ‘showing’ ourselves to the world through a personality we are often victims of our own deception. Our image, our person, may be a construction of the otherness, a reflection even. Spare also refers to identity as an obsession, which I find very interesting. Working with our own body often prompts a strong release of energy which moves cyclically… I also feel that death and life are precisely metaphorised with the end and start of every artwork, the ‘object of contemplation’ becomes a log of changes, beautifully descriptive, automatic and poetic. We can find these kind of cycles everywhere in our daily life. But being personally refracted in images has been a very powerful source of intimate knowledge, true knowledge, at least for me. Using oneself to explore occluded aspects in a way that is not self-induced.. I mean through conscious thought… encourages a mystical, wide open, portal to something bigger inside. Is not enough to say ‘I am this, I am I’ for it can be faulty, and we can get lost. Is not my will at all to be recognised in the photographs as I am in daily life. Yes, they are self-portraits, but not necessarily of my corporeal state, because the body itself could be an obstacle that limits expression – an anthropomorphic literalism. No, it should not be an obstacle, the body may be deformed and worked upon endlessly.

RA: I am interested in your comment about the artwork as an object of contemplation. This brings to mind the idea of creative flow as a devotional practise… would you say there is a similarity?

CF: Absolutely, its about being devotional, its about rejecting that intent towards personal obsessions. Again from explorations I have learnt to channel the creative flow in total solitude, from the moment of conception to final treatment – in this case digital retouching. For me, working both behind the camera and in front of it as the object of contemplation is what fully embodies that which is seen inwardly. I’m not saying in any way that using other models breaks this wonderful concatenation, I think it’s about the personal way in which each artist works. I get very excited (creative flow) when I allow something to trap me in a particular atmosphere, and then feel that I can represent it not only through plastic media, but bodily. I think this is the ritual, and to accomplish it successfully I need to leave almost everything else behind – what others expect of me, even what I expect of myself that has nothing to do with the work. And I try to ensure my work is near where I sleep – as a tribute to my oniric sources while the energy circles are closed.


RA: Do you have any other elements of ritual that help with manifesting your intent?

CF: Before my body assumes the position to be photographed, I relax through musical vibrations. Strong incenses also assist hermetically, as a self-induced womb. There is also sometimes a physical manifestation, an exclamation to release energy alongside the music, there is a yell, tears, silence, etc., if the photography demands. Never during this process do I consciously think of my work related to stereotyped cultural roots, things must follow the flow mentioned earlier.

Concertando el secreto del Silencio, digital media, 2011

RA: Tell us about your series ‘Temples of Ether’ – what was the idea behind it? Is it an ongoing project?

CF: Yes and no… because I’m not actively working on that series. The first and last photo represent the beginning and end of that circle which develops from the self-decay and blindness born of vulgar concerns. The pictures were developed and operate within a hostile environment where the air… usually a symbol of vitality… becomes dense and obstructs the process of life. Lightness is dominant rather than Darkness. Dawn and sunshine are the cause of the confusion. The object of desire is a seed, a metaphor whose repetition binds the whole story. Finally the substance, allegedly found, finds focus in the last picture as an anthropomorphic figure, while clusters of ether are totally consumed behind… purifying one after another, through the power of the flame. I was a Temple of Ether, as we all are, and after the ignition key we transform into a purer, although not final, form. As you can see, in this series I encountered a line between what is apparent and what lays beyond, a theme I have begun to explore in the work that has followed. At the beginning I said yes and no, well… maybe the series has ended, but the path that came out of those burned temples keeps going.

RA: Fascinating. You are also a gifted as a traditional artist, can you see yourself pursuing a non-digital approach at any time in the future?

CF: Thank you. I am cultivating myself a little more on these techniques because I am interested in challenging the perception of digital media being frivolous as much as possible. Drawing and painting are insurmountable… the vitality of line and mental freedom that is offered is just not comparable to a digital re-creation. Earlier I mentioned that I used to incorporate these techniques into my photographs… this is why I do it. I think too that the autonomy of the hand is always in conflict with the inflexible computer. To some extent, for me it is ideal to be able to do everything directly with my hands, again it would close a creative circle that would be wonderfully strong. Ultimately I feel very motivated to incorporate these traditional results into my strongest body of work.


RA: Recently Leonora Carrington died… she was also an expert in traditional techniques. How do you regard her work and her legacy as a female artist working in Mexico?

CF: The legacy of the master Carrington goes beyond what has been said publicly… although her death has already been forgotten by much of our population. But her aesthetic legacy in Mexico is part of a thriving visual culture: Orozco, Clemente, Siqueiros and Herran (who by the way was from my city) to name a few. More importantly, along with Varo, these artists have provided valuable wealth to our concept of art and to visual settings… they have touched the mystical fibre of the country with their mythic images. Over the past century this has seemed like an earthquake upon this land, whose political and social concerns were always the priority, and these led by men. But certainly I think there is much to exploit from Carrington’s magnificent symbolic works, rather than her figure as a female pioneer during hard times. More personally, Carrington has been one of those muses who has motivated me to dig deep trenches into my way of perceiving. It was – and still is – a radical solution to the huge dose of reality offered by the Mexican landscape. Perhaps that is something which many members of my guild would like to carry forward, and we can do so thanks to artists such as Carrington and her incredible aura, combined with a little nostalgia.


RA: Speaking of that large dose of reality… last year you were travelling through Mexico. To what degree does the landscape and mythology of the country inspire you? Do you feel connected to it?

CF: The visionary art of the Mexican indigenous people inspires me greatly. As you might expect, it is a source of endless knowledge. These days the ancient shamanic tradition is hard to find in the city, so encountering people living in the middle of nowhere who still practice the old ways is quite an event in itself. Just by analyzing the Huichol art we can realise the tremendous maze of thought and awareness surrounding the reality of these people. Lately for example, shamanism has become popular among urban groups thanks to characters like Alejandro Jodorowsky, who as a director has opened the way through his symbolic films. Now, due to this openness, ‘psychomagic’ and ‘psychotherapy’ have become very strong ideas between ordinary people, as well as professional therapists. I must say, and you will understand, that we are a society that lives by, and for, legends and myths. Each holiday is steeped in folklore… for example the allegory of la muerte, the cult of death, is typified by the Day of the Dead… a revered tradition and one of the most important festivities in the country. It gives us a vision of the idea of dying – of the idea of transcending to other planes to be reborn – as cause for motivation rather than disgust or fear. And pre-Hispanic mythology and Catholic beliefs have been blended in such a way that ritual practices are quite automatic and natural. To resume… the visual richness and energy in Mexico is strong. Often when visiting an open camp you can feel this vibration around people (surprisingly, almost the majority) who, quite secretly, continue the practice of witchcraft in many of its manifestations. Maybe it is this re-connection with the nature of the old ways which draws most participants to get involved, and in my case, to bring something of it over the canvas.


RA: And what do you plan to bring us in the future?

CF: I am finishing college and to me this is a blessing, for I need more time for my projects. I’m currently working on a series called ‘Star Sowers’, which incidentally I decided to offer as a tribute to master Carrington. For this series I have been employing a bit of hermetic philosophy, Fucanelli’s written work, Stoic concepts, Chaos Magic and something from the Cathar Heresy. It is interesting to have an immediate reflection on my work, and not a romantically brooding personal story. I’ve worked in this way before and I’d like to continue. I will be also be working with a series of portraits using traditional techniques, and some others with clean photography under the theme of witchcraft. For the first time I’d like to present and publish this apart from my digitally manipulated work. Possibly it will take a long time to finish, but it will definitely be worth it.


RA: We shall look forward to that Cristina, thank you.

CF: Thank you.

El corazón del cuarto, el cuarto del corazón, digital media, 2009

Dos pudiendo ser Tres, digital media, 2011


Abraxas #2


Edited by Robert Ansell and Christina Oakley Harrington

200 copies only
with an ORIGINAL signed and numbered silkscreen-print by Barry William Hale entitled Regina Phasmatum.