31-year-old Jasmin Siddiqui lives in Heidelberg and describes herself as a graphic designer. Her modesty prevents her from styling herself as an artist. But in fact, she is exactly that.
34-year-old Falk Lehmann lives in Munich. He is similarly humble, and can be accurately described as an artist as well.
Both have a background in graffiti and street art, but have since become established figures in the world of contemporary art, where they retain their pseudonyms. Falk is still known as Akut, while Jasmin remains Hera. Together, they are Herakut. Combining as perfectly as their names are their opposing styles and tastes.
Hera and Akut believe they were destined to work together. They first met in 2004, while painting a large mural in Spain. They struck up a friendship on the scaffolding and have been inseparable since. Apart from murals, Herakut exhibit their realistically fictional images in galleries worldwide. One show chases the next: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, London, Bristol and… Schmalkalden.
The small town, described as a “vacation resort in the Green Heart of Germany,” is where Akut grew up, in a house his grandparents rebuilt by hand after the Second World War. It is still the family´s home today. There is a small indoor pond teeming with goldfish, and on the walls, portraits of children and Herakut’s first paintings.
The duo has created a studio on the ground floor of this house, splendidly isolated from the distractions of urban life. Hera and Akut begin their day in the kitchen, with a cup of coffee and the local paper. After reading the horoscopes, they choose one forecast to be the motto of the day, then solve a crossword puzzle before discussing their work strategy and starting their session.
We joined Herakut in Schmalkalden to discuss their sources of inspiration, urban life, and injustice.
Wertical: Artists often say they are inspired by big cities. But you, on the contrary, have chosen Schmalkaden as your place of work…
Hera: Cities tend to be a bigger distraction than an inspiration. We find, that our subject matters derive from absolutely anything surrounding us. Even a quiet place can make us think, talk and eventually create an image.
WE: It must have taken some time for your ideas to visually add up to one common thread…
Hera: Not really a long time, as we never tried to foresee the final result. In fact, it has never been about a finished piece at the end of a thought.
WE: Is it about the message you want to communicate?
Hera: Exactly. Communication in our studio is never really about formal matters. Our conversations deal with general topics. We discuss whatever is on our minds while painting. Hence, the dialogue also takes place on the canvas. And in the end of a session, we´ll have the topic for the next canvas. Like a new thesis to start from.
WE: Did your styles begin to merge over time?
Akut: We entitled our first book ‘Perfect Merge’ as I had become clear that our two techniques tie in so close that you cannot really tell them apart – a perfect merge; pretty much from the very beginning.
Hera: Akut once summed it up properly. He said, ‘Hera is building the skeleton whilst I am putting the flesh around it.’ And that´s correct, technique-wise and for content, too. I do the outlines and he brings them to life.
WE: Surely it’s not always easy working within a team. Do you both feel comfortable with the way your work is divided?
Akut: For us, it is all about benefiting from each others´ skills.
Hera: This is why we don’t get on the wrong side of each other. We know what we can and can´t do. Me, for example, I am not into colors at all. I could live with black and white, only. So, colors are Akut’s department.
WE: What is the current thesis that you are trying to find?
Hera: We have already found it, and are in the middle of making that conversation visible, meaning we are already pretty busy painting new canvases.
Akut: What we have to worry about at this point is timing. We are preparing material for four shows, one in London, in Bristol, in New York and first of all in San Francisco. As we can’t both work on one single canvas at the same time – like we could on a big wall – we need to be smart about logistics, and take shifts on each piece.
WE: Your exhibitions have titles; do they somehow reflect your current field of interest?
Hera: They definitely do. The of the upcoming San Francisco exhibitions is titled ‘Loving the Exiled.’ Obviously, it deals with isolation. We have it pretty good and by no means compare our blessed situation with the tragic lives of refugees, but our thoughts started from that feeling: loneliness. We live a nomad lifestyle detached from the ones we love. We both have families, Akut has his girlfriend, I have my boyfriend, but we rarely ever see them. Of course, it is nice to travel, but in the end, you are all alone with your impressions.
WE: So you don’t want to this kind of jet set lifestyle that is considered the ne plus ultra…
Hera: Absolutely not.
WE: You get a lot of positive feedback, attention and respect from collectors, media and galleries. Urban Art has become a term on everyone’s lips. You are part of this movement as your images perfectly fit the time. Are you afraid that all the hype can push you from one ‘exile’ to the next, in that you downgrade from being a successful outsider to an unsuccessful one?
Akut: The Street Art bubble has already burst when the economic crisis began. At that time, we were in London and actually witnessed its result on some fellow artists´ career…
Hera: That was 2008. And now, 2012 we are still going.
WE: Do you ever describe yourself as Urban or Street Artists?
Hera: No, certainly not. We started doing our work before the phrase was born. We did not choose that label.
WE: There should be a new term for what you do, since you do more than what is understand as Street Art.
Hera: If anything, then we both emerged from graffiti.
WE: As in graffiti, you make use of easily understandable communication tools. Is it important for you that your spectators are able to read your visual messages exactly the way you mean them?
Hera: Well, yes, but this “exactly” will never happen. But that´s okay.
Akut: We usually first grab peoples´ attention by the photorealism part, the most approachable, then they get drawn in by the business, the layers, of overall pretty messy aesthetics, and then, as they feel comfortable with the piece, they take their time to try to read the message.
Hera: Of course we cannot expect anyone to interpret our messages in exactly the way we mean them. Everyone has a preset filter, an individual set of associations and emotions, that influence our perception of new things. But maybe our sole goal is to trigger a new thought. To do so, we use all possible channels of communication that one piece can hold. That´s the reason for the letters we use on the piece and the titles we give them, too.
WE: The women and girls in your images transport a feeling of melancholia. They seem to be alone – their facial expressions reveal abuse, misery and loneliness…
Hera: Life is hazardous, especially for women and children, or actually, for anyone on the weaker side, really. Unfortunately, there is no protection for the ones who need it most. I realized that very early in my life, and of course, it still keeps me busy today. In our Herakut vocabulary, the most fragile creatures are symbolized by fawns, little baby deer. And what do fawns do when danger approaches? They roll up on the ground and stop moving. No fight, no flight, nothing. They can really do no harm whatsoever. Even the most mortifying moments.
WE: They are personified innocence.
Hera: Indeed. And in the next moment, they are being shot by a hunter or chopped up by a harvester. As always, it hits the poorest hardest. All women, children, the poor and weak… we give them a face in our work, and some strength and a home. The fawn is one of their symbols.
WE: For weakness and sensitivity?
Hera: Well, for innocence itself. They are no threat to the ones who kill them but die anyway. That is our symbol for anything unfair going on. And there is so much of that. We are really sensitive to that. I even get sad over passing by roadkill. Not to mention seeing images of today´s countless hot spots and war sights. We think a lot about injustice, its victims and how they deal with it. And that is what we reflect in our images.
WE: As well as criticizing our dog-eat-dog society in which we care only about ourselves and superficially about others?
Hera: Yes, things are far from being balanced. And there is no real perfection because no one can “have it all” without leaving a big hole at another part of the world. That thought is actually what one of our last paintings, ‘The Warrior Goddess’ tries to express. She looks perfectly beautiful for the most part: beautiful doll face, nice crown, great skin, perfect chest. She is a goddess, but she is a war goddess, a winner. That means, she is the symbol of victor as well as of loss. No war is won without a tremendous loss. Everything comes at a price. Our goddess has had to give her leg. So, in fact, she is not perfect. Wearing the crown causes a mismatch within the equation. For us, Herakut, it is an essential tool of our work, to utilize beauty and aesthetics for slipping a message that is not so pretty. A spoon of sugar with a drop of medicine.