Tania Maria Mastroianni is an Australian / Italian artist currently residing in the New South Wales coastal town of Wollongong; where in 2016 she was the formal Artist in Residence at the Wollongong Art Gallery. Working primarily in painting and installation Tania explores themes of religion, childhood, the feminine, occult and myths in her works.
(Photo of Tania and some of her works, below)
With Tania having just finished up her aforementioned residency and her first music video for up and coming rockers ‘The Dark Clouds’, now is the perfect time to get to know Tania and her art by reading the Art Talk interview, below…
Basics/Getting to Know
Name + D.O.B?
City, State and Country you currently reside?
Wollongong, NSW, Australia.
City, State and Country you were born in?
Wollongong, NSW, Australia.
(Photos below from Tania’s 2016 Wollongong solo show – ‘Hapless Times At The Gates Of Euphoria’)
Describe a memory from some stages of your life… basically trying to piece together some pivotal moments. Concerts, art, toys, romance, school, crime… ANYTHING really!
* age 5 – beginnings:
I actually remember being in my cot as a baby with my soft toys.
I also remember being under a table at a dinner party. I was trying to suck peoples toes. I can still feel the nylon hosiery in my mouth, and then I have a flash of a man’s black winkle pinker in my mouth. Then I got grossed out tasting the dirt. I tried to make some other kids do it with me, but I think there were tears.
Later that night I was really really put out, when I was made to sit with the other children on the little peoples dinner table.
* age 10 – continuations:
I made my belated Holy Communion in Rome dressed as a white nun about this time. I was traumatised having to confess my sins to the priest in preparation for that.
I remember coming back to Australia for a few weeks, for my aunt’s wedding. I remember playing ping pong and then some 15 year old surfer guy, who had been severely burned by pulling a kettle onto himself as a child, had tried to kiss me. I remember feeling guilty for that but I hadn’t done a thing. I pushed him and ran away.
Later back in Italy, I remember running through the snow to get help to save my father’s life.
I developed a nervous rapid eye blinking thing around that time.
(Tania and family in Italy – with Tania all dressed up for her Holy Communion)
* age 15 – getting serious:
I was serious, pensive, creative and was considered quite perfect and saintly at 15. I hadn’t ‘rebelled’ at that time, but it wouldn’t take too long. I was also sensitive. I have an inbuilt bullshit detector but I also have a soft, compassionate heart. I didn’t (and still don’t) find these two qualities easy to harmoniously reconcile.
I went to a catholic ladies college with the school motto -“I was born for higher things”. I also worked at McDonalds at 15 because my parents were always struggling financially. So I could buy weird and whacky designer clothes, so as to separate myself from the rest of the crowd (yes once there really were alternatives). I came runner up in our shitty local mall modelling competition, but I was too short to crack it at a mere 163cm. But I got free stuff, including a ladies deportment and grooming course.
Then I shaved half my long long hair off, dyed some of it fire engine red and wore fishnet stockings. My father fell to his knees wailing… Crap, I’m not giving you one pivotal memory here…
Got kicked out of the ladies collage and home because they said I was a ‘bohemian’. In my Wollongong world of that era, they used to try and run us over for not being surfer chicks, nor compliant and in the back of their panel vans. It was a violent misogynistic place, really. Still a lot of amazing creative people have come from here and I consider myself one of the top ten [smiles].
* age 20 – young adult:
I used to tell my dad I was an artist and he used to say “Yesss, a bullshita artist!” but that isn’t true, I spent most of my life being far too honest.
I used to wear coloured wigs and dance dressed in very little but glitter, sequins and feathers (vintage style creations I made). With smoke machines and strobe lights to Edith Piaf and Shirley Bassy – for a shit load of money. I find all this new Burlesque stuff incredibly boring, even annoying.
I also used to study art at The National Art School, East Sydney when I bothered to be there. I thought I would make it in the art world, because I knew I was extraordinary and I convinced most that met me, that I was too. I had got into the art school a few years earlier, with my portfolio which included the piece de resistance – a huge purple and fuschia pastel drawing on black paper of my vagina, which I had done holding a mirror.
I also knew Brett Whitely around this time. I never liked his work, but I used to audaciously ask him what he thought of mine.
(Photo below of Tania dressed up as Frida Kahlo at an art school party – were she won best dressed!)
* age 25 – adult mode:
I used to get offered really weird but amazing opportunities all the time, which I mostly wasted. I hung out with the eccentric, creative, edgy and impulsive people. My girlfriends were in radical dance troupes and did performances mock masturbating with crucifixes (to live music played by underground bands). Boys were usually musicians, or wanna be musicians who would sell their house just for the hell of it. Then we would go travelling around on Grey Hound Buses, but we would stay in 5 Star Hotels with silver service.
I was actually pretty out of control.
I threw myself into a lot of extreme situations, because I really wanted to experience what life was, and I thought that I wanted to know all the dimensions of living – especially for my art. I’m actually very lucky to have survived.
My dad died when I was twenty seven. I saw the room fill up with golden light when he passed, and then I felt his spirit move through me. I also had a near death experience a few years before I turned 30 and I was sent back. This profoundly affected me. After that, I was really trying to be ‘good’ and to be an all star high achiever, and felt very driven to make up for what I perceived to have been lost time.
(Self portraits of Tania in her 20s, below)
* age 30 – fully formed:
Was I fully formed at 30? I was just getting started.
A few years earlier, I was at TAFE then Wollongong Uni doing Creative Arts and then post grad at Sydney College of the Arts, where I wrote my research paper on performing female sexualities. I trained as a printmaker and painter, then went on to do post graduate in Sculpture, Installation and Performance Art. I also had a contemporary art gallery in Wollongong called Artism, while still being an under graduate art student. I remember a lecturer telling me I was getting ahead of myself and that I should enjoy the ride as the ‘flavour of the month’. Jerk.
I was hanging with other cool kids and a few have died, other’s have gone on to be stars in various fields, but I’m not a name dropper.
* age 35 adult continuations:
I was flying high (not drug induced) and then I was struck down with one of those ‘”mystery” illnesses. I was totally, totally cactus. I ‘d keep pushing myself though it, for years because I’m very determined and have a strong temperament. I would keep trying to do everything I wanted to do including having a great career, being creative, an advocator for change, having an awesome social life, exciting love affairs and travelling to Rome as often as I could.
But eventually I ended up leveled flat on a bed in a bare room with an oxygen tank. Nobody around me understood what I was experiencing, and many thought I was doing it for pity or attention. That was totally, but totally shit. I remember a GP showing me to his door around that time, while telling me to “get a life”.
I crawled and clawed my way back. I lost a lot through this experience. A lot I never actually got back, but I sure as hell gained profound life lessons.
* age 40 – meanderings:
I’m straining myself now – I really wanted to live in Italy (not Australia) for a long time, but eventually I had to accept that I wouldn’t ever be able to gain dual citizenship. No matter what I did. I wasn’t the type to marry someone for it, because I believed it was rightfully mine. It was in my blood, even if international bureaucracy and red tape wouldn’t see it that way.
* age 45 – adult continuations:
Ha. I’m getting tired just thinking about it. Anyway in the context of my art practice – I returned to it with vengeance. It was one thing that couldn’t be taken from me. Yes, life has tried. It still tries.
But after all, I know my art practice is mine. It helped me understand who I was. Yes it raises more questions too, but it allows me to make sense of the world. When I make art I am transported to another place. I am lulled, I am loved and I am home.
(A recent photo of Tania – as the Mother of all Mothers – below)
“I was born for higher things” (ha).
Or also “True creativity is the constant renewal of self”. I used that last one on my first exhibition invite when I was in my 20’s – how tacky is that? But yes, yes so profound too. It still obviously applies to some part of me.
When and why did you first start making art of any type!?
My mother is a very creative person, talented and she always encouraged my creativity. I mean as a child she really did. I loved to write and play music, and especially to dance. But my parents were poor, so I worked out I could draw and paint and write and they didn’t have to find money to pay for lessons. Otherwise, I probably would’ve kept dancing or learned to play the piano.
What did you draw and/or make as a pre-teen child?
Probably not that different to what I’m painting and drawing now. Ha.
What did you draw and/or make as a teen?
Ummmm…. Let me think. As a young teen, I remember drawing myself wearing a black lace wedding dress and holding a white lily. Like something gothic you would be buried in. Sometimes this mythical dress was red lace.
I used to do things for the school magazine to rave reviews, but then I got too provocative and critical of things like uniforms and conformity, and the school system treating us like we were on a human production line. So I was censored and unpublished.
(Art by Tania below from her ‘Crying Creatures’ series from 2017)
Any pivotal artistic moment/influence?
Lots of them, really. Let’s be frank this interview is turning into a novel…
I remember when I was still in high school and did my first ‘real’ painting in oils on a large canvas. It was stolen by some guy who put it into an exhibition at Wollongong Art Gallery. It was a new wave surrealist self portrait collage, thing. Several photographs of me were cut out and I was floating on fluorescent orange balls.
I heard he gave a public talk about it too. Standing in front of my self portrait, telling the crowed that it was his artwork. Someone asked about the girl. He said it was his girlfriend – I wasn’t. I think this experience was pivotal. When I had the artist residency there last year, I walked out of the studio late one night, and that very guy reappeared in front of me. He hadn’t been in Wollongong for a very long time, and I’m sure he was just passing through. He rushed up to me really excited and called my name several times. I didn’t flinch. I looked through him, like he didn’t exist. It was very satisfying to do that after all those years.
Do you consider what you are making to be art , design , re-hashed crap?
Worst aspect of the contemporary art hustle?
I really try to remain positive cos of course the bitterness isn’t a good look. The pond is small, same artists muscling others out for the few crumbs we get. The stuff I was doing years ago is now in the bigger name galleries, but it doesn’t have my name on it. Like text in neon lights is still cutting edge? Is that really still that interesting?
I also have a beef with the way art prizes take our money, for our privilege of receiving rejection emails. I mean $50 might not mean much to someone who is gainfully employed, on my back – the artist.
Sometimes, I think the contemporary art hustle is verging on criminality. Unfortunately I haven’t worked out how to secure my very own art pimp. Don’t get me started on funding. I’ve been around long enough to know, that when we were whinging about being artists before, someone should’ve slapped us on the face and told us it was actually the golden years.
Best aspect of the contemporary art hustle?
I can’t think of many except the making of the art.
Maybe in my case, essentially being ’emerging’ for a long time, I guess I have been able to experiment with different ways of working with out being typecast. The same themes have always been present eg. sex and death but I don’t have a regimented, proven formula that I have to produce to satisfy anyone.
The other good aspect is sense of community, but that was a lot stronger before than it is now.
(Photos below of a wall installation by Tania, who stated that: “These images are some examples of wall installations I have been working with since around 2011. The grew out of earlier work I was doing for my post graduation studies. The individual pieces are made from polymer clay and ceramics. The are hand gilded and use fine crotchet and human hair, too. Yes, witchy stuff but also related to Catholic ex-voto – for miracle requests.“)
Favorite other artist(s)?
There are so many talented people – look at them all on Instagram. Am I being cynical? Yes. Still, it is great when you find people who are kind of like your contemporary creative kin.
I love looking at the old stuff in places like Naples and Rome. Art under ground in crypts, the churches and the museums. More obscure things.
Why + when did you decide to go in on the art hustle?
I was considered quite ‘gifted’ as a child so that likely reaffirmed something. I used to win all the art prizes I entered. I got out of science and math class too often to paint sets for the school plays. I declared my gran plan definitively around 14. Through out my art studies, teachers and academics praised me and I was usually one of their shining lights. Even they thought I had what it took to make it.
Describe the process of producing your art? materials, process, turning an ethereal idea into tangible art etc… (dot point all o.k.)
Depends what I’m producing. I have different approaches pending what I’m doing.
I usually just start….and then it is all I really want to do. I often have a chuckle to myself when I see what I’m doing.
It seems sugary and sweet and then when you (me or the viewer) are lured in – it’s like an uneasy OMG. It is amazing how many people are scared of my work. If they aren’t the strong, grounded types it can and does set many of them off. But other people have come to my artwork for healing, and that is very powerful and magical. I’m also conscious of my self because there are autobiographical elements to my work, but I think I’m growing less concerned about other’s opinions.
(Art by Tania below from her ‘Crying Creatures’ series from 2017)
Thoughts on the current state of the ole Australian Art Scene?
Umm, the gender politics is still pretty skewiff and this country focuses much attention and money on the ‘young’ artists. Are they really making all the poignant stuff?
The scene has shifted somehow, I’m not sure I completely understand it. I felt strange after my last major exhibition. People not really buying much of my work, but being more than happy to take a picture of it on their iPhone and use it as their screen saver. Or all those hundreds of people not # tagging me (nor referencing my images) when they took a bunch of photos and put it on their social media pages. Felt a bit like like being chewed up and spat out of the wonky art machine. Still, I always run into people that tell me how much they loved the exhibition. So praise, hey hey for that.
More broadly it feels like the Australian art audience still needs to be told if they should be endorsing you or not. There is still a lack of respect. I mean, it can be explained away by some ignorance, but when it comes from within the art ranks – I do struggle.
I could send thirty emails out, putting my hand up or looking for gallery representation or inviting people to an opening; I will be lucky to get one reply. Maybe because I am a ‘regional’ artist or every one is over saturated.
Feels also like there is a broader agenda in the Australian Arts Scene. In many ways there rightfully deserves to be an agenda, but it feels like, well if I’m not a potential poster child for ‘x’ or ‘y’ or ‘z’ then it will be very hard to get a look in. Now I’m not as interesting as other cultural groups. I am making engaging art and I’m prolific and dedicated. It is proven. BUT this is not what it really takes to be supported and acknowledged in this country. It can feel a bit soul destroying.
Maybe if I could make someone else some money.…but my work is not mainstream enough.
Yet I’m constantly battling with myself, and wishing I didn’t want ‘their’ approval (on some level). My other artist, writer and musician friends are also battling their version of the same; trying to come to terms with the need to make art in a world that doesn’t really validate us.
Recently, after a major solo exhibition I was told that my work was not for commercial galleries but for my contemporaries and my art peers, and that I would have their respect. I thought I was being asked a question, I realised I was being told that is the way it was. I don’t accept that.
Last year I had a coveted art residency and a major solo show. I was a finalist in The Blake Prize, The North Sydney Art Prize and The Fisher’s Ghost Art Prize. That doesn’t really amount to much, because I am still feeling largely ignored and under valued (you’ve got that by now?) I am told however, that I just have to keep keeping with it & keep doing what I do. I do wonder how I can. I think that collectively and personally, the really good and interesting stuff can come out of the darkest times. It just feels like no one really gives a shit when you are there.
Odds n Ends
Please describe your experiences growing up in Australia?
Do I have to? I don’t really want to. I never found it a welcoming place, but neither was Italy welcoming to me. I was half a wog and half an Aussie. Lost somewhere in the never lands. Then somehow, somewhere, sometime – that all became cool. Bit late for me.
I remember teaching some refugee kids a few years back, who thought it was just the bees knee’s to be Italian. I still resent the suffering that was DNA encoded into me via my parents being viewed as inter-racial love out -laws.
Please describe what you think the Australian Psyche/Zeitgeist is today?
I see a lot of unhappy people. I mean fundamentally, soulfully unhappy. Bigger and bigger division between the haves and have nots.
The mediocre have somethings e.g. a home and a car still think they are on the have not list. They aren’t really looking around. Come catch the bus with me.
(Art by Tania below from her ‘Crying Creatures’ series from 2017)
Who was your 1st crush and why?
I don’t have crushes. I do however have crushers.
Does sex change everything?
It depends on who you are having sex with and why.
Which cartoon character, would you most like to see in a tribute sex toy, and why?
(Please sketch a prototype of your design.)
Are we talking vibrators? I hear rabbits are a go.
Who would win in a fight and why: Ned Kelly Vs. Benito Mussolini?
(Please draw the battle in all it s violent beauty!)
What? Come on, I’ve got enough going on in my head to squeeze that scenario in.
Anyway it would just look like some Hipster fighting some Leb guy to the death.
Please describe your latest dream in detail.
I am born on the day of Dreams and Visions like Edgar Allen Poe, Dolly Parton and Janis Joplin. The veil is thin between my worlds.
I recently dreamed I was in my family home and there were soldiers with machine guns on the street. We were told we had to leave. It was like an occupation/world war scenario. That isn’t so interesting, but I am often given information in my sleep state and then I use it in my work. They often become titles too, like ‘Hapless Times At The Gates Of Euphoria’ and recently ‘The Crying Creatures’ – spirit voices, maybe.
(Art by Tania below from her ‘Crying Creatures’ series from 2017)
Of everything you have done what would you most like to be remembered for and why?
I will exist if you ‘Google’ me.
I have left some kind of a mark, but not like Frida Kahlo. Poor Frida, they have milked her way beyond her death. I bet she would’ve hated what they have done.
A psychic once told me, when I was quite young that I was going to leave my mark, that my name would be etched in stone. I used to tell people that and some used to laugh at me and say “Yeh, like on your tomb stone”.
Drugs – waste of time or gateway to the universe?
I’m glad they didn’t have crystal meth in my youth.
Everything we ever do shapes us. It would be better if people approached drug taking with great respect and with spiritual support, like in the ancient Grecian Temples and The Mystery Schools.
Anyway, most drugs these days are fake chemical bombs. So it’s also potentially a form of social engineering.
What role did toys play in your childhood?
Some of my favourites were my dolls sent to me from Italy that had small records you put into their back, and they talked Italian and cried. No one had ever seen anything like them here.
I loved those baby bottles that looked like the milk was going down when you fed the doll. They still make them!
I loved my Slinky and my Spirograph, Pick up Sticks and Snakes and Ladders, Trouble and my thing that was an orange ball with horns, that we used to bounce around on. What were those orange bouncy balls called? Hippity-Hops or Space somethings….
(Photo below of Tania, her brother as kids, with some of their toys)
What are the top 3 items you own? please include photos or art of them!
I actually don’t have my favourite things with me at this time. Ummm, I will look on my phone and see what I have a pic of. I think my collection of ex-voto from Italy, and my Virgin Mary and Jesus statue and my rings that I wear every day. Most of them are very old Italian rings. I love antiques.
My cat too, but she isn’t with me right now. Oh that is four…and she isn’t an item, she is my baby and my familiar.
In many of your interviews you mention your time in Italy during the period of the far left Red Brigades (1970 to 1988)…
* what drew you to the group and their politics?
Let me be clear – I was a kid. I didn’t have a clue about their politics and what was really happening. I felt the edge in the air though. Like some kind of revolution mixed with the scent of dog eat dog.
This was theoretically, the still lingering good years known as “The Dolce Vita” (The Sweet Life).
I was attracted to the graffiti and the graphics of their logo plastered on walls and the door to their head quarters. Which was also on the very street I lived on – an area of social housing built by Mussolini in the 1920’s. Now it is gentrified to the hilt. I think I was curious because it was so different to the suburbs of Wollongong. Curious because of the lowered voices when adults talked about them. It wasn’t something a child was supposed to know (or care) about. It was ultimately to become about violence and death. They were mostly big kids, university students hanging on the streets and singing songs. I assumed they were intellectuals for some reason, so maybe I liked that. They had long wild manes of hair. They wore these tiny beaded safety pins on their tight, tight denim with satin and crushed velvet. They rode around on Vespas with no helmets.
They were as hot as fuck. That is what I liked.
* why do you think the group existed and indeed for a short time flourished in Italy at the time?
Essentially you are asking me why terrorism exists and of course, such a loaded question. Obviously people had started to split (again) into self defining and polarising factions; maybe after they had had a brief taste of how it could of been better and then it wasn’t. People felt disempowered.
Sound familiar? I don’t think we live in a world where armed struggle should ever be considered ‘re-evolutionary’ but that is the point. Revolving door evolution.
I struggle to see how humanity really is socially and politically evolving. Some times we are. Like my father had strong Leftist views and he came to this country from Italy. He was an active Labour Party supporter, even though they tried to denounce him in the media as a Communist (the ultimate put down of the day). He raised my brother and I to think and to question and to have a voice.
He encouraged us to be interested in and supportive of newly arrived immigrants and refugees. That in itself was/is a progressive act.
My art work deals with the spiritual and the esoteric, but it also deals with the political. Except some people can’t see past some things eg. The Virgin Mary. This new series is very Conspiracy Theory. But how much of all of it is just a theory? It won’t always be a derogatory term, trust me. Sorry, I digress…
* care to elaborate on your current political standing?
I remember seeing Gough Whitlam some years back at an arts event. My inner self desperately wanted to go up to him, hug him and then ask him if I could curl up in his lap, but I refrained from doing it. I kind of regret that.
I live in what is deemed to be one of the best countries on the face of this planet, and currently have no idea how I will keep a roof over my head. Actually I can already see the stars peeking through. So when I think about basic shit like that, I can see why people have felt like something had to give. And that is why we have prayer and New Age beliefs, but it doesn’t seem to be working so well for many [giggles].
(Art by Tania below from her ‘Crying Creatures’ series from 2017)
If people wanted to collaborate, work with you or just buy some art how should they get in touch?
Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me on social media.
I have to update my old website and make a new one, but yeh, contact me from there too: www.taniamastroianni.net
Any collaborations on the horizon?
I have recently been working with Ali Jane Smith, a very talented poet and critic. We’ve been talking about how we can work together on some projects, but our self defined brief was that it had to be fun and easy. Both of us have stayed in Wollongong and that in itself was once a rather humbling act. Anyway, we have a shared history and we come from a similar place/space. I think we are both ardent observers and we see things, we study things others might miss.
She sent me a couple of poems and I chose one called ‘Cockroachery’. I don’t say illustrate because I don’t see myself as an illustrator. So I have being doing some watercolours of cockroaches which has been fun (who would of thought). We made a short film, whispering the words of her poem over laid over my images. It has tension and some drama. Like the thoughts people have ordinarily, day to day. Ali and I have been talking about producing a limited edition of tea towels, too.
I also recently did a film clip for The Dark Clouds, a band based in Wollongong. They describe their music as “eclectic, electric antipodean proto-punk”. It is low brow/low tech and I used stills from my current body of work, that I’m still producing. The lead singer is also my brother “The Dean Of Dark Clouds”. The track is an original called ‘Soul Man’ (I think it has been dropped from their current set and that is why they gifted it to me). It is hypnotic, melodic crooning kind of psychedelic even…it talks about souls, angels, contracts and being on fire. So the collaboration was actually a pertaining, very symbiotic fit. So, I might like to do develop another with them in the future or with some other musicians.
Check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_7Fz1qvm08
Any major projects you want to hype?
This year I am very fortunate to have a small studio space to work in, as part of Wollongong City Council’s – Creative Spaces, Energising Wollongong’s City Centre.
I am re-visitng aspects of the last body of work, which included oil painted portraits of past lives, locals and some spirit people too. I am animating some of them. People are loving them. I have been working on paper mostly with water colour and inks and some textas, because life has been a tad tenuous. I’m presently over paying for storage of my larger artworks I produce. I picked this latest medium because it was still relatively under explored in my work, and I wanted to do something more intimate and even escapist. I was going anti- installation and anti-conceptual which was how I always defined my art practice.
There is always a theatrical element in my work though, like I think it is actually very Fellini-esque. This new series called ‘The Crying Creatures’ is as well, and it is what I’d like people to get interested in. I want to exhibit them as traditionally framed images, but they certainly have other scope. I’ve tapped into something that is a bit folky, a bit raw but strange and sparkly too. I stripped something back, returning to a fundamental part of myself as an artist and the human psyche, too – a part of something that belongs to me, that was there before I went to art school and way before I gave a damn about being acknowledged by The Establishment.