Sister Octopi is a long-distance art project created in collaboration with Dubai-based designer, Natalya Konforti, and London-based painter, Justine Formentelli. The immersive installation when assembled is a forest of floating tentacles, each reading like threads of conversation between two artists. Visitors are meant to wander through the hanging jungle, suspending disbelief and immersing themselves in a strange and otherworldly environment.
Separated by oceans and several time zones, the pair designed a format allowing them to create together from different locations, ironically making it perfectly adapted to today’s pandemic lifestyle. Loosely inspired by the surrealist art game “Exquisite Corpse,” they conceived connecting paper panels exchanged via email. Each scroll is a total collaboration, having both created alternating sections in response to the other’s art. The following interview was conducted as part of a documentary by the videographer Nermeen Kamel, a Dubai-based videographer filming a series about the local creative scene.
Nermeen Kamel: Can you tell us more about your work as artists?
Justine Formentelli: I have been a painter for the past 20 years. Having originally studied illustration, my work used to be figurative but after completing my Master’s in Fine Arts two years ago, my work is now much more abstract.
Natalya Konforti: My background is in fashion design, I worked in the textile industry for a decade before moving to Dubai. I really missed the manual aspects of craft and raw experimental creativity so two years ago I set up my company, Glitches & Stitches, to host creative workshops and activations.
N. Kamel: How did you come to collaborate?
NK: To start with, we’re cousins, and we actually share a birthday!
JF: We’ve always had an artistic connection. I visited Natalya in Florida when she was 13 and I was 26; we immediately started to make art together. She was so enthused by our creative sessions that her mother let her miss a whole week of school.
NK: Living in different countries we’ve only seen each other sporadically throughout the years, but we’ve met more recently when I came to visit my sister in London. We had been exchanging sketches on Whatsapp, so we started brainstorming ways to collaborate more substantially at a distance.
N. Kamel: Tell us more about the origins of Sister Octopi
JF: The collaboration came about in June 2018. After a few very difficult family losses, we were all feeling pretty raw and in need of closeness. After my brother’s funeral in the Caribbean, I first channeled my grief through making paintings inspired by violent natural disasters such as tsunamis and hurricanes. Expressing myself has always been my way to cope.
NK: Yes, that funeral was right after a devastating hurricane and images of the battered tropics were seared in my mind. Justine sent a photo of her sketches to the family group text and they really spoke to me. I felt like I had just discovered the language of my grief and needed to paint a response.
JF: Sister Octopi was first and foremost an ode to our family, to the survivors and a tribute to strong sisterhood. Through hours of calls and endless Whatsapp threads, we incorporated our personal histories and complex senses of identity into the project.
NK: We’ve both lived abroad too long to feel at home in our native countries. This and having unconventional parents led to feeling always slightly out of place. We both felt we inherited a part of weirdness but in time we each saw it as an ingredient for creativity. Strangeness and alien-like features were beautifully represented by the octopus which we began to see as the totem of our tribe.
JF: We related the animal’s amazing ability to camouflage with our adaptation to new environments. Natalya has lived in the US, France, China, and now Dubai; I spent my childhood in the Caribbean and Morocco before moving to the US and later London.
N. Kamel: Can you tell us more about the themes that are developed in the various tentacles?
NK: We were particularly inspired by the phenomena that shape natural habitats and how we in turn are influenced by our environments. Many of our themes relate to Nature (mountains, roots, sea, vegetation, etc.); other motifs are linked to the mosaic of our identities (genealogy, tattoos, camouflage, maps, etc.).
We used these elements as metaphors alluding to personal experiences and family history.
JF: We try to develop different angles within each theme. For example, one of the mountain’s tentacles evokes nostalgic and mysterious scenery of our travels, while the other one, more geological, alludes to internal struggles and mental illness.
The deeper we get into the conversation, the more our family mythology grows into universal themes. We are very much looking forward to sharing this project with the wider world.
Justine and Natalya are currently in the process of planning exhibitions for Sister Octopi in Dubai and London. In the meantime, they are documenting their artistic journey through instagram.
Interviewer: Nermeen Kamel
Words by: Natalya Konforti and Justine Formentelli