Janis Rafa

GR, 1984
  • resident
    • 2013 – 2014
  • guest advisor
    • 2023 – Now

Artist statement

Janis Rafa has consistently used film and video as her most prevalent visual language, but her moving-image narratives are often complemented by installations, sculptures, and drawings, adding a multimedia dimension to her practice and research. Her video installations are disquieting, fable-like, and cryptic. They concentrate on subjective experiences and places by positioning human characters in close proximity to non-human beings – animals and plantlife, alive or dead, through an alternative non-anthropocentric, non-logocentric lens. Narrating in film and video has allowed her to construct an authentic and intimate visual world, based on actual incidents, personal experiences, and site-specific research in locations on the periphery of human activity. 

Immediately after obtaining a PhD in Fine Art at the University of Leeds in 2012, she enrolled at the Rijksakademie the following year. During her residency, Rafa moved from a video essayistic and experimental documentary practice, towards a more cinematographic format. At the Open Studios, she presented = Three Farewells (2013) and Gravediggers (2014), where the human character acts as a mourning device for the unregistered bodies of animals, such as roadkill or hunted animals. This is performed through repetitive rituals and performances of collecting, fare-welling, burying, and unearthing that form a circular pattern to her narratives and became lasting motifs in her work. Such zoological imagery and the lack of text or dialogue in Rafa’s work became prominent themes during these first cinematic projects, bringing together all her visions, influences, and autobiographical accounts into a single narrative. 

According to Rafa, filmmaking is a tool for observation but also for subversion and reconstruction of what is considered familiar or acceptable. Through a fictionalised version of reality, she ‘resets the parameters’ around taboos, purity, intimacy, and the occult –displacing the dominant subject by bringing forward the non-human. Her site-specific explorations have also allowed her to investigate the history of peripheral landscapes and address the position of marginalised communities and their non-human beings. These explorations act as a kind of proxy to archaeology that balances subjective interpretation and authentic representation as these worlds become fictionalised within her narratives, through her realist lens.

Rafa often draws her imagery from Western Art history and iconography from biblical paintings, with their representation of male dominion and possession – but inverting the given hierarchies, for example, with respect to hunting dogs, prey, or the repression of the female subject, whose roles have been reversed.Lacerate (2020) is a 16-minute film presented at The Milk of Dreams, which blends elements of realism with a nightmarish, symbolic dimension, portraying the extreme transformation of a woman. The film takes place in the decaying remains of a once-opulent home. Restless dogs roam the halls, noisily panting and gnawing at discarded meat, household objects, and furniture. Feathered fowl birds lay dead, fruits and milk rot on the dining table, and on the floor lies a man bleeding from his neck. In this film, Rafa carefully chooses the moments after the act of revenge or self-defence when the dramatic climax has passed, where the woman has completely transformed from victim into executioner. The film suggests an allegory of self-defence against domestic and gender-based violence and references the seventeenth-century Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s famous proto-feminist work, Judith Beheading Holofernes

Rafa equally engages in a parallel practice of sourcing artefacts during the location scouting of her films, treating these objects as archaeological findings that are yet to be discovered and observed outside their locality. Composed of organic or inorganic materials made for a particular purpose, these artefacts have to do with another kind of result of human dominance and interaction in relation to animality: animals under control and in captivity.

Her debut feature film Kala azar (2020) had its premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (where it won the KNF award), and was also shown at ‘New Directors/New Films 2021’ at the MoMA. Her works have been exhibited at the 59th Biennale di Venezia (2022); the Goethe-Institut, Athens (2021); MAXXI, Rome (2022/2020); the Bucharest Biennial (2021); State of Concept, Athens (2020); Centraal Museum, Utrecht (2019); Manifesta 12, Palermo (2018); Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence (2017); Centre d’art Contemporain Chanot (2017); Mardin Biennial (2018); Kunsthalle Munster (2017); EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam (2016/2021); and Palazzo Strozzi, Florence (2015). Equally, Rafa’s work is part of several institutional and private collections, including: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Centraal Museum, Utrecht; Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar; and Fondazione In Between Art Film, Rome.

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