Interviews

Hannah Yata Takes You on an Acid Trip to Eden

By David Jenison

Hannah Faith Yata has a confession to make: Her inspirations might include nature, mythology and philosophy, but she is sometimes an inspiration for others to drop acid. “I get a lot of very funny, but loving, emails about what people saw when they were tripping and looking at my work,” she laughs. 

The Peach State-born, New York-based artist attracts a pro-psychellia fanbase who love her dynamic use of color and imagery, but many also appreciate the many layers of meaning and symbolism inherent in each piece. For example, the art in her 2016 Dancing in Delirium exhibit at Corey Helford Gallery blends folklore and feminism with visceral energy and dream-like narratives. The characters, often human-animal hybrids, embody Yata’s deep appreciation for natural beauty and tribal beliefs. Her female figures defy objectification, and her surreal landscapes resist exploitation. PRØHBTD spoke with Yata to learn more. 

Nature and femininity seem to be two strong themes across your body of work. What aesthetic and symbolic characteristics do nature and femininity contain that appeal to you as an artist?

The ideas surrounding the feminine and nature have many parallels that appeal to me on many different levels. I think both nature and femininity contain nuances and a certain delicateness that’s rarely respected and tends to be underappreciated. In terms of beauty, the idea of ownership and attitudes towards nature and women were the first things that appealed to me to explore these topics. I felt there was a similar psychological need to dominate and control both aspects in some way. The psychology of this need led me to explore the relationships of our unconscious with nature. The more I started to explore these topics I realized how much the way we are brought up as a society, but also certain facets like religion, also influenced the way we thought about the body and, namely, that of earth. Paul Shepard touched on it beautifully, saying “The abuse of the body, like the abuse of the natural world, is the traditional puritan response… Just as a god stooped to be incarcerated in his religion, his body becomes his lower self in his psychology. Behind the proud self–consciousness and the conscience of the puritan is the despair of his own organism, fear of the involuntary and unconscious aspect of the self inaccessible to control. Nothing so clearly identifies the West as the distrust of the powers of the earth, focused at last upon the undomesticated wildness within.”

What symbolism do you see and wish to convey when painting the naked female form?

The symbolism of being naked is being vulnerable, honest, unprotected. These female figures have no clothes or fashion tying them to a specific time or space. They’re mythical, powerful and content in their state of being. Their bodies are a canvas of energy, and the designs and markings delineate a certain dynamism and suggest stories to be read from.

You studied feminism in college. What is an important feminist milestone within the art world that gives you encouragement and inspiration?

During that time, Jenny Saville’s work really set my world on fire. Her work is so confrontational and unapologetic. I really felt, when you were challenged with her images, it was like a wrestling match with your mind. On one hand, you really loved them, on the other they really challenged a lot of preconceived ideas surrounding beauty. I loved that feeling that somebody was really putting a finger somewhere in the darker regions of my subconscious and poking around.  

What are ways in which Native American tribes view nature and Mother Earth that you adopted into your worldview and that manifest on some level in your artwork?

Not only Native American tribes but really any tribal culture that still holds and has a relationship with the earth really inspires my work. Tribal cultures learn to live more in harmony with the natural rhythms of the planet since they have to live off the land. These cultures believe in different deities and have more respect for animals and the environment. They also have more of a spiritual connection to the cosmos and energy harnessed in the matter around us. A river is not just a river, a mountain is not just a mountain: They tend to be entities, personalities even. Stories surround the land, water, animals, even the weather. They become part of the identity of the people, who understand their life depends on respecting these facets and personalities of nature.

You showcase the beauty of nature, but to what extent, if any, does your artwork encompass an anger as to how modern society treats that beauty?

Through my own work, I process this anger a lot through the idea of beauty rebelling against the forces of control. The psychology and anger surrounding Francis Bacon’s furies were extremely powerful to me. In other paintings, there's an idea of violence, burning, mutation or tethering of forms in some way. The idea of the molestation of the beautiful, the wild, implies that nothing is left in this world that hasn't been negatively touched by human industry. Through this, I imagine my characters in confusion, in rage, discovering the decimation of their tarnished world.

Are there any statements you make through your artwork that the general public tends to overlook?

I guess my work gets a lot of attention for being psychedelic, and that’s totally fine if that’s how people are able to connect to the work. However, I think statements like the disconnection from the indoctrination of beliefs I was brought up to believe in really contributed towards expressing myself in restless compositions and chaotic colors. Also, the feeling of the non-identity. This loss of touch with reality and the abstractification of the world around us also lends itself to the psychology behind the "trippy" themes and masks. 

You are half-Japanese but born and raised in the U.S. To what extent was Japanese culture, and Japanese art in particular, a part of your life? And was it part of your life early on, or did you actively seek it out later in life?

I honestly did not embrace the Japanese side of my heritage for a long time. It made me “different” in school, and I was appalled at the traditional view of women in Japanese society. Of course, society in Japan has changed a lot since then but still remains suppressed in certain aspects.

I don’t feel like I really began to look at Japanese art and culture until I was in my twenties after I began seriously taking on painting full time. I was surprised how much I felt my genes had influenced my work from my Japanese side despite knowing very little about their art and culture before. Among other cultures, I do actively seek to learn more about Japan and the history and stories surrounding Japanese artwork.

You designed the cover for 2015’s Psycadelik Thoughtz, which depicts rapper B.o.B. as possibly an Eastern spirit or deity. Is it a specific reference to Shiva or someone similar, and what were a few key elements you wanted to express about his art through your own?

For Psycadelik Thoughtz, it’s difficult to speak of this album cover as being part of my body of work since it was a commission. However, a lot of his music, including that song on that album, addressed the same disconnection he had to society that mirrored by own. I believe the deity thing came more from the New Age philosophy he was studying at that time. A lot of that preaches the idea of the individual as a god in himself and harnessing the power of the mind.

Some suggest the album cover references the Illuminati. Were you surprised that people suggested this?

It did surprise me just because his music and his media tends to really be anti-Illuminati, especially lately. It really seems it scared his fans seeing him in a strange god-like painting with a third eye near his temple. I think the “third eye” symbolism tends to be an element that gets mixed up with the “All Seeing Eye,” and his fans jumped to conclusions about the work.

The psychedelic aesthetics in your art must be popular with people who smoke cannabis and enjoy acid or mushrooms. Have people come to your exhibit and talked to you while totally high or tripping?

From what I know, no, not many people have come to my exhibits high and tripping. However, not the same can be said for the community that views my work online or actually buys the work. I get a lot of very funny, but loving, emails about what people saw when they were tripping and looking at my work.

Have you ever utilized cannabis or psychedelics to help expand your artistic horizons?

I’ve definitely been asked this a lot! I really haven’t done psychedelics, and I rarely use cannabis to inspire my work. What expands my artistic horizons is reading great thinkers, good speakers and beautiful folklore and mythology. 

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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