Mythology of Self: Symbolism and Borrowed Rituals with Stéphanie De Couto Costa – Marie-Christine Dubé

Stéphanie De Couto Costa received her bachelors degree in Visual and Media Arts from l’Université du Québec à Montréal in 2010. Since then, she has participated in a number of exhibitions and residencies. She is Vice President on the administration board of Graff Studio, a print focused artist run centre in Montreal. Currently pursuing an MFA in Print Media at Concordia University, De Couto Costa is developing work that questions the disorienting feeling of loss, our break from traditional values and the constant redefinition of feminine identity. Inspired by vanity portraits and the works of women storytellers, she illustrates figures in transformation, which represent the key notion of her work: duality. These anthropomorphic figures allow De Couto Costa to explore certain identities in discord with cultural ideologies. Although the images depict moments of tension and incessant transformation, a sense of calm pervades the inner chaos unravelling to produce an alarming detachment where what is unspoken reveals a hidden truth. Indeed, like many second-generation immigrants, she feels dissociated from her origins, and these meditations allow her to create a new visual reality that represents the hybrid nature of contemporary identity.

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Marie-Christine Dubé: The majority of your characters are women and animals, especially scarabs (beetles?), as though they form part of a certain personal mythology. Can you tell us more about these characters?

Stéphanie De Couto Costa: I always have found that there are objects in our surroundings that have rich symbolic connotations, and stay itemized in our collective memory. Like the way certain characters in fables remain salient. In the same way, certain animals are associated with the villain (beast) and others with the saviour or the vulnerable. Referencing animals as symbolic representations of human emotion stems from this idea. Appropriating the imagery and creating dialogue between these symbols allows me to create a personal mythology, representative of the hybrid nature of contemporary identity. When viewers experience the works, they are confronted with a fragmented narrative. Yet they will understand the tone of the work, without it being so literal, because the symbols remain simultaneously common and subjective. I like the idea of viewers feeling the spaces with their own memories and experiences.

The representation of women in my work can be explained by the simple fact that I am a woman. Since my work touches on the self, everything is shown through a feminine perspective. I would have difficulty positioning myself otherwise. I am very inspired by works of feminist writers, like Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter, and their appropriation of female representation in folktales. Like them, I do try to play on subversive representations of “woman.”

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MCD: How much of your personal life do you see reflected in your art?

SDCC: It always comes from my life, and then it lives on its own. As I just mentioned, my body of work is based on personal, lived and then shared experience. I often work from anecdotes and profound questions, but these remain in incessant transformation without ever getting resolved or answered. For example, I have worked on the notion of death, a way for me to mourn and try to understand what was happening to me, but working with this theme wasn’t about searching for answers. It was a process, a meditation. Through such a process, I wish to translate the effects of life events, to understand if some behaviours are universal or if we live our experiences alone, in a totally individual way.

I’m not looking to render my life story, but rather to bring to light meditations and concerns I encounter in my daily life. I think many people can recognize themselves in my work, even with its proximity to my life.

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My written work tends to be even more personal. In Conversations with My Mother (a hand crafted book I wrote and illustrated), for example, I am once more questioning loss, but also conditioning. Through bits of conversation with my mother, I am trying to reveal links between my relationship to death and the way I was raised. Every family conceals their dysfunctions. I was very affected by the Catholic guilt that my family passed on to me. It made for confusing perceptions of death, but great material to work with. Plus, I think everyone can identify with that disconnect we feel from those who are supposed to be the closest to us.

Excerpts from Conversations with my Mother
Plate lithography on BFK rives paper, 2009.
6 pages: 25,20 cm by 19,30 cm

Part 1.

My mother says, ‘’family who love each other only exist on television.’’

I say:
Give me new objectives
Give me more life lessons

As a child, I had trouble falling asleep, so I would turn to my imagination
A double life
Worthless experiences

Today:
I’m a waitress, a daughter, a mother, an artist and an actress.
The preceding roles might all be false. Or might as well be so.

My mother also said, ‘’the only thing free in life is to dream.’’

I say:
Give me higher standards
Give my more life lessons

Part 2.

A half hour to go
We would count the corpses on the side of the road.
I never win.
He thinks distraction is key.
I see that denial is best.

A few years more, I lost her to the side of the road.

I know what purgatory is.
It’s what your parents scared you with as a young girl.

‘’She’ll never be in peace, walking the earth’’
-Where do they go?
-Why die then…

Raccoon, beaver and deer,
Some mammals are more common than others.

Part 3.

I left my ex lover because of his allergies to dogs.
Every time I would touch him, he would get a rash.

When I’m uncomfortable, I say ‘’I love you’’ out loud.
I think I pathologically misunderstood the use of this statement.

I’m terrified of falling asleep in public spaces.

Note*
Avoid the library and public transit

‘’Self doubt’’ this can be one of your ultimate life lessons.
I think I’m emotionally unavailable
-What do you think?
-Never mind… it’s not good to rely on others.

My mother held me, when my friend passed away.
‘’I’m so sorry ‘’, she said.
The awkwardness made the crying stop

 

MCD: You often work in black and white, or have few colours in your work. Is that specific to the medium of lithography or is it personal choice?

SDCC: It’s a personal preference. I don’t understand color. I like it in the works of others, but I won’t use it if it does not add to the reading. Color is as important as any symbol featured in the work. I’m not going to try to make a work more aesthetically pleasing with color.

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One of my very few works with color is Half Mourning (2012). This is a two passage lithography, the first black the second a light shade of pink. I even hesitated in the printing process, for you are supposed to go from light to dark impressions. I used colour in this piece because it added to the subject, which is illustrating the second phase of Catholic mourning rituals: Half Mourning. During this phase, you can slowly integrate floral patterns and pastel colours in your clothing. So in this case the colour does add to the subject by insisting on the very specific ritual I am referencing. When I created this piece, I was in this particular phase myself so I created a dress questioning this ritual. Since, in accordance with custom, I wasn’t of close enough proximity to the deceased, I altered the dress and made it subversive. To mourn is not something that we can show, it is an interior process, a quiet one that does not have a deadline attached to it. I raise such notions of death and identity in my work because I am interested in the ceremonial aspect binding these two concepts. Analyzing my own relationship to death from my cultural heritage and the shock of loss, I’m staging a scene illustrating the absurdity and the glorification of death, and at the same time, pointing to our need to keep these rituals close.

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MCD: You once told me that you do a lot of research before you begin a new piece. Do you always proceed like this? And how does that affect your creation process?

SDCC: I consider myself to be a researcher, even more so as an MFA candidate. To add to the load of work, I often choose processes that take time. I prefer film to digital, moulding to casting, lithography to silkscreen. I not only prefer the details contributed by these techniques, but I enjoy creating in slowness. I like the constant questioning that comes with meditative practices. My ideas take shape in this reflective space.

The idea of research is not necessarily a way to defend my work with proven facts, but rather to establish a link between my experiences and those of others. For example, I can orient my findings in the sphere of psychology, most particularly in relation to physical and psychological legacies passed from one generation to the next.

I also like to retrace different versions of a same story to explore various possible representational modes according to era, gender and socio-economic context.

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MCD: Origins seem important within your work. Would you say that personal origins serve as a great source of inspiration for you? How does your family feel about figuring in your work at times?

SDCC: Family is the foundation of my work, because the way that I question everything stems from being dissociated from my heritage. Being the daughter of second-generation immigrants leads me to constantly search for markers. It contributes to the reason why my characters wear costumes; they always seem to be wearing a disguise that allows me to explore different personas. I remember giving my family the Graff 2011 calendar, which featured Scarab I. They stopped at the fact that a scarab is a bug and questioned why would I want to represent such an ugly creature. I find it interesting to have such a conservative family; it has not only made me marginal, but I’m constantly immersed in these situations of conflict and I’m very attracted to those, they feed my work. My family has given me lots of material through the years, especially because my parents never completely embraced their roots. They have always kept this tense relationship to their identity, which I inherited. It’s the core of my work, this relentless duality.

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Image Credits:

Stéphanie De Couto Costa, Road kill, 2013.
Stone lithography on BFK rives paper,
(Triptych, 1 of 3, Transformation in the Woods)
50.80cm by 66.04cm.

Stéphanie De Couto Costa, What remains I, 2013.
Graphite on Fabriano Artistico paper,
76.20cm by 55.88cm

Stéphanie De Couto Costa, What remains II, 2013.
Graphite on Fabriano Artistico paper,
76.20cm by 55.88cm

Stéphanie De Couto Costa Cataclysm, 2012.
Photolithography on paper BFK rives,
(Diptych 1 of 2)
55.88cm by 76.20cm.

Stephanie De Couto Costa, Half mourning, 2012.
Two color stone lithography on Somerset paper,
50.80 cm by 66.04 cm

Stéphanie De Couto Costa, Two little dead girls, 2011.
Stone lithography on BFK rives paper,
38.10 cm by 30.48cm.

Stéphanie De Couto Costa, Scarab II, 2011.
Stone lithography on BFK rives paper,
50.80cm by 66.04cm.

Stéphanie De Couto Costa received her bachelor degree in Visual and Media Arts from Université du Québec à Montréal in 2010. She as since then participated in different exhibition and residencies. She is a Vice President of the administration board of Graff Studio, a print focused artist run center in Montreal. She lives in Montreal, where she is currently pursuing a MFA in Print Media at Concordia University. 

Marie-Christine Dubé is completing a bachelor degree in history of art at University of Quebec in Montreal.