The Art of Activism & The Women Who Move the World Forward

Interview with artist Oliver Schäfer

IMAGE: Artist Oliver Schäfer beside some of his finished portrait paintings — Leonie Pietrovicci; LeFlash

I met Oliver less than 48 hours ago and had no plans of interviewing him. The second I learned about his incredible artistic talent, I knew I had to learn more about who he is and why he does what he does.

Stating himself as a “Painter of strong women”, artist Oliver Schäfer (he/him) of Essen, Germany is becoming increasingly known for his breathtaking ability of painting color-blossomed portraits of change-making women and girls from around the world. This includes the likes of Helen Caldicott, Michelle Obama, Sophie Scholl, Greta Thunberg, and a soon-to-be portrait of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The arts intertwine as actors and musicians including Meryl Streep, Lady Gaga, and Marlene Dietrich have become muses for Oliver as well.

However, the activist-artist theme isn’t just prevalent in who Oliver paints. It’s not news that artistic expression has been historically used globally as a form of activism in shedding light and providing a unique perspective on pressing social and economic issues. This is exactly the intention and more that Oliver holds when creating these portraits of bold women. Women who have and continue to make the world a better place to live.

I had the opportunity to ask Oliver more in-depth what gave birth to this specific focus, how it has come to fruition thus far, and what keeps his artistic activism moving forward.

What inspired you to start painting this series of portraits of influential women?

I started this current project in 2016. I always wanted to improve my portraying skills, so I went online to look for models and faces that I could draw and paint. After a short time, it became very boring. The models I was finding always looked perfect. They don’t have any wrinkles or shadows on their faces; their faces don’t tell a story. Strangely enough, many of them even have the same nose.

At that time, I was looking at what other portrait artists do and what kind of people they paint. I noticed that when they painted influential people, many of them painted the same people like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jimi Hendrix, and alike. I thought to myself, “If so many artists already painted these people, then I don’t wanna do it again.” The world doesn’t need it.

We have to remember, to understand my process, that all of this happened in 2016. It was a year in which you had the elections in America and I heard a lot about it in the media. We heard very obscene things from Donald Trump, there were also many headlines about Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Erdogan. Many headlines that didn’t give me, as a young person in his early 20's, hope or inspiration. So I was wondering, “Why do we give these men so many headlines and so much attention? Why don’t we spread more hope? Who gives ME hope?” Well, I figured out that most people who really give me hope and who really inspire me are women.

I want to honor these women with a portrait. The first woman I painted for this series was Malala Yousafzai, a young woman that’s campaigning for the educational rights of girls in her homeland. When I show my work in public I am always fascinated to see people’s reactions. There was one time when I was just hanging up my portraits and a man came by and asked me “Who did you paint there? Is that your girlfriend?” and I told him, “No this is Anne Frank.” I live in Germany. So many people do not know some of the women I paint; they don’t know their faces or their stories.

Whenever something like that happens, like with the man who walked by, I know that this, painting these women, is an important thing to do. I don’t blame anyone for not knowing who these women are. Other things are to blame, I think. Like our education system and the sexism in all of our societies. So I try to inform people about all these things with my work.

Is there a reason why you choose more vibrant colors for these portraits? I love that even with the shadowing and hues you use bright colors. It’s very layered in a beautiful way.

I want my paintings to be striking, flashy, and eye-catching so that people really see these faces. In my opinion, most people don’t really know how to see ‘correctly’… But they cannot overlook my paintings. I want them to see these women who did amazing things. These women are so full of life and work for a better world in their own personal way.

I try to paint their personality and their story. I painted Marlene Dietrich in 2016 and I mainly used bluish colors for her painting because she had her international breakthrough with the movie “The Blue Angel” in 1930. For Iris Apfel’s portrait, I used Henri Matisse’s painting “The Snail” as a reference. In her documentary, Iris says how much Matisse and his use of colors inspire her. So I use almost identical colors of Matisse’s painting for my portrait of Iris Apfel.

These are strong and fearless women. So of course, I wanna use colors that are bright, vivid, and high in contrast.

IMAGE: Portrait of Iris Apfel — Oliver Schäfer

How does activism come into play with your art?

I want my series of portraits to be as diverse as possible. I am always looking for new names of strong women. Thanks to Instagram, I am in contact with people from all around the world. I always ask people about strong women from their countries. Women who did or said great things and changed the world. Those are the women I want to paint.

I have a long list of names now and I wish I could paint faster. Before I start though, I always inform myself about these women and do my research. It’s important for me because then I get a feeling for who the woman I am painting was, how she behaved, and what her intention was or still is. With my paintings, I wanna spread awareness of all these injustices in our societies. Each woman represents at least one topic like racism, antisemitism, sexism, environmental issues, violence against women, and alike. There are so many horrible things going on in this world, I cannot sit at home and paint landscapes. It wouldn’t feel right to me.

I hope someday I can work together with all these wonderful women. Many of them have already seen their portraits thanks to social media. Greta Thunberg commented on my portrait of her on Instagram. Helen Caldicott from Australia wrote to me on Twitter. The Jane Goodall Institute shared my painting on all their social media. Marzieh Ebrahimi, an acid attack victim from Iran is still in contact with me on Instagram and supports me there. Iris Apfel even wrote to me on TikTok a few weeks ago. With my work, I wanna bring people together in times in which our societies seem so divided.

Unfortunately, we are still in the midst of a pandemic, and we all know that bringing people together can be very dangerous in these times. So I used the past year to work on a concept of how to show my work in times of a pandemic and how to make it accessible without putting other people’s life at risk. I digitized my work and a printing company made weatherproof reproductions of my paintings. I contacted the Mayor of Essen in November of last year, the city I am currently living in. I wrote to him about my idea that I would like to show my portraits outside in public and told him the Grugapark would be a perfect place. The whole park is a fenced area and you have to pay a small entrance fee if you wanna enter the park.

I also wanted to combine art and nature, so I told him my idea of placing my paintings into their garden beds so when Spring arrives and everything starts to bloom, everything will be colorful and full of life. They all loved the idea because there is nothing similar happening at the moment because of the pandemic. We worked together with an author and journalist named Diana Ringelsiep, who also lives in Essen, and she wrote short texts about all the women that I painted. I translated them into English so that the texts are accessible for everyone. Now in front of each painting, there is always an informative text too.

Though many consider art to be subjective or individually interpretative, what would you like people who view your art to take away from it?

Before I start with the painting process, I write down a quote of each person onto the canvas. I write it in the person’s native language. For Greta Thunberg’s portrait, I wrote it in Swedish. For Anne Frank’s portrait, in Dutch. For Marzieh Ebrahimi’s portrait, in Persian. I think it’s more authentic this way. Once the painting is finished, the viewer is only able to see a few words or letters through the different layers of paint. You cannot read the full quote and that’s exactly the effect I wanna create. When I see you in person, I cannot see what’s going on in your head. I have to talk to you, I have to get to know you better if I want to know what your thoughts, your dreams, or your fears are. That’s what I want the viewer to do.

I hope this way the viewers will look up these women’s names and they will inform themselves about the women I paint. We live in a democracy and I think we can’t be passive in a democracy. These women are all actively doing something. I want the viewers to become active as well. Even if it’s just by informing themselves. It’s the first step. Then maybe they will get inspired and ask themselves “Well, what can I do? Who of these people could I be? How could I make the world a better place like all these women?

That’s the basic idea of why I write down these quotes. I also don’t just want to reduce these women to their faces or their bodies. I wanna show the viewer that these women have very important messages. They are more than just their bodies. Many people, especially men, still objectify women in certain ways. You can see it a lot on social media for example. Your last president, no. 45, objectified women… I don’t like that and that’s why there are quotes behind their faces. You cannot really see them, the quotes are hidden under various layers of paint, but they are there. So there is always more than just the face of the woman on the canvas. It’s a portrait with content. That makes it more personal and authentic in my opinion.

My paintings aren’t huge. I don’t want to glorify any of these women. If you paint huge paintings the viewer has to look at it from a big distance to see the full painting. I don’t want that. I want the viewer to be close to these portraits. I always hang them at the viewer's eye level so that the portrait and the viewer can have eye contact and can have a ‘dialogue’ of sorts. I don’t want people to think that all these women are God-like figures and unreachable. I want the viewer to understand that these are normal people and each of us can be like them. You just have to actively do something.

IMAGE: Portrait of Marzieh Ebrahimi — Oliver Schäfer

Is there anything else you would like to mention or include? Is there anything coming up people should look out for?

Well, so far I painted 17 of these portraits. No. 18 is almost finished, and that will be of Breonna Taylor. I hope people will like it. I spent a lot of time last year informing myself about institutionalized racism which is something she represents. However, I don’t wanna focus on just American women or women of western countries only. As I said before, I want my project to be as diverse as possible, so I am looking for strong and inspiring women from around the world. I haven’t painted an Asian woman so far, or a woman from an African or South American country. So I am always open to suggestions.

For me, as an artist, it’s wonderful because I grew with this project. I learn a lot about other countries and other cultures. I hope someday I can show my work internationally. All my exhibitions took place in Germany so far, but my project has no boundaries. This is important everywhere on this planet. So I hope to find people who can give me the opportunity to show my work in other countries someday.

My current open-air exhibition can be seen until May 9th of this year. I really enjoy showing my work outside in nature because each day is different. The weather changes, the seasons change, but the paintings remain the same. It’s a great experience and I hope I can do it again in other places.

IMAGE: An early step in the process of making the portrait of Breonna Taylor — Oliver Schäfer
IMAGE: The quote for Breonna Taylor’s portrait that will remain, but will be painted over — Oliver Schäfer

You can find Oliver on Instagram at @Olisinst where you can see more of his works as well as his pieces in their outdoor exhibitions. Just like the women Oliver aims to honor, I personally believe he is truly making the world a more educated, and therefore inclusive place for all.

Oliver is one of my new favorite artists, and I’m excited to go through his finished work I haven’t seen yet, and what is to come.

Democratic socialist Queer rights activist who is sexually liberated and uplifts mental health. Email me: mthm100@gmail.com

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