Dubai creative sets sights on London as part of multi-city art collaboration with cousin

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DUBAI: Sister Octopi was founded by cousins Natalya Konforti and Justine Formentelli in the aftermath of a family tragedy with the intention of changing their personal narrative from one of helplessness to one of hope and resilience.

“There is history of depression, bipolar disorder and suicide in our family,” says Konforti, a Dubai-based fashion designer. “My mother lost three of her brothers to their struggles with anxiety and we have lost two more cousins battling the same affliction in 2016 and 2017. A few weeks following the funeral of Justine’s brother in 2017, on the hurricane-battered island of Guadeloupe, Justine channelled her pain through an artwork she shared in our extended family WhatsApp group.”

Something about that painting moved Natalya deeply and she was impelled to respond with one of her sketches. Over the past four years, the two cousins have become “art pen pals” and have explored the nature of their family history through a collaborative process that results in immersive art threads representing their conversations and emotions.

Sister Octopi have exhibited their work at DIFC Art Nights 2021, Dubai, at World Art Dubai 2022 and are currently discussing staging an exhibition in London later this year.

Sister Octopi artwork at Tashkeel Dubai. (Supplied)

As the cousins started sharing sketches, long phone calls and WhatsApp chats discussing their genealogy and family patterns they found a supportive narrative that helped them heal.

“It was important to us that the project didn’t evolve into a sob fest,” Konforti says. “Instead, we focused on paying homage to the strong bonds between the women in our family.”

Following lengthy discussions, the duo begin their work with one of them creating a piece on an A4-size sheet. Konforti will embroider something, scan the sheet, and send it to Formentelli, a painter, who has used the project to explore abstract art. The scanned artwork is printed, painted, and sent back and forth several times until the cousins agree it is finished. The sheets are then stitched together as scrolls up to six feet long, which the duo refer to as “tentacles” – which ties into the name they have given their collaboration.

Over the past four years, the two cousins have become “art pen pals” and have explored the nature of their family history through a collaborative process. (Supplied)

Around the time they conceived their project, Konforti had been reading up about octopuses. With its eight tentacles, nine brains, and knack for camouflage, the cousins felt the octopus fitted in well as their family totem — representing four pairs of sisters over two generations, symbolized through its eight ‘limbs.’

Konforti and Formentelli were born on the same day 13 years apart. The former grew up in the US, studied in France and has lived in China and Dubai, while the latter has lived in Morocco, the Caribbean, London and the US. So it’s natural that, as Sister Octopi, their work has also explored themes of identity, belonging and adaptation.

Inspired by nature and their experience of expatriation, their immersive upside-down scrolls have focused on several themes including geology, family networks, forces of nature, camouflage and underwater territories.

“We were inspired by ancient Asian ink scrolls. For example, we have depicted a mountainous landscape as beautiful and mystical scenery. At the same time, these tall and unattainable mountains can be seen as obstacles that have the potential to block one’s path. And, similarly, the jewel-like transparency of the geological patterns — though colorful and dazzling — simultaneously hint at the depth and the dark places a mind can get trapped in,” says Formentelli.

Their latest tentacle scrolls take cues from petri-dishes, cell development, genetic transmission and geological shifts, reminding us that everything is always in motion.

Although the project began before the pandemic, its long-distance model fits well with the times, as families have learnt to bridge separation with the aid of technology. Over the years spent discussing and sharing the project, the cousins’ family narrative has taken on a more positive context.

“This project is a confirmation that creation always wins over destruction,” says Formentelli. “I have also become more open about issues that have plagued our family such as mental health and suicide, helping me to deal with the shame and stigma attached to such matters.”