We are all part of one beautiful human family
The earliest recorded use of collage was in China with the invention of paper around 200 BCE but, in the form we know it today, its more recent antecedence is in the Modernism of the early twentieth century. Initially, photographic collage was created using scissors and glue, today the process has been superseded by digital montage, although we still use the term ‘cut-and-paste’. But contemporary digital montage usually aims at the integration of its parts into a seamless whole – albeit a synthetically hyperreal whole. Traditional collage, on the other hand, finds its engaging aesthetic in the overt way in which it juxtaposes elements sourced from disparate origins.
For the American artist and musician Jonathan Conda, it is the lo-fi look and style of that more traditional form that he finds appealing. Rather than assemble his pictorial elements into a flawlessly integrated whole, it remains clear that the image is the sum of its parts. He further emphasises the craft sensibility by adding scratches, dust marks, bits of tape and other apparently accidental surface marks that suggest something put together by hand. Like a group of instruments playing together, each adding its unique qualities to the unfolding melody, the pictorial elements combine without relinquishing their own individual characteristics.
Animals and birds, flowers and leaves, fabrics and maps, texts and graphics… they all play their part in Jonathan Conda’s images. But it is people that stand centre stage. His interests in the dignity of all living things, the quest for harmony, and the fundamental nature we share as human beings, have ensured his work has gained a significant online following around the world. For him, his art is a ‘safe place’, free from judgement, to meet, reflect and seek an inner peace.
When did you first become interested in photo-collage?
I have always enjoyed the emotional impact of collage, the way it allows you to take seemingly random objects out of their original context and create entirely new worlds. This tendency is compounded when images are juxtaposed from disparate sources. I think the stories they suggest are universally relatable. I love exploring that space.
But I did not begin actively creating collage until later in life, somewhere around 2010. I released a music EP under the name of The Bobby Quine Experiment and needed cover art for the digital release. At the time, the visual artwork of Scott Hansen [the musician known professionally as Tycho] had a deep impact on me. That was how I wanted my art to feel: modern, yet nostalgic. And so the journey began as I explored the artform, developing my own personal style.
[Left] © Jonathan Conda ‘Rising’ 2021
[Right] © Jonathan Conda ‘Art and Nature’ 2018
Online museum and book archives are some of my main sources of material. I would guess that more than three quarters of my art is based on people, especially those from outside of the Anglo-American and nineteenth-century European themes that are so often used in collage. Many ethnographic studies from the 1800s included beautiful photography and illustration. I like to use these, while trying my best to avoid the more exploitative images, unless that exploitation is central to the message I want to convey.
[Left] © Jonathan Conda ‘Waltz for Sylvie’ 2020
[Centre] © Jonathan Conda ‘Love’ 2018
[Right] © Jonathan Conda ‘Face to the Sun’ 2018
Do you start with a definite idea, or does the work ‘evolve’ more organically?
I am a storyteller by nature, and I love detail and nuance. I usually start with a central subject: an animal, person, flower… The main focal point, which then suggests the colour palette. From there, it is pretty stream-of-consciousness. Later, I’ll revisit the work and adjust scale or alignment. Finally, I dirty up the work, adding tears, tape, scribbles… anything to introduce the idiosyncrasies of imperfection. I want to humanise my images. I’m not interested in slickness. There’s a place for it, but it’s not my style.
In the image called ‘Face to the Sun’ (2018), even though it might look complex, there are really only eight key elements. I was influenced by Afrofuturism [a genre of science-fiction where the culture of the African Diaspora intersects with futuristic technological themes]. The photo of the young man is from the early 1900s, but looks incredibly current. Young men have so much power, but too often it is wasted on aggression and unhealthy emotions. I wanted the large flower to balance this raw masculine strength. Emotion, balance, strength… I tried to capture all of these elements in that piece.
[Left] © Jonathan Conda ‘Lost Tribe of Self-Respect’ 2017
[Centre] © Jonathan Conda ‘Living Proof’ 2021
[Right] © Jonathan Conda ‘Horizon’ 2018
So, you have definite ideas and feelings you seek to convey through your work?
I want to communicate that we are all part of one beautiful human family. I want to elevate and honour women. And I want to encourage people to make room for humanity, both their own and that of others.
For example, the image called ‘Horizon’ (2018). The central figures are from an antique photograph of an Egyptian woman and her baby. According to the information in the original publication, she was from a poor background. I was transfixed by the intensity of her gaze, contrasted with the peaceful calm of the baby who, with absolute faith in the mother’s protection, is fast asleep on her shoulder. I love the way the word ‘horizon’ in the graphic (which I sourced from an early twentieth-century scientific textbook) suggests possibility, hope; something beyond the difficulties of her present situation.
Where do you show your work?
It was never my intention at the start to become a professional artist. [laughs] I just wanted to create, and show my work online. But consistency of practice has given more purpose to my craft and made me better at it. As the pandemic levels out, I have a goal to display my work more publicly, somehow incorporating my love for music and architecture.
[Left] © Jonathan Conda ‘More than Enough’ 2020
[Centre] © Jonathan Conda ‘Sunchasers’ 2020
[Right] © Jonathan Conda ‘You, In My Dreams’ 2016
You can reach a big audience online, though…
My audience… I never really thought of it. I’m just standing on the corner, singing my heart out… if anyone wants to stop and listen, then what I have is for them and I am happy they are here.
My work is not abstract or obscure. I pride myself in being politically neutral. And so I enjoy a global audience. I’ve received compliments on my work from people living on every continent except Antarctica. [laughs] That is really humbling and special to me.
As an artist, how important is social media as a means of sharing your work with others?
Social media can be a great tool for exposure. The majority of my commissions come from overseas, and it would be very unlikely that I would have been offered them without social media. Being active in social media has also opened doors to collaborations that would not have otherwise come about.
That said, social media can skew one’s sense of worth as an artist. It’s too easy to become seduced by likes and having a lot of followers, which can create a false sense of success. Many of the more popular social-media pages are carefully constructed to show only the happiness and none of the struggle of making art. If you let them, these social media pages can make you lose perspective, become disheartened.
[Left] © Jonathan Conda ‘A Matter of Perspective’ 2019
[Right] © Jonathan Conda ‘Mysteries’ 2016
Making these photo-collage works, what have you learned about yourself that you did not previously understand?
I’ve learned the importance of consistency. Consistency and hard work bring success. I’m not a super-confident individual. I doubt myself constantly: am I good enough? am I worthy of any success or recognition? is it foolish to think I can provide for my family doing something I love? This journey has helped me silence some of that ‘ego-talk’ and to enjoy this creative facet of my life journey.
And I’ve come to understand that ultimately we all want the same basic things in life. We get so caught up in the imaginary lines drawn between our lands, our beautifully diverse skin colours, and our cultural differences. I love that art is able to open up conversations around what it means simply to be a happy human being.
Jonathan Conda was born in Chicago in 1974. Throughout his career he has embraced a variety of forms of artistic expression: musical composition, singing, drawing, photography, and collage. He was not formally trained in these areas, but developed his skills independently. His influences have been diverse, including Malian mask-making and sculpture, the cubism of Pablo Picasso, Dada, and more contemporary artists such as Julien Pacaud [France], Mike McQuade [USA], and Cristiana Couceiro [Portugal]. While his collage images are politically neutral by design, through them he seeks to encourage dialogue around culture, history, and global citizenship. His work finds application in a variety of forms including album covers, editorial illustration, art prints, and creative collaborations with other photographers in different genres. He lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and works globally.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.