“My work is quite bold and dark, maybe even punk in a way,” illustrator and animator Elena Gumeniuk tells us of her illustrations. She’s got a point — her images are scattered with motifs that could have been plucked from the pages of tattoo parlour inspiration books: occult eyes, stick-and-pock crosses, Basquiat-style crowns, arrows, sickles and gangland teardrops — but it’s still a long way from ‘70s subculture.
Elena’s illustrations are for anyone who grew up listening to grime on pirate radio. 13 years ago, Dizzee Rascal released his debut album Boy in Da Corner, bringing grime to the UK charts. Despite growing up in Ukraine, Elena’s work is quick to reference both grime’s past and present — from the 70s towerblocks of Crossways Estate, Devons Road in Bow, where Dizzee Rascal grew up, to Wiley “the ultimate eski boy”, to new gen grime producers MCs AJ Tracey and Jammz.
Since graduating from Camberwell College of Arts with an MA in Visual Arts in 2013, Elena has illustrated music videos for the same kind of artists she listened to before moving to London — A J Tracey, Dread D, Jammz. “Not long after I started doing illustration, I realised it wasn’t enough for me,” she tells me. “All these images move in my head and are dynamic, so I have ideas for animations, interactive posters printed with conductive ink, projection mapping, music videos, tattoos, animation shorts… I want to expand into all this and do everything, pretty much.”
Elena has already produced work for clients including SBTV, Apple Music, Little White Lies and Red Bull Music Academy and Mother. Earlier this month, she took over the Mother London Instagram page, where she posted pages from her short comic Turn The Future Into Your Homeland.Turn The Future Into Your Homeland illustrates Elena’s real-life story in black, white and Pepto-Bismol pink. Despite the illustrator’s interest in London’s liminal scenes, her Ukrainian youth meant that her knowledge of the city was formed from all music she downloaded on the internet. “London was an imaginary place that became real… It’s been more than I ever could have built in my head, it was an alien planet that was actually home,” she explains. The final illustration in Turn The Future Into Your Homeland shows a plane, a visa and a “passport of uncertainty” which represents Elena’s impending return to Ukraine, where she will have to re-apply for a UK visa — if, that is, she manages to secure her next sponsored employment.
“I think the challenges around freedom of movement of creatives goes under the radar somewhat,” she says. “It isn’t talked about that much or understood by people in the industry or outside of it. But it’s very important especially in London because it has the status of creative capital of the world. It should be open to the world and all the talents that exist right? In reality, there’s all these hoops you need to jump through and no matter how hard you try, or even if you meet every expectation, there’s always something that holds you back.”
“I think lots of people like me are hidden somewhere,” she continues, “Because, well, I personally never really want to talk about it that much but as I’m about to leave again, it’s been on my mind somewhat. You spend most of your time figuring this out, trying to find some certainty about your status, so you just avoid actually talking about it and try to keep presenting a successful facade.”
Elena’s sense of dislocation is reflected elsewhere in her work, perhaps most poignantly in illustrations of the Tim Tinker-designed brutalist housing blocks of the Heygate Estate, Southwark, recently demolished to make way for “urban regeneration”. But despite leaving her home in south London to return to a country she feels she has “no real connection with”, Elena refuses to become negative. “I just keep drawing!”