Unfolding Stories from the Anthropocene and Beyond

Artist Ivilina Kouneva draws on her seaside walks and art-making, on tales of indigenous story sharing and experiences of others’ creativity to make imaginative links between our heritage as storytelling animals and remaking connections between past and future.


1,610 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


On the way to my art studio, I can either choose the short five-minute walk or, continue down the road till I reach the seafront, turn right, walk on the shingled beach and then up the road. I usually choose the latter.

I consider myself privileged to live by the sea, on the East Sussex Coast, for at least the past seven years. The horizontal lines and the constant changes of tidal levels, cloud formations, wind directions make me feel alive, part of a bigger picture. I usually try to focus on sounds and forms, to be fully present in the moment, but stories keep coming and going through my head. As Gregory Norminton says in his book The Ship of Fools, “every story is like a bell jar thrown into a rocky lake; it closes in its eye a roaring world, and doesn’t even know of the Universe outside; the planets spin in their orbits, stories happen without us even knowing, but still, if we turn our backs on them, they won’t stop happening.”

Water is a powerful element, loaded with meanings. The seas and oceans are the natural places for living creatures to migrate and communicate. However, they can be seen as a destructive power, a threat: tsunami, coastal erosion, flooding, the Great Flood. Water is the cradle of the world’s mythology, reservoir of stories.

We are ‘storytelling animals’. I came upon this description in Annika Arnold’s book Climate Change and Storytelling: Narrative and cultural meaning in environmental communication. What part does the storytelling play for people’s perception of the risk of climate change, related to Global Warming? When I think of climate change my first concern is for communities and the impact on their lives. Analysing my own understanding of what life stands for I realise that, for me, it is something beyond just existence and just being. It is peoples’ rituals and beliefs, often expressed and recognised through artisan objects and the process of art-making. Life, in its wholesome greatness, is full of creativity, visualisation, music, words, language. This is where nature interweaves powerfully with its rhythms and changes throughout.

In the beginning of the 2000s, I started a series of works under the title of ‘Fragile Balances’. They were born from the pure sensitivity of an artist who acknowledges the complexity of voices and narratives, the labyrinths of experiences coming from different places around the planet. At this stage I relied heavily on books and my imagination. Magic realism literature armed me with tools for mental survival and the ability to think of our world as an enormous “garden of forking paths” (Jorge Luis Borges). Unfolding a story within another story, while connecting events from the past with our current endeavours, sustains my creative practice.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Forking Paths', paper cuts collage
‘Forking Paths’, paper cuts collage
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2020

Storytelling – connection to the mystery of the unknown

I am walking along the shingled beach thinking of an event that took place during COP26 in Glasgow. My daughters, environmentally sensitive thinkers and activists, told me about the series of Minga Indigena story sharing. Before jumping to check it out and do further research online, for weeks I left myself relying only on their emotional description of kindness, openness and difference in thinking that they had witnessed. I let myself imagine it was staged in Victorian times. I saw the healer from Amazonia with spiritual drawings on his arms. I felt his natural emotional intelligence, his attempt to transcribe his beliefs and connection with nature to the bewildered audience.

I just wish I were there and could hear him saying that if we got lost in the jungle he would be there for us, but we might not recognise him as he would be the jaguar, and we should hold on to the jaguar’s tail. The immediate questions arising were: What have we done for the past 150 years? and Have we really changed? It made me think how detached and sterile our social media-obsessed world could be at moments — with the result that we find ourselves cut off from the mystery of the unknown and therefore, from all things that are not easy to articulate. However, like the stories, the unknown is out there, forming a large part of the pulsing, living systems on our planet.

Then I found an interesting relation between the Minga Indigena event and two of my paper cuts collages created in the middle of the first lockdown. My artworks were inspired and dedicated to the communities that inhabit indigenous islands. With vibrant colours and ornaments, they were made to resemble old manuscripts, imagined groups of people engaged in their everyday activities who dwell on strips of land, narrow boats, fragile wooden supports. The artworks were selected for the virtual exhibition initiated by Sweet’Art, London – The Great Leveller. There, visual artists shared their experiences as well as hopes through the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Paradise in Danger' paper cuts collage
‘Paradise in Danger’, paper cuts collage
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2021

Rooted in stories already told

Walking along the shingled beach and listening to my steps, the stories emerge from one another, with labyrinth-like pathways and unexpected turns. In the world of constant change “safety by all circumstances is an illusion”, as British-born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington had once said. Blurred edges and uncertain boundaries, structures with multilayered contexts might be the reality of our future.

While listening to Jocelyn Pook’s Flood with its sounds of dripping water, where Balkan folklore beautifully interweaves with spiritual singing, an exhibition at Cisternerne in Copenhagen came to my mind. In March 2019 I visited Copenhagen, a place also defined by water through its ragged topography with many canals. A devoted art gallery trotter, I went to see the underground exhibition rooms at Cisternerne, a former water reservoir, where the creative trio Superflux made their massive statement about climate change.

For ‘It is Not the End of the World’ they had flooded the gloomy catacombs with knee-deep water, imagining an apocalyptic scenario when “Humanity has come to an end”. Deeply moved I then wrote: “… it is not an attractive or beautiful (in a traditional way), or a good-for-taking pictures show (and shamefully we still do it)… So put a pair of rubber boots on, and brave your way through the cold darkness of could-be-your- future.”

I have always been inspired by how creative minds through time and space may pick similar ideas and inspirations. One might imagine such minds are all a family across time, where your stories would be heard and accepted. Communication is a multi-layered phenomenon (as Annika Arnold explains in her book). It is not a linear process and it is important at all levels. The messages we get through storytelling are essential for us, beings brought up with stories. Through narratives, we better understand our lives and where we stand.

My work is rooted in the chain of stories “that somebody else has already told”, as Umberto Eco’s noted in his podcast for ‘In the Name of Rose’. My artworks expand ideas and themes from my previous projects, about a complex world in need of balance. Water has a powerful presence as well as a variety of symbols, pin-up images from our collective memory and mythology. Decades ago I discovered the Irish-born American professor of relative mythology Joseph Campbell. What I got from his works was the firm belief that traditions and rituals for all communities gravitate around similar essential values. Before these Anthropocene times, people followed the rhythm of nature and their rituals were closely connected to its changes. Through my work I look for relevance between past and present, creating links among stories and events from different time realities. I blur the edges to challenge the imagination and provoke curiosity to archetypal models and stories from the past.

At least back then the Noah family had a solution for the Great Flood – they built an Ark.

I keep walking along the beach.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Sea Levels' oil and acrylics on canvas
‘Sea Levels’, oil and acrylics on canvas
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2021

Find out more

Climate Change and Story Telling: Narrative and Cultural Meaning in Environmental Communication by Annika Arnold (2018) is published by Palgrave MacMillan.

Minga Indigena is a collective of groups, organizations and communities from indigenous nations throughout Abya Yala (the American continent). Minga is the coming together of people when there is a calling. “The leaders of Indigenous Minga come from the highest communities in the Andes, the deepest forests of the Amazon, the islands farthest away from the continents, the driest desert in the world, the northernmost territory in Alaska and the largest reserves of water in southern Patagonia. They come to help humanity remember what it is to be ‘human’ and to invite them to join the cause for climate and biocultural diversity from a new perspective.” Minga Indígena has participated in the COPs since Rio + 20 in 2012, including Paris, Cancun, Peru, Madrid and Glasgow. You can read about their objectives at COP26 here.

Narrating Landscapes: How Indigenous Storytelling Can Unlock Our Environment’s Past, at Columbia ClimateSchool’s GlacierHub blog (2/9/21) relates a better understanding of indigenous knowledge can help create links that improve our understanding of our changing climate. “This method of storytelling doesn’t always conform to scientific approaches that seek to dissect and isolate information; instead, it is an integrated wealth of information that draws from years of coexisting with the landscape a tribe inhabits. Western data-gathering rendered this knowledge static, contradicting the essential living quality of storytelling.”

Ivilina Kouneva

Ivilina Kouneva

An artist using painting and cut-out compositions to deepen understanding of the fragility of life in current times, and working with communities to 'de-pollute' our minds ...
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