– not this not that


Australian artist Shoufay Derz explores the meaning of words on a deeper level.

They become imbedded in places, textures, surfaces, atmospheres: a forest, one’s skin, chalk, the ocean breeze convey emotions and sensations that would otherwise be hard to put into words.

Her transformative practice evokes a sense of wonder, asking us to consider new ways to see, or at least sense the unknown.

How can language and memory shape us, and what are their limits?

Shoufay Derz’ work is like a landscape of the mind that takes us to the depths of language, the point at which

a word turns into an object or an idea becomes a word,

as she says.

Image: To Descend  (Kreidefelsen auf Rügen)_5, 2018, from the series In Memory of Water, Rügen chalk on Pigment prints on cotton paper, each 71 × 90,5 cm. Courtesy + Foto / photo: Shoufay Derz 

It’s a kind of alchemy through which she transforms things we know little about and keep quiet, or cannot express in words, into the visual poetry of her photographs and video performances. Each idea within a word, something ineffable or transient, takes on a new life, a second skin, with the atmosphere of particular places -from a forest to a cliff, a sand dune or even one’s face.
These are some of the sensations and textures her art triggers in our minds. They are quiet enigmas of their own that make her work so filled with suspense and feeling, fluid and ocean-like.

In this interview we spoke about her transformative practice and what inspires her, from Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh to the communicative power of joy, Tibetan thangkas, magic, aliens, the irony of silence, and more…

Her solo show NOT THIS NOT THAT is now on at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. (August 21st. – Sept. 13th)

Walk to the place where the spring dries up…And sit there waiting for the clouds to rise.

Wang Wei (8th century Chinese poet and painter)

Shoufay Derz, Born I & II, 2018 Cast bronze, Hand made paper_54 x 28 x 2cm each

Which of these elements (air, fire, water, earth) would you choose in relation to your practice and/or yourself, and why?

I want to say Earth in relation to myself. Perhaps because the place I want to be is grounded and in touch with our roots.

And yet in Berlin I miss the ocean, the water. A sense of communion with the outside world through the touch of sunlight and salt on one’s skin.


But in connection to my practice I would choose an interrelationship of all these elements.

My practice is about the moment of transformation between idea and language, when words become objects or ideas become words.

This moment is not easy to distinguish.

I think the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says it most simply:

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either…

And the story of the paper’s relationship goes on…

Shoufay Derz, Self Portrait, 2020

In darker times, expressions of joy can be a radical activity.

A sentence I read in your ‘about text’ on your website that stayed with me. Can you explain what inspired this statement?

I’m interested in what we can or cannot do together. We all know that humour cuts a knife through the dense chasms between us.

For all the gravity and darkness in the world, and much of my own work, I found I’m motivated by the wish to make connections and to conjure a sense of playfulness and humour.

I don’t make art just for myself.

I fight against my own self-centredness to make work less about me and that embraces you. 

There’s a suffocating cumulative pragmatism in the air and in the water and it’s seeping into the earth and now burning it down.

It seems to me that joy and abundance is a necessary resistance that counters those forces that act to minimise and regulate our practices and values.

How do quantify joy?

This is a very simplistic reduction of a complex picture!

Put simply, it is about a sense of wonder and delight in the face of our shared unknowns.

Communicated joy defies one view that tells us sharing is only a subtraction from what is ‘mine’, when it seems so obvious to the point of invisibility that what we share can also be an enlargement of who we are.

Loving the Alien, open, 2020, from the series Ritual of Eels, ongoing project, 2019, pigment print on cotton paper, 91,1 × 71,6 cm. Courtesy + photo:  Shoufay Derz  


I believe you had projects in the past that combined a let´s say unusual activity and unexpected reactions and joy?

Comprising photography, sculpture and video, my exhibition at Künstlerhaus Bethanien has its roots in earlier performances situated at Gulgadya Muru, the grass tree pathway in the Manly Dam Reserve, Sydney, in which participants were invited to a feast and then to paint themselves green and “emerge” as eels.

Titled Loving the Alien, the performance has since turned into a major photo and video project featuring analog portraits of friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers who have taken part in this “eel ritual.”

The figure of the alien, conjured in the work’s title and her sitter’s green faces, stands as a metaphor for transformation and our shared unknowns.

In many ways this project is about making friends.

This simple & joyful concept belies the layered complexities of the project, which spans an urgent conversation on cultural difference, migration and the possibilities of kinship with others and the natural environment.

Loving the Alien, open, 2020, from the series Ritual of Eels, ongoing project, 2019, pigment print on cotton paper, 91,1 × 71,6 cm. Courtesy + photo:  Shoufay Derz  

Loving the Alien, Ritual of Eels, 2020, from the series Ritual of Eels, ongoing project, 2019–,pigment print on cotton paper, 110 × 136,24 cm. Courtesy + photo: Shoufay Derz
Loving the Alien, Ritual of Eels, 2020, from the series Ritual of Eels, ongoing project, 2019–,pigment print on cotton paper, 110 × 136,24 cm. Courtesy + photo: Shoufay Derz

I saw a Buddhist thangka in your studio, do you consider yourself spiritual, does it feed into your work?

I’m not sure I would consider myself spiritual, I think I’m more magical!

Apart from the enthralling magical quality that attracts me to the wrathful deities depicted in Tibetan Thangkas, I’m also compelled by the inherent paradoxical qualities of the imagery.

On one hand the imagery points towards a tearing through the illusory qualities of our perceptions and yet on the other hand this motif is precisely portrayed through the illusory and complex figuration of imagination itself.

I think of the irony of all the books about silence filled with the sounds of words.

Shoufay Derz, I am death destroyer of words, Archival print on archival cotton paper, custom made cedar frame, stained natural indigo, 104 x 111cm, photo: Shoufay Derz


These fierce looking wrathful deities are not always as they appear, they are benevolent after all.

It reminds me that something can be both obfuscating and revelatory, liberating and entrapping, there and not there, benevolent and malevolent, beautiful and hideous, form part of us yet be foreign to us, and the list goes on…

but most of all its all magic!

Tell us about your experience being in quarantine and self-isolation at Bethanien, especially after you worked towards your exhibition which had to be postponed regarding corona shut down?

“It’s impossible to know,” is what more recently I keep hearing outwardly expressed. This period of time has raised to the surface the otherwise more easily submerged senses of impossibility and unknowing.

The dynamics of uncertainty affect us all and yet the experience of this is not necessarily equal between us.

My work at its heart strives on a sense of impossibility and the ineffable, not only on the distant ‘bigger picture’ but also within the more proximate impossibilities of knowing one and other.

This is not a romantic notion of ‘the unknown’ and yet it is romantic because the edges of the known are essentially about the limits and potentialities of our imagination, both collective and individually.

Shoufay Derz, 2019, Under erasure, pigment print, 160 x 128 cm

This state is also touched on in the Künstlerhaus Bethanien show’s title, which is taken from the Hindu saying “neti neti,” and refers to great mysteries that can only be described through negation.

The unknown is neither this, nor that, and yet it affects us materially, bodily and is intimately experienced.

Shoufay Derz, Someone digging in the ground,  black / red) (from the series The wish), 2015, Pigment print, custom-made cedar wood frame, stained with eucalyptus and rust, 99 x 92cm

When the residency ends, what do you want to take home with you in terms of experience and what outcome to you seek work wise?

I wish I could be in more than one place at once, I’d like to have a reason and the means to continue working here.

My father grew up in Berlin, just around the corner from Bethanien, so I feel there are many more stories yet to be revealed to me about this place.

You can read more about Shoufay’s Corona experience in “Babe in the bathwater”


Exhibition: 21.08. – 13.09.2020 | Di – So: 14 – 19 Uhr

Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Kottbusser Straße 10, 10999 Berlin

Author: Alexandra Etienne, Esther Harrison