Anna Rabko

By Payal Khandelwal

I do have burnouts quite often. It’s almost like getting into fire and then rebuilding myself to get stronger.

Anna Rabko is a graphic designer and illustrator based in Poland. She employs vivid colours and surrealism in her work. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, Poland, and eventually developed a lifelong love for Polish Poster design.

Post college, she continued her education in Kathmandu, Nepal where she learnt the traditional Thangka form of painting. This was followed by studying different forms of art in New Delhi, India.

Edited excerpts of our conversation with Anna:

Anna Rabko

Could you tell us about your upbringing. Was there any particular moment that sparked your interest in art?

My grandfather was an artist who worked mostly with wood, and also did a lot of murals. I saw him as my role model. Even though he never spoke much, his work told many stories. He spent most of his time in his studio, smoking cigarettes and not eating much. I saw his studio as the most comfortable place in the world, where everything I ever needed was there. 

I was always drawing while growing up. I liked to dance a lot too. My mom wanted me to learn dancing because she thought as a girl I should have this skill. When I was 11 years old though, I had a terrible car accident and even walking got difficult for me initially. Since I couldn’t dance anymore, I started spending a lot of time in the studio to draw more. Eventually, I didn’t see myself doing anything else in life.

Drawing became the only way to be. It didn’t matter what people said. Even if I had ended up as a starving artist – just drawing in the streets and asking people to buy my art – I would have still continued this.

One more war

How was your experience at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poland where you studied professionally? 

There are two types of art schools according to me – one that has a very supportive environment and the other that is trying to break you, where you are never good enough. Mine had the latter approach. 

Did that approach help you or do you regret being a part of it?

Since my family is the same way, I think it turned out okay for me.

When I was an exchange student in Romania, I had a very supportive professor (Piotr Kunce) and whenever he used to complement my work, I would be really surprised because I so wasn’t used to it (laughs). We still discuss and show our works to each other. I have also sought advice from him from time to time.

I also studied in Delhi and Nepal where again I was part of very good, but difficult schools. It was interesting to have these experiences. 

In Nepal, you learnt the Thangka form of painting which is a very spiritual experience. How did you develop an interest in this?

Well, my father was very much into Buddhism and meditation when I was a kid. We had quite a few Buddhist elements at home. 

I like Thangka as an art form because it has beautiful colors, composition, and is very symmetrical. It was initially just practised by men. It’s only from 2004 that women were allowed to practice it. I found a great art teacher in Nepal. We had no common language (although I spoke a little Hindi), but we could still communicate. I am very grateful that there’ve been many people in my life who I got to interact with without having any common language. Because there are times when it’s difficult to understand each other even when you speak the same language (smiles).

My teacher in Nepal insisted that I meditate early in the morning everyday. I am quite a lazy person in general, and this was like going for a religious practice! But it turned out to be a good experience because it taught me how to work diligently – how to just sit and work for 12 hours without moving. 

Is your current work influenced by Thangka? 

I think it is. And it’s okay to be influenced by different art forms. It was in Nepal where I learned everything related to colors, composition, and good lines (we used the thinnest thread to make a perfect line). In college, I learnt only about design, and the composition part came from India and Nepal. 

When did you start work as a freelancer?  

When I was a teenager! I knew that I wanted to go to art school and I often needed money to get colors and stuff to practice. Finally, my mother said to me, ‘if you want to do this stuff, you have to learn how to earn money to be able to buy colors.’ That was the Facebook era, so I put my work on Facebook and surprisingly, there were people from different countries who wanted to buy it. That’s how I understood quite early that you cannot just create, you also need money to live and pay for your amenities. It also gave me an understanding of how to price your work. 

Your work has a distinctive/signature style. How do you feel about that?

Yes, I do. My signature style didn’t come so easily though. Even when I wasn’t consciously developing my style, I was often told by people that they can figure out that it’s my work, my way of thinking. So I think this is just me, you know.

My style is surrealism. I don’t believe that artists should show the world as it is. We have this ability to create something better, so we ought to do it. That’s how it started for me and has now become an integral part of my work. 

Red Hair

Resistance is a Girl Who Changes the World

Your work is very political, and the theme of ‘Resistance’ has been a big part of your work. Was being political a conscious call? 

I have always been political because of my family. When I was a kid, my great grandmother would tell me stories about the Second World War when she was hiding from the Nazis. There was one artist who the police and soldiers were looking for because he was making these woodcut posters and sharing it with people. People had to hide them because they would be killed just for having those. She would often tell me that ‘Art is so powerful that people would kill because of it’. And that made a huge impact on me. Also, my family has always been open about discrimination, whether it’s sexual or related to religion. All of this influenced me a lot. 

And when I was living by myself, I saw the injustice around me first-hand and how people treated me. Once when I was working in Slovakia, my female boss was pretty racist to me. She told me that my voice didn’t matter. This is when I created my Instagram channel and started sharing my views on all of this. I received a lot of support from people and it made me feel safer. 

What do you think is an artist’s role and responsibility in today’s world? 

I think an artist’s responsibility is to always reflect the world, while sharing solutions. We are the ones who can empathize and are constantly trying to understand what is happening. We are just taking it all in and giving birth to something new.

We can position the problem in different ways, but at the same time it’s important to show the solutions. There is so much bad news! People are getting anxiety attacks, and thinking ‘oh my god, we do not want to have children or have any plans for the future because everything is so bad’. That’s why artists should also show the solution to support each other and be kind to each other.

One of my favorite artists is Mihaela Dragan who created the Development Theatre in Bucharest,  Giuvlipen. She was also my muse when I was a student. I had a whole wall in my room that had just her work. I wanted to be like her. Every single thing she was doing was so powerful. Two years ago, she wrote to me, and she was like, ‘oh, you’re my favorite artist’ and this made me feel happy. This was a person I was a fan of! She also gave me so many great projects. I was able to work on something I really liked and not just do the commercial stuff.

You’ve also mentioned that you see art as a way of connection. Did that begin when you started sharing your work on Instagram? 

Definitely, art does connect people. And I like sharing my life with other people. It’s very important to me.

My process of creating work is very meditative. All the time I spend drawing, and even after I finished a piece of work, I think about how much I love that person on whom this work is based on, how important he/she is to me. I want other people to feel the same way when they see my art. So yes, I think sometimes it works, and that’s why people want to buy it. I’m happy that people are getting this love that I’m sending out to the world.

Social media has clearly helped you create a community. But lately there’s been a lot of criticism about Instagram. Artists, especially the creative community, have been unhappy, because there is a constant need to evolve your content. Have you seen any negative impact of being on social media?

It’s always our decision on how much time we spend on Instagram. It’s the same as talking too much with your friend at work and then finally saying, ‘okay, now let’s get some actual work done.’ 

I think Instagram and other social media platforms have given artists a sense of freedom. We now don’t have to depend on galleries. It’s given us this power now. I don’t know how we would survive without Instagram now. 

Drawing  became the only way to be. It didn’t matter what people said. Even if I had ended up as a starving artist – just drawing in the streets and asking people to buy my art – I would have still continued this.

You are extremely fond of this person called Raymond Gurême. You have a fan club and downloadable posters on your website. So I’m curious to know about your connection with him and how did this start?

He’s a magical person. He grew up in the circus and his story is very impressive because he survived, escaped nine times. His family comprises around 300 people, including his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, which is very powerful. I met him when I was working in Auschwitz. I was just crying there one day, and he came to me and said that your grandfather was also here. So we connected through this pain. He called me his daughter. He was very nice, kind, and a mentor to so many people. I showed him my work and he said, ‘this is important, so you have to keep doing this. If you need some support, let me know’. 

When I was working with refugees in different refugee camps, it actually helped me understand that life may have ups and downs, but you have to be positive. Raymond also teaches us that – they cannot break you if you don’t want to and if you have support.  

From the posters I have created about him, every single proceed from the sale go towards the needs for the Roma communities. Also it’s important for me to not just ask for money for my work, but to also make money to support others. I’m now working on a book about him. 

Fight like Raymond Gurême

What are some of the projects you’re working on right now? 

Like I mentioned earlier, I am working on this book about Raymond Gurême. I want to show his love and share more about him with others. I’m also currently creating some posters to support Ukraine.

I know that right now the maximum information we have is about the war in Ukraine, but there are so many more wars happening simultaneously. I think there are more than 25 major conflicts going on in the world currently and nobody cares about those. 

Today there is so much crimes against women all over the world, and especially in countries with conflicts. A lot of your work is focused on this issue as well. Do you personally get affected by these stories? 

I do have burnouts quite often. It’s almost like getting into fire and then rebuilding myself to get stronger. I try to maintain a mindset like nothing can break me, but I think implementing this is very difficult.

Crimes against women are happening everywhere; there are just more conversations about this in some countries as compared to the others. It’s very dangerous to be a woman everywhere, you have to be the strongest person who is always ready to fight. We have to be careful, wear “appropriate” clothes, make sure of our safety, especially when we travel alone. It’s never safe.And if you’re a woman and an artist, there is this stereotype that you are sexually open. So a lot of harm happens to women in the art world. Women are still not treated as equals. They are still getting paid less.

I always think about this person who once said to me that we should always think about other women, check on them, and support them.

Equal Job. Equal Pay

She would often tell me that ‘Art is so powerful that people would kill because of it’. And that made a huge impact on me. 

Do you have some sort of a community of artists where you live?

Actually my closest friends are not artists, and this creates a good balance in my life. If I have to always talk to other artists, I think I might turn into this dysfunctional human being who doesn’t think about anything else (laughs). So I need to have other friends. We have to be inspired by the world and not just art. 

What are the things that inspire you?

I’m a very emotional person; just sitting alone in the room can be very inspiring to me. But the strongest inspiration is still my family. I have heard so many of their stories when I was a child, so I am always trying to be like them, to keep our history alive.

Especially when somebody asks me where I am from, I always tell stories about my mother. She’s a very beautiful woman. So yes, I like to talk about the women in my family who have inspired me so much, and I see them as my creators.When I see my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother in the same room – the way they hug me and touch my skin – I start to understand that I came from under that skin. They gave me this life. And also they make me the best food and coffee!

I grew up understanding different religions thanks to my father, as he would always tell me that while there are many religions, people often believe the same thing. 

I don’t look like my mother or anyone in my family for that matter because I am mixed, but I know they are my mirror. It is the most magical connection I have ever experienced. Maybe it’s something that people feel when they talk about religion.

Where I’m From

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