Artist Focus: Baba Studios

By Kate Large

Woman startled by raven
The Raven printed corset by Baba Studio. Post production, Alex Ukolov, styling Karen Mahony, Baba Studio.

Back in July, as they were preparing to move from Prague to Ireland, Kate Large caught up with Karen Mahoney and Alex Ukolov of Baba Studios.

Karen, you grew up in Belfast, while Alex had an unusual background too, a Russian in the Ukraine growing up in the old Soviet system. Does growing up in such places make for an imaginative mind?

I grew up during the Troubles, but what was more important was simply the experience of a childhood in Ireland, a powerfully mythic and magical place. When I later moved to the south east of England, things seemed bland and overly ‘normal’ – all a bit depressing. For years I missed the sheer strangeness and magic; the sense of freedom to be anything I wanted, that I’d had in Ireland.

About his origins in the Soviet Union, Alex says that when a society clearly defines your behaviour, the way you speak, what’s appropriate and what isn’t, your personality becomes very restricted. Creative people have to look for the safest ways to express themselves, without becoming an exile. He also recalls that in the Soviet Union, there was a very good educational system, but it was obvious that people were living completely different lives from what they studied: so much so, that it became a common joke. Many people had dreams and aspirations that would never come true.

Regarding myth and its place in our backgrounds, Alex and I have very similar attitudes. He like to say that Aesop’s way of creating fables is one of the ways to get around social taboos about what you should be discussing. Fairytales, legends and old traditions have always interested him, as an attempts to understand human nature, through cultural aspects.

You’re working on the Mythical Creatures Tarot – what can you tell us?

We began this tarot back in 2005, so it’s been quite a saga and at times we were sure it would never be finalised. We were inspired by discovering the extraordinary work of Russian artist Lena Kozachuk and the theme of the deck was designed principally to show off her painstakingly detailed and imaginative pen drawing to its best advantage. It’s been a terribly slow process, with Lena and Alex working very closely together on each image, but we expect the first ‘monochrome’ (actually a three-colour printing with bronze metallics, but very subtle) to be published this September. We’re designing it to have a traditional, handmade feel, working with a small, specialist art printers who mainly make high-quality art books.

This tarot won’t have mass market appeal: it was never intended to. We want to move right away from that, making it feel individual and special and, though I know the word is a cliché, ‘artisan’.

You recently released a 2016 edition of the iconic Tarot of Prague, the deck that really put Magic Realist Press on the map. What’s new?

The 2016 Tarot of Prague happened when we realised that 2016’s Magic Prague tour was going ahead, but we had hardly any Tarot of Prague decks for people to use! So  reprint was essential. We hadn’t revisited the deck for many years and when we looked at the cards, there were several images that we felt could benefit from using higher resolution photographs, especially as we wanted to make a large format, limited edition version. We ended up changing many more cards than we had intended – when you review an older piece of work, you see a lot of things that you think you could improve, or could at least be changed to reflect our more recent style and technique. It’s hard not to keep changing things and usually, we have to control ourselves so that the deck still retains its original identity.

The Tarot of Prague now not only has many altered images, but also has metallic cold-stamping, beautifully and subtly done by Alex, so that it has many colours, giving the impression of changing under different lights. For ‘Golden Prague’ (Zlata Praha), a deck that incorporates these golden elements seems entirely appropriate. We’re so pleased with the way it’s come out. It feels like such a lovely way to say goodbye to our years here.

Can you tell us more about your Magic Prague Tours?

The tour came about because we wanted to keep a strong link with the city after we move to Ireland. Then our friend Marketa Hradecka, who runs a much-loved tour company here in Prague, said that she would be happy to organise and run it with us, which made it seem more feasible. We didn’t know how many people would be interested, but in fact we sold out quickly.

We were delighted to see a great community spirit build within a few days and the week was a revelation – I honestly got a whole new view of Prague. What can visitors expect? Well, a mix of ‘proper’ history (Marketa, like us, believes in doing good research) plus some quirky, fun events and one or two more spiritual (and, we hope, rather romantic) rituals and events. All based in a gorgeously picturesque medieval hotel in the oldest part of Prague: we take the whole hotel and it feels like a real home. And of course the opportunity to use The Tarot of Prague in the city itself – a unique tarot experience.

When I’m working on the tour, I ask myself “what would I want?” So we aim for a week that combines everything from legends to ghost stories, tarot and spells. With shopping in bazaars and eating cake in cafes thrown in!

White cat offering lady tea
Fashion shoot of Baba Studios silk velvet prints

Magic Realist Press has always self-published its decks. Why is it so important to retain creative control, and what do you get out of it?

We’ve always turned down offers, even though we respect the publishing companies involved. Our work is very personal to us and we don’t want any pressure to tone it down or make it more mainstream. We’re aware that the traditional publishing model relies on large numbers of sales and we don’t think any of our decks have a ‘mass market’ appeal. Years ago, a very well-meaning distributor in the US suggested that the Bohemian Cats deck would sell better if we made the images less ‘odd’ and more ‘cute’. He murmured something about ribbon bows on each cat… We ran away screaming… I suppose that set the model for our attitude ever since!

We’re fortunate as we are both, in different ways, quite businesslike. I am pretty entrepreneurial: I was making clothes at weekends and selling them to Kensington Market in London by the time I was fifteen, while Alex is very practical about logistics, book-keeping and so on. So, we have very complementary skills. We have reached a point where the studio brings in a liveable income and we don’t have to compromise on what we want to do.

It means that our work is very distinctive. Not everyone will like it or ‘get’ it, but that’s a good thing. We prefer attracting a particular type of buyer; someone who thinks for themselves and chooses something that really doesn’t follow current trends. We often say that our work isn’t ‘cool’ – instead, it’s warm, emotional and perhaps just a bit peculiar.

Karen, you’re a huge fan of Giordano Bruno – can we expect a tarot based around him?

I had an odd year, a little while back, when everything I read or encountered seemed to lead back to Bruno. He still feels present in Prague at times. But a tarot based on Bruno? I honestly don’t think many people would understand it or find it useable. I can well imagine making a tarot that draws on Bruno’s theories about magic, though; that would be an amazing thing to work on. If we do ever make another tarot (which right now isn’t at all certain), then there may well be some influence of Bruno’s treatise On Magic.

When I think Baba Studio, I think ‘Prague’ – you felt called to live there, and the cards also predicted you would meet Alex!

Yes, we are so closely associated with Prague. Alex and I met here in 2001 and the first substantial piece of work we did together was The Tarot of Prague. All our work is a kind of ‘modern baroque’ – we were both on the run from the ubiquity and orthodoxies of minimalist modernism when we met. We have always drawn very much drawing from the art and culture here and our style is a kind of historicism seen through the eyes of modernity.

The cards did indeed predict that we’d meet. The summer before I moved here, I was getting cold feet: it was such a huge move and felt like jumping into the unknown. I was sitting in a hotel room in Prague feeling scared, wondering if I was doing the right thing and I did a reading with a Czech oracle deck. It told me that I would meet a man, fall in love with him, work with him and find success. I thought it was ridiculous – I was in a long-term relationship and not looking for another one, so I did the reading again. Almost exactly the same cards came up, stating things even more clearly, if anything. I made the move and two months later a friend literally produced Alex from behind a red velvet curtain. And that was it!

Now you’re moving your home and business to County Kerry; was than an intuitive move too? Will it be hard to leave Prague? And why choose Ireland?

There are logical reasons, one of the main ones being that I have a huge issue with learning languages and not being able to speak good Czech is very isolating. But also, yes, there is just a strong feeling that we both have that now is the right time for a change. We feel that we’ve done a lot of what we set out to do here, and in a way our work needs the impetus of a fresh start. You have to challenge yourself, otherwise it’s easy to get complacent and repeat things that you’ve done before.
It will be absolutely gut-wrenching to leave, we both love Prague. But we are retaining a small studio here and the Czech business will also continue, though in a much more limited way. As I’ve already mentioned, the Magic Prague tour will bring us back for at least two weeks once a year, but I think we’ll be back more often than that.

It’s still difficult though. We rent a flat here in a building that dates from 1601 and we have the most unbelievable view over the Petrin Park and the old centre of Prague. It will be sad to leave that and I’ll miss it.

We’ve chosen Kerry for the mountains and mythology, and of course the wonders of the National Park. But from a practical point of view, it’s very good for transport networks, with a train station in town and a small airport just outside. We can get to London in not much more than an hour, which is important for us (visiting galleries and museums is inspirational) and we can also use the train to get to Dublin or Cork city. We love the countryside, but don’t want to be cut off from the culture and liveliness of cities. Alex says that the fact that there is a Marks and Spencer food hall in Killarney is what finally made up my mind. I strongly deny this of course…

We’ve caught you mid-move: what does it takes to move a home and a business?

To use a tarot analogy, you have to be a bit of a Fool to even consider it! It’s taken three years to make this happen. We’ve had to do everything, from tackling the enormous amount of paperwork involved in us formally getting married (Alex is Ukrainian and we just could not face the even more enormous challenge of proving that we have lived together since 2002, so marriage seemed easier) to finding a house and studio within a reasonable distance of one another.

Will moving to Ireland influence Baba Studio’s future output?

Yes, it’s bound to have a huge influence. In a way, you could say we are moving from a more formal type of magic – the alchemical and academic magical tradition of Prague – to a wilder magic, based more on the land itself. In the terms of Terry Pratchett, it’s like a shift from Unseen University to Granny Weatherwax’s cottage.

Of course, it isn’t anything like that simple, but there is truth in this way of seeing the impact on our work. We are beginning to plan a new project – which actually won’t have tarot as it’s focus – which will involve making our own images to show the untamed, intuitive magic that is so present in Ireland. It’s going to be demanding. We see it as a five-year project; one that will stretch us and develop our work in new directions.

We both believe in magic and think that it can sometimes be palpable in an artwork, so there is bound to be an effect visually and perhaps in terms of the ‘tone’ of our work. I actually think it may get wilder and stranger.

Once you’re settled, what dreams do you have for Baba Studio?

Just having the studio with Alex, and being able to live off it, is a dream achieved. It’s more than I could ever have hoped, so it would be unreasonable to ask for more. But in a fantasy, I’d love to do one piece of clothing work that could compare with a design by Alexander McQueen, one illustration that could be judged as good as a piece by Arthur Rackham, and one contribution to magic that is significant to at least a few people.

I’m not asking much, am I!?

Find out more about Baba Studio’s entire range of books and decks, other products, as well as the next Magic Prague Tour, at https://baba-store.com