Rada Niță Josan


Hell (Hosman), ink on paper, 2020

D: Hello! Let’s start things off the usual way – please introduce yourself to our audience! Who are you, where are you from, what’s your artistic medium of choice and how long have you been involved in the art world?

R: Hello Dylan, thank you for your invitation. I am a Romanian artist based in Cluj-Napoca, in the region of Transylvania. I started my art education in secondary school, and I continued until I obtained my PhD. At the beginning of high school I started working in (dip) pen and ink on paper, and this was my main medium for many years. Since my second year of university I dedicated myself to etching, a printmaking technique. I was fascinated with etching even before I had the chance to learn this technique. I became a student at the University of Art and Design in Cluj-Napoca. As soon as I could, I applied for an exchange scholarship at the Academy of Art and Design in Wrocław, Poland, a place well-recognized for performance in printmaking. There I had the opportunity to learn etching and other techniques with some important artists (true masters in their field – Christopher Nowicki, Przemyslaw Tyszkiewicz and Jacek Szewczyk), and it gave me a better understanding of what printmaking means – a mix of skills, ideas, vision and a lot of hard physical work. During my academic years I returned to the same university in Wroclaw with two other scholarships, so I consider my education in the field of printmaking to have taken place there.
In 2022 I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia after a full year of torment and medical investigations. I struggle with severe (sometimes excruciating) pain in my right hand every day, and this forced me to come back to ink drawing. Now I spend most of my time drawing (even though my capacity for work has reduced significantly), but I do plan on going back to printmaking once I can better manage my pain and the related medical issues.

D: It sounds like you’ve been in the art world for a decent amount of time in that case! You mentioned already being fascinated by etching as an art form even before you started creating etchings yourself. What originally drew you to the medium?

R: It felt like magic. I still think about it in the same way. I consider it like an alchemical process. You need a lot of precision and a lot of knowledge (there are many steps you almost “religiously” need to follow), but the result is fantastic. It also allows you to achieve an insane level of detail, and it has a mystery that is very proper for visionary (or maybe a better word would be imaginative) art. For someone who works in lines it’s a great technique to develop a whole story and to let your imagination flow within the borders of the (in my case) zinc plate. I also liked the tradition of this technique, the antique aspect. It’s like a dialogue with the past. Another interesting aspect is that you always work in a mirror, so the result is a bit of a mystery even for the artist themselves. And because etching can’t be intuitive and you have to think about every step of your work, it’s always a mental exercise; it challenges your mind, your skills and your imagination.

Incantation, etching, 2016

D: That does sound quite intense, but I imagine seeing the finished result must feel incredibly satisfying.

I’d like to return to something you said in your last response about ”dialogues with the past” for this next question. Your work is very strongly influenced by local Romanian folklore, and it strongly evokes the aesthetic of old Medieval illustrations as well. How did you find your style, and what drew you to this particular aesthetic?

R: I would say that it was a natural process over the years. I think that finding your own style has a lot to do not only with developing your technique (through constant hard work), but also with an artistic education in a broader sense (through reading, exhibitions, music, movies, exchanges with other artists) and with your (cultural) interests. I am deeply invested in the cultural identity of my country, in its folklore and its heritage. As a child, I was living in a village where a few folk customs (particularly Sânziene [Midsummer] and “the Goat Dance”) were still preserved, and experiencing them influenced my work and perception of things. Those two customs I repeatedly evoke and recreate through my art. Both in folklore and medieval art you can find a very imaginative and deep perception/interpretation of the world and its shapes. Within this aesthetic, I found a way to oscillate between the real and the fantastic while highlighting Romanian and Eastern/Central European cultural heritage, my quests, fears, and personal bestiaries and beasts.

Also, having a mother (the literary critic Sanda Cordoș) who instilled in me a love for reading and showed me the importance and the power of imagination and creativity from an early age mattered a lot.

D: Your passion for your country’s cultural heritage definitely shines through in your artwork! As you’ve already created quite a few pieces inspired by Romanian folklore, would you mind sharing one of your favorites with us and telling us a little more about it?

R: I will pick a recent etching, “Masked Dance in Transylvania” (2022).

Masked Dance in Transylvania, etching, 2022

One of my favorite themes related to the cultural heritage of my country is the masked dance, which takes place on the last days of the year to celebrate New Year’s Eve. I witnessed this custom as a child in the village where I grew up, Gilău. The main motif there was the Goat Dance, but depending on the region, there are also other types of masked dances – for example, a few years ago, I discovered the devilish masks from Cavnic called Brondoși. Another interesting dance is the bear dance in Comănești. For a better understanding of this ritual I will quote ethnographer Georgeta Rosu, who has a book on this subject:

“The mask dances were the highlight of these days – Turca (*the goat dance -n.a), Brezaia, Stag, Căiuții or the theatrical performances, accompanied by the best wishes, whose origins are found in beliefs or old fables, with both Christian or pre-Christian elements. These dances had a clear purpose in this context – a form of favorable white magic, meant to bring a fruitful year, rich harvest, fulfilment through marriage, the birth of many healthy children to carry on their names, health to villagers and quiet old age for elders. In the collective mind, these rituals helped purify and regenerate time and space. This would confirm the existence of myths in the day to day life and rituals were meant to protect the individual and insure a better life to the community. Masks have fascinated people with their cryptic character and their deep symbolical meaning ever since ancient times. In a time where ‘Christianity would strongly manifest against any types of ritual, pre-or un-Christian, the mask has found a way to spread, becoming essential in performing folk rituals, carnivals, balls, beauticians and even amongst robbers and special forces’”.

(Georgeta Roșu, “Masks and Masked Dances”)

A particularity in some of my works dedicated to winter dances is that the setup is in the Saxon fortified churches of Transylvania. Therefore I present an imaginative journey of Romanian masked dances (of carolers) in Saxon villages – covering in this way different aspects of local heritage, both Romanian and Saxon.

A witch and the Death inside of the wooden church in Săcălășeni; @transylvania_folk

D: Aside from your illustration and print work, you also run a photography page, @transylvania_folk, where you’ve been sharing snapshots of your travels around Transylvania & of some of the local folk traditions. Amazing pictures, first of all – there’s always something about these old cemeteries, churches and villages that radiates a special kind of beauty. What made you decide to start this side-project, and are there any places you would recommend to any of our like-minded readers overseas?

R: Thank you! I started the page with the idea that I would like to show some places in Romania (and especially those in Transylvania) that are less known. In a way, this is what I also do through my art, showing a Transylvania complementary to the myth of Dracula. I do like the Dracula myth and its relation to my country, but I feel that it could be better used by the local authorities in promoting the overall region (especially considering that the two of the best-known “Dracula” landmarks, Hunedoara and Bran castle, weren’t Vlad Tepeș’s castles). For those interested in visiting Transylvania, I would recommend the Orthodox Wooden churches in Northern Transylvania (Maramureș, Sălaj and even Cluj county), the Medieval Orthodox churches from Hunedoara county (an unusual mix between Western and Eastern culture) and the fair in Negreni, which takes place twice a year, in summer and autumn, and of course the Saxon fortified churches, to mention only a few landmarks. Seven Saxon villages from Southern Transylvania and seven Wooden churches from Maramureș are under UNESCO, but besides those, there are so many other similar monuments to discover. Around 150 fortified churches and dozens, if not hundreds, of wooden churches are waiting to be visited, and for some of them it’s only a matter of time until they will collapse. The vernacular architecture of Transylvania is spectacular, though a vast majority is slowly perishing. The Wooden Churches often hide some very imaginative representations of Judgment Day, and for my further project I want to focus on this subject in my art – the devils and witches in the Orthodox Wooden Churches. For those interested, the book “Witchcraft in Romania” by Ioan Pop-Curşeu and Ștefana Pop-Curșeu might give a good understanding of the topic.

Unfortunately, during the communist period a lot of cultural landmarks deteriorated. Also, after the fall of communism the authorities didn’t invest in restoring these landmarks, so we are witnessing the disappearance of a good part of our cultural heritage. There are some important initiatives for preserving the heritage, like Ambulanța pentru Monumente (The Ambulance for Monuments) who are looking for volunteers and for financial support, as they work based on donations.

As my condition doesn’t allow me to travel far, I have to limit my trips to the nearby area. Right now I’m focused on visiting Cluj county, Maramureș, where my husband comes from and where my in-laws live, and Sălaj, a region between these two counties. In the next few months I plan to visit the wooden churches painted by Dimitrie Ispas from Gilău, a mural painter who lived and worked at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century. I strongly recommend anyone interested in mural paintings and old Orthodox churches to research, and, if possible, visit the churches he painted. One of them can be seen in the “Romulus Vuia” National Ethnographic Park in Cluj-Napoca.

The last landmark that I wish to mention (even though it is not in Transylvania) is the nineteenth century graveyard of the Saddler’s Church (Biserica Curelari) in Iași. It was the find of the year for me. Totally unexpected, the graves look like manuscripts engraved in stones with skulls and sun and moon symbols.

Tombstone in the graveyard of the Saddler's Church (Biserica Curelari) in Iași; @transylvania_folk

There are many more things to be said on this topic, but I will stop here. I will only add that I wish I had more time for @transylvania_folk, because there are many places that I would like to show and visit. However, all these places are connected to my art as well, so they can be seen in my current or future works. 

D: Thank you for the incredibly in-depth answer! I’m one of those people whose knowledge of Transylvania initially didn’t go far beyond its association with Dracula either, but your travel photos have shown a wonderful other side I never knew about.
Now, you’ve been creating art in various forms for quite a while now, you’ve participated in several exhibitions, have illustrated a book of poetry that was released earlier last year… A lot of things! My next question is one of those ones I ask everyone I interview at some point: Would you share some of your proudest achievements as an artist so far? What’s something that will stick with you forever?

R: My first and my latest solo exhibitions. The first one took place in 2015 at The National Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest, one of my favorite museums and one of the most unique places I ever saw. This is a place where, whenever I visit it, I feel at my best. Though the name might suggest that this is another ethnographic museum, it is much more than that. 

To quote ethnologist Ioana Popescu:

“Horia Bernea’s (the director and founder of the museum*) bet was different: not ordering the exhibits by ethnographic areas or by categories of objects, nor reconstructing the interiors or peasant households as they are found on site. (…) The painter Horia Bernea conceived the Museum of the Romanian Peasant as if he was painting. (…) What Horia Bernea proposed – and proposes to us – is a curatorial discourse about the spiritual universe of the Romanian peasant.”

It’s no wonder that in 1997 it received the European Museum Of The Year Award. It was an honor to have my first solo exhibition in such a place.

My latest solo exhibition took place this year at the Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania in Cluj-Napoca. This is a place I am very fond of, and during my student years I often went there to make sketches. What made the exhibition so special was the fact that it was a retrospective exhibition showing more than 70 etchings and drawings from 2011 until 2023. Most of them highlight the cultural heritage of Romania. Tudor Sălăgean, the manager of the museum, had the generosity to offer me a large space for my works so that I could organize an exhibition according to my own wishes. Another important aspect of this exhibition was that many of my works were accompanied by short texts from the writings of important Romanian ethnologists, such as Simion Florea Marian, Tudor Pamfile, Elena Niculiță Voronca, Gh. Pavelescu, Ovidiu Bîrlea, Ion Taloș and Mihai Coman. This is something that I also plan to use in future exhibitions.

Traces, etching, 2020

D: Having such a big retrospective of your own work sounds like it must have been incredibly impressive. Congratulations! I hope you’ll get the opportunity to do something like that again in the future. Have you made any plans for any future projects yet?

R: Thank you. 2024 will bring two solo exhibitions. One will take place at the Banat Village Museum (Timișoara), at the invitation of Marius Matei, a very special person and one of the most important folk collectors in our country. The second one will be at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Viena. In both places I will display my series Imaginary Tales of Transylvanian Fortresses. This series of drawings and etchings was created during my residency at Visual Kontakt Gallery between 2019-2022, and it highlights the cultural heritage of Transylvania and Romania. For my exhibition in Timișoara I will prepare a few new works showcasing the cultural heritage of Banat and Marius Matei’s extraordinary collection of folk garments.
I also have a book coming up, an album of my works in cooperation with a publishing house from abroad, but more info regarding this will come later.
Beside this, I plan to keep taking short trips with my husband in the vicinity of Cluj-Napoca and other parts of Transylvania and to show the unknown heritage of this part of Romania through my art and photos.

D: That sounds exciting, I’m looking forward to hearing how things will turn out with the upcoming exhibitions and the work on that book. Good luck!

So, you’re from Romania. Much like Estonia, our current home base, it’s a country that not many of our readers might find themselves familiar with. As such, I can’t help but ask: what’s your local art scene/cultural scene like? Are you actively involved in it? Are there any cultural spaces or other local artists you would recommend to our readers?

R: I would say that it’s hard for any young artist to fit in if they are not affiliated with any artistic groups or don’t follow any trends, and I am not and do not. To be honest, I find myself more interested in the work of the older generations of artists, like Mariana Gheorghiu, Onisim Colta, Ana Lupaș, Gheza Vida, Mihai Olos, George Apostu, Stefan Câltia, Mircea Roman, Mircia Dumitrescu and Sorin Ilfoveanu. Many of them are in a state of perpetual dialogue with the folk expressions, forms, customs and local identity in a modern and very personal approach. A similar path is that of Mircea Cantor, one of the most well-known Romanian artists at the moment and a younger artist compared to the ones I’ve mentioned, who works with local artisans on his projects.
I don’t know if this happens in Estonia as well, but we always compare ourselves with the West. We try to imitate what is happening there without caring too much about our own strengths and identity (even though some of the biggest names in Romanian art took their direct inspiration from the Romanian culture; look at Brâncuși, for example). The lack of knowledge about our own artistic world led the young generations, including mine, to believe that we lack important names in art and that we don’t have an important culture. I often feel that there is a rush to be the boldest, the most shocking, the most innovative, but many young artists don’t realize how innovative the older generations were (artists like Mihai Olos, Constantin Flondor or Ana Lupaș, and so on), while also being highly praised. For example, Ana Lupaș is permanently displayed at Tate.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many Romanian artists worth checking from younger generations, but I am expressing an overall feeling that I have. Regarding the artists and galleries in Cluj-Napoca, I have recently followed the activity of Alex Bodea and Nicolae Romanițan and Biju Gallery.
A fairly unknown print maker I discovered in the last few years is Alina Roșca. Unfortunately, she died before her time. Two other contemporary print makers that I recommend are Tudor Câmpean (my workshop colleague) and Adrian Sandu. Even though I am not affiliated with any artistic group I have to say that it was important to have a group of friends from high school next to which I grew up artistically. We shared our aims and achievements, even though we have very different artistic approaches, identities and perspectives: Liviu Bulea, who you know and whom you recently exhibited, Raluca Bobiș, Maria Brudașcă and Oana Maria Pop.
However, speaking of the artistic scene in a broader sense, I somewhat follow what is happening in Romanian literature. One of my close friends is the wonderful poet Andreea Iulia Scridon, and I enjoy a close relationship with the writer Ruxandra Cesereanu, whom I admire and with whom I have collaborated. I honestly believe that such cultural exchanges have a strong importance in the life and universe of an artist.

Procession, etching and drypoint, 2015

D: Yeah, that sounds quite relatable. I sometimes find it difficult to connect to the local art world in a broader sense as well because the particular flavor of dark/weird that I like to see in art and the kind I like to make myself both aren’t super popular or common here. Like a niche within a niche, pretty much.
We’ve already discussed how your country’s folklore and history have influenced your work. Another aspect that’s quite prominent in a lot of your works is an element of ‘darkness’, or the macabre: demons, skeletons, creatures of the night. Naturally, with us being a zine focused on the dark and surreal, that’s one of the things that originally caught my eye about your work. What originally drew you towards these darker themes in particular?

R: I became attracted to these things once I entered adolescence, when the perception of things changes. I became interested in Romanticism (I mean the artistic current), and my readings turned from historical novels to the French existentialists, Greek tragedy and classic Russian literature. I started watching movies like The Seventh Seal and a strong influence was the fact that I discovered black metal, with its adjacent concerns. Jurgis Baltrušaitis’s books on Gothic art were also a point of reference. I would study the twisted forms of the Gothic art for hours. But, as I discovered over the years, to properly evoke Gothic imagery takes time – to draw expressive figures with only a few lines requires practice and serious (academic) study until they can be easily imagined and drawn.
But, because you mentioned folklore and history, I would specify that they both have quite a dark side, and this aspect contributed to my approach to these themes. I even recall an exhibition which took place at the Art Museum of Cluj-Napoca in 2004 called “Petele rosii creează strălucirea istoriei? (Do the red spots create the glow of history?)”. I have been interested in history and art since my childhood, so there was only a shift in how I perceived things.
As for my demons, I think I should elaborate. My demons have various meanings and purposes: sometimes I refer to their religious and historical representations; at other times they express my own fears and anxieties. Sometimes they challenge the distinction between how evil looks and how evil behaves, which is not always easy to spot. They can be companions, helpers, protectors, or, on the contrary, they can be dangerous or hostile. Often they appear in a context of satire and folk humor. In Romanian folklore, the devil is feared, but he can be tamed or tricked by regular folks and witches (but old women scare him the most). I do try to tame my demons and to play tricks on them and with them. They can take the most primitive forms and they can express the most primitive feelings, but they can also express fragility despite their ferocious appearance. I would say that my demons are the most comfortable characters for me to illustrate both human and primitive, animalistic behavior, as well as archaic and magical practices. In some cases my characters oscillate between the animistic representations of archaic societies and demonic representations. Sometimes my demons accompany me on my artistic journey; other times they take my place and take my story further.

Carpathian Witchcraft II, ink on paper, 2023

D: They’re quite multifaceted in that case. This distinction between how evil looks and how evil behaves is an interesting one to contemplate.
Now, Rada, I’d first of all like to thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions once again.. and I’d like to ask you one last thing to close off this interview. I always like to end these with a sort of ‘general shout out’/’featured artist’s recommendations’ section, and I’ll do the same this time as well. Have you read any good books lately, discovered any new music you’d like to share, watched any good movies, or do you have any people you would like to give a special shout out to?

R: The last book I bought and which I am reading now is an art history book “Medieval Wall Paintings in Transylvanian Orthodox Churches by Elena Dana Prioteasa. Usually I like to read magic realism, either by South American writers or central-Eastern European ones (but not exclusively), as well as Romanian literature and ethnological texts. Among the Romanian authors I would recommend are Florina Ilis, Simona Sora, Filip Florian and Bogdan Suceavă. My preference for magical realism extends to movies, and here I don’t want to mention anything I watched recently, but rather something that I wish to honor in my future works: Sergey Paradjanov’s movies and Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.
Regarding music, I tend to go back to certain bands and albums over and over again: Cultes des Ghoules, Xantatol, Sacrilegium (Wicher), Beherit, Sarcofago, Mortuary Drape, early Darkthrone, Winter, the first demos of Pan-thy-monium. A demo I discovered in the last years, which I often listen to, is Oldowan Gash – Until the Bees Fly Again.
In art I find my biggest inspiration in contemporary printmaking, like in the art of Albin Brunovsky and his school, and in the works of Ukrainian artist Oleg Denysenko, to mention just a few. Despite being contemporary artists, they engage in a dialogue with the old masters, and that’s a path that interests me. Otherwise, and I believe these are obvious influences, I’m drawn towards medieval art, Symbolism, Expressionism and Art Nouveau, and artists like Felicien Rops, Alphonse Mucha, Josef Váchal and the Surrealist artist Mary Leonora Carrington.
I do believe exchanges between artists are important and influential, and here I’d like to mention some very enjoyable talks I’ve had with a fellow artist from Belarus who goes under the name of Vaiug.
Thank you, Dylan, for inviting me to take part in this very enjoyable dialogue. It was a pleasure to answer for Semioculus and to have some of my works featured in your previous issues. I wish you great success with this project, which, as before, I will follow closely.

Goat (dance) in the fortress, drawing, 2021