“This house is my family home, where I grew up in southeast Hungary,” says Zsofia Schweger. “We still have it; all of our belongings are there, frozen in time.”
We’re sitting in her studio at the Griffin Gallery in west London, where Schweger’s first solo show is about to open. Hanging on the wall are the 27-year-old artist’s oversized, graphic canvases, showing minimalist domestic scenes: bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, all painted in muted pastel colours. The rooms in the paintings are all empty.
“My grandmother still lives in that house, so I go back twice a year or so to visit,” Schweger continues. “And I always have such ambivalent feelings about it. You go back and you know it so well: you know the furniture, you know where the light switches are.
“But at the same time, you’ve been away so long that you really don’t belong there anymore. And that can be really scary.”
To hear anti-Semitic speech in the streets when your best friend is Jewish, how can you process that?
A graduate of London’s Slade School of Fine Art, Schweger was born in 1989 in Sandorfalva, a rural town near the Hungary-Serbia border. It was the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although never technically part of the Soviet Union, Hungary had very much been under Communist control since the end of WWII, and Schweger remembers her childhood as a time marked by hope and excitement: Hungary was embracing the trappings of capitalism and consumerism, and it all seemed dazzling to the young Zsofia.
“One of my earliest memories is of an engineer coming to fix the television so we could have Cartoon Network,” she says. “I thought that was so cool. Or I remember my dad taking me to Burger King, which was a really big thing. That’s what I grew up in: the hopeful time when Hungary was a new democracy.”
Today, however, she is far more uncertain about the country where she was born.
For the last six years Hungary has been ruled by the right-wing Fidesz party, led by Viktor Orbán, who won the 2010 election with a landslide victory. Far-right nationalism and racism – particularly directed at Jewish and Roma people – are on the rise.
When I go back to Hungary: I’m home but I’m not at home
Orbán, meanwhile, has been criticised for pursuing anti-democratic reforms, from reducing press freedom to changing the Hungarian constitution to suit his own ends. Campaigning for Hillary Clinton in May, Bill Clinton said that Hungary had decided “democracy is too much trouble” and was turning towards a “Putin-like” and “authoritatian dictatorship”. For his part, Orbán has been frank about his goal of constructing a “non-liberal state”.
It all means that Schweger – who studied in New York and Boston in her late teens and early twenties, before moving to London in 2013 – no longer feels at home in the country where she was born. She traces the rise of Fidesz in Hungary back to 2006, when there were violent protests against the then-incumbent socialist government.
“That was the first time that far-right nationalism became so visible to me in its ideology and physical violence,” she says. “It was in the media a lot: the visual symbols, the uniforms and outfits. Coming back from America as a 17-year-old, that kind of rhetoric was really shocking. To hear anti-Semitic speech in the streets when your best friend is Jewish, how can you process that?”
The current government’s repressive attitudes towards freedom of speech also mean that Schweger feels it would be impossible to practice as an artist in Hungary. “I don’t know where I would even begin,” she says. “It’s scary.”
It’s this sense of being locked out of her home country that inspired the flat aesthetic employed by Schweger in her work. All of the lines in each pastel-toned painting meet at one vanishing point, creating a sense of two-dimensional impenetrableness.
“You’re drawn in by the pretty colours, but you’re also locked out by the perspective,” she says. “So you’re in but you’re out, and that really relates back to how I feel when I go back to Hungary: I’m home but I’m not at home.”
The political history, climate and culture in Hungary is very different to the UK’s. Still, though. A sense of not feeling at home in your own country, of being alienated and horrified by resurgent nationalism and bigotry: it’s not too much of a leap to recognise parallels between Schweger’s feelings about Hungary and how many young Brits felt in the wake of Brexit.
She half-laughs when I mention the referendum, pointing to a fading ‘Vote Remain’ poster still pinned on the wall near the window. “When the Brexit vote came through, some of my British friends were like, ‘We have to move; we don’t feel welcome anymore; this is not my country’. All of those are conversations I recognise from Hungary.”
Politicians get away with awful things because people are too tired to care
Schweger is optimistic that the UK will prove more resilient than her home country against the forces of racism and far-right nationalism, but she also has a word of advice for young British people disillusioned by Brexit.
“The kind of upset or sadness that happened [after Brexit], it’s so strong and so draining. All of your friends and everyone at work is having some kind of existential crisis, and it’s all everybody can talk about it for maybe two weeks,” she says. “And you can’t possibly maintain that level of desperation.
“That’s something that happens a lot in Hungary: there are so many scandals, in such quick succession, that you just don’t have the energy or space to get angry about it. And that’s how politicians get away with awful things, because people are too tired to care. Sometimes, you need to try and remember how hurt you were.”
‘BLOC’ is the debut solo exhibition by Zsofia Schweger at Griffin Gallery, west London. For more information visit griffingallery.co.uk