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Interview with Azsa West: »Art is the foundation of everything I’m doing«

Raised by dolphins and educated at the legendary and experimental Wieden+Kennedy advertising school, Azsa West follows her very own path. Now in her role as Executive Creative Director at Anomaly Berlin.

After having lived and worked in Portland, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo, Azsa West arrived in Berlin a couple of months ago. She loves the creative energy of the city – and has a lot planned there (Photo: Delia Baum)

Azsa West is an artist, a filmmaker, a creative direc­tor – and above all, she is a well-traveled citizen of the world. After stations in Portland, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo, she has now arrived in Berlin. She tells us how her unconventional childhood, her art and her identity as an indigenous and queer person of color influences her work, what she wants to change in the industry, and why she’s eager to give back.

It’s being said that you were raised by dolphins and by a metaphysical graphic designer who believed in auras and aliens. That sounds very interesting . . .
Azsa West: (laughs) Raised by dolphins is a bit of an exaggeration. But I grew up about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles. We lived in a little Adobe house just a couple of blocks away from the beach, and I spent a lot of time with the sea animals there. My mom was a very spiritual person. She died when I was 13 years old, and I think her illness made her search for meaning and for something to believe in. And she really did believe in auras and aliens. Aside from the dolphins, that’s not a metaphor (laughs). For my 12th birthday I got an aura reading, and when I was in fifth grade, she thought there was an alien invasion happening. In fact, it was an earthquake, but she woke me up and claimed that she saw an ­alien spacecraft descending upon our house. Having been raised that way was very intense, very formative, and also very good for my imagination. And I never had a fear of aliens (laughs).

Did your childhood influence your career?
I think so. My mom was a graphic designer and an artist, but the one thing she did best was trying to make the most of every day that she had. She was ­super passionate and if she noticed something that my siblings and I were fascinated by, she nurtured it. She helped shape me into a super curious person with many different interests.

Is this why you later studied at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco?
I had a wild education and learned a little about a lot. How­ever, school was not my strong suit. I just could not focus on a hypothetical thing and as a result hopped around a lot. CCA (then CCAC) was my dream school, and it felt like getting into the Hogwarts of art schools (laughs). But even there, I couldn’t really stick with it and was swept away to Portland for a girl that I was seeing. She was also going to art school, and ironically, I learned a lot from her.

And that was a lucky move, because there you were one of the very few that got into the famous Wieden+Kennedy 12 experimental advertising school. 
That was really an interesting adventure. They chose twelve people from twelve unique backgrounds who had never worked in advertising, armed us with the resources of a world class agency like W+K, and observed if we could pull off the magic trick. You were given real accounts and had to figure out how to run them. That was very intimidating. But it was exactly what I needed. As soon as I had real responsibility, something clicked.

What work did you do there?
We did commercials for MTV about sustainability and safe sex, an art project with Benetton’s Colors magazine, a room collaboration with Ace Hotel, edi­torial work for GOOD magazine and a campaign for Planned Parenthood. Everyone who came out of 12 became very successful because W+K was able to identify people who have a unique view of the world. And that sense of originality is everything. It cannot be taught. But all the other advertising stuff can be. That really resonated with me, and I also apply it to the way I hire people. Sometimes, that’s based purely on the art they’ve made or their essays or poems. Those are the most honest pathways to understanding how their minds work. Culturally moving work comes down to making connections with real people. And it’s the people with a story to tell and an interesting point of view that can do that in the strongest way.

One of Azsa West’s favorite works was created together with Dutch artist Viviane Sassen: the smashing pure and contemporary brand campaign for Shiseido’s skincare brand Waso

You have worked at W+K offices around the world. Was that something you had in mind from the beginning?
Not initially. It was the 12 application that got me. It was really honest, beautiful and funny. It basically said that they were looking for lost souls who had something to say. And I had something to say, but nothing to lose. I was 22, dirt poor, didn’t have a job and was probably living in someone’s basement. I couldn’t just hang out in Portland forever, just being gay and going to coffee shops (laughs). I want­ed to have some focus in my life and a deeper understanding of myself and what I was good at.

For the song Pram Gang by The Ruby Suns Azsa West directed a music video that tells the story of an alien girl (played wonderfully by her sister) stumbling through the world.
Whereas the brand film for Shiseido’s skincare brand Waso balances between nature, science, and art

And after you finished the program, they offered you a job. 
They did. But I didn’t understand advertising and still very much wanted to be an artist. So I respectfully said no – and went to Berlin to make art with my best friend. But after some time, and a very low bank ­ac­count – I was ready to give advertising a try (laughs). All I had was my sketchbook when I applied and that was what I was hired on.

What did it show?
I wish I had it here. But it’s on a boat right now being shipped to Berlin where we live now. It’s like a ­visual diary of ideas, collage, found imagery, draw­ings, lists, and writings – and demonstrates how I see the world, I guess.

It’s impressive to hire people this way. 
Thank you. And to keep it honest, I still keep the first thing I ever made in my portfolio. It’s a good ­reminder of where you come from. It was for the ­Nike Women’s campaign Training is the opposite of ­hoping. Most art directors were using Photoshop, but I was working with black duct tape, inspired by sports tape boxers use on their knuckles. I remember showing up to the first check in with the creative directors feeling so nervous because I didn’t know what I was doing. Even back then this was unusual. But their support and my naïveté enabled me to create a space for doing things my own way.

About living all over the world, you said that you are one of those “annoying high-maintenance creative types who’s very sensitive to their environment” and “gets this pull towards a new adventure” every two years.
I’m growing up a bit, but that’s the way it has worked for me for a long time. I almost felt like a SWAT team going where W+K would need help in another part of the world. I was always up for the adventure and luckily my wife too. She was an acrobat in an Australian circus for a long time and is super traveled.

Living in cities like Berlin, Shanghai and Tokyo, I guess, as a foreigner you are always an outsider. How has that shaped your creative work?
Working in foreign countries is always a balancing act. You have to be respectful and open and figure out how you address ideas and bring in new inspi­ra­tion without coming at things the wrong way. Sav­ing face is a real thing too in certain parts of Asia. You have to be able to give feedback in a way that doesn’t crush egos, comes off constructive, and gets through to people for them to see it for what it is and not take it personally. But in Shanghai, my key difference was not only being Western, but also being a gay female creative director. Some men I worked with struggled with that, especially when it came to treating me as their boss. It was also challenging at times to bring a creative vision to life in a society where sexism is more prevalent. At the same time, China felt like a very physical, sensorial place, and I loved that about living there. I’m more of an introvert and was forced to come out of my head and be more present in the world. That unlocked certain parts of myself and I saw my work changing in that way too. It became more expressive and bolder. Living at all these amazing places is really an opportunity. I carry all those experiences in me and they continue to inspire me.

You also worked in Tokyo, where a completely different visual language exists.
My wife is half Japanese, so I had been there many times before. But I was still in my observing phase. It was especially exciting that I worked for the luxury market there and could express myself in that way.

What did you do?
One of the works I’m most proud of, is the brand campaign for Shiseido’s skincare collection Waso with artist Viviane Sassen. It didn’t feel like trying to sell something, it was just like a very pure and ­really contemporary expression of what the product is and brought together science, nature, and art. ­Ac­tually we had so much freedom that it was the closest thing to making art.

Another spot for Shiseido combines blooming flowers, mushrooms and a robot in a very unusual way. It’s much more abstract than Western spots.
Yes, the Japanese market is very sophisticated and has much more appreciation for design-driven and visually focused work – especially in the premium land­scape. It validated my belief that we shouldn’t be afraid to put more tasteful work in front of an audience. I really loved living there.

But you left after a while.
Our son was only a couple of years old back then and the work-life-balance in Japan is really challenging. I rarely saw my family.

You emphasize being an indigenous and queer person of color. How does that play into your work? 
It plays a role in many ways, behind the scenes and out in the front. We all come into the world with different scales of privilege. I didn’t have very many of them early on, but someone saw something in me before I even did myself. I want to return the favor now, especially to people who, like me, come from un­derrepresented backgrounds. I also think it’s super important to be aware of the responsibility we have, regarding the messages one puts into the world.

How does that manifest?
Many ways. But one place is with casting. We need different role models to inspire us, and it also makes a huge difference seeing people like ourselves represented in media and mainstream, in art and culture, and showing that we have a seat at the table too, and that we’re being treated equally and with respect. But there are many facets. It can also be about the crew. It helps to make certain work from an authentic point of view by hiring people that understand that or have certain experiences.

Advertising is a sharp knife and I want to use it for more diversity and tolerance and to push things.

Where in your work can you see that the most?
I think there are many examples, but the Nike Korea spot Run It is definitely one. It’s pushing against Korean culture, where there are very specific expectations society and your family have on how you have to be like. We pushed against stereotypes and cast a young man who is half Black and half Korean, what had never happened there before. And we cast a wom­an with acne. It’s all about make-up and plas­tic surgery there, and you would never show yourself like that. These things seem small to us, but for the people who live in that society they meant a lot.

As creative director for the spot Run it for Nike Korea, Azsa West made sure that it was pushing against the country’s stereotypes: Showing a man who’s half Black and half Korean had never happened there before

There’s also the little chubby boy . . .
Oh yes, and he dances. We pushed really hard to cast someone who wasn’t a young Justin Bieber type at all (laughs). And it’s a really catchy opening for the film, non-linear and experimental. It doesn’t feel like a commercial, but it grabs you. That’s a way of work­ing that excites me. And it’s also a successful one, I think. Because you are more likely to capture peo­ple’s hearts when you work from your heart.

Is this where your artistic approach comes in? 
Art is the foundation of everything I’m doing, and I approach my work as intuitively as I approach my art. Sometimes your choices just can’t be rationalized. For me, my work mostly starts with a feeling. If you’re trying to make someone feel something, you need to feel it yourself first. But the tricky part is, that differ­ent from art, the work we do with brands is not just about you. You have to keep so many other things in mind, the brand values, the brief, the client, where the world is at. But you learn that over time.

You’ve been a part of a lot of art shows, one even in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Are you still working on your own art projects?
I continue to make art for myself. Filmmaking is ­also super important to me. Directing has always se­cret­ly been my favorite part of the process. When I was in China, and we had an assignment to shoot a Taiwa­nese pop star, the client asked me last minute if I could just direct it. I did and now it’s evolved into a passion of mine. And recently, I was even lucky enough to have a production company sign me.

Between art and design (clockwise): Azsa West calls her game with famous fashion brands Insta Art. In Tokyo, she asked for text me at the W+K Gallery; at the Paris Fashion Week, she supported the launch of the Japanese fashion brand Beautiful People with films, posters, and products

What does your art look like and how does it influence your work?
In my daily practice it’s mixed media and still like a stream of consciousness. I like to combine and organize my observations in a way that makes sense to me.

You’re doing art daily?
Yes, but daily could mean five minutes or an hour. I do a lot of drawing and I also paint and sometimes I work with Photoshop. I have a variety of interests, depend­ing on which mood I’m in. Every time I move to a new city, a lot of ideas come with that too. But every person comes up with ideas in their own way, and I think it’s important to honor people’s process.
I always found it strange when people try to mandate a way of working, and I think openness in approach­ing ideas also comes from art.

Do you think that there is a new generation of creatives on the top floors of agencies? Not the white guys with big cars and expensive houses in exclusive residential areas anymore but more diverse people with a different lifestyle? Like you now at Anomaly Berlin? 
I think progress is being made, but we are still not there yet. But that situation was part of why I took this position. I want to see different kinds of people in places of power who can make more change. I don’t imagine I will do it perfectly. I have a lot to learn. But I think different kinds of leaders are important. Life is so nuanced and there are so many different kinds of people in the world that need to be represented. It’s still a long way to go, but specifically at Anomaly in Berlin we’re on the right path. We have 30 different nationalities and almost 60 percent of our staff is female, and everyone has a unique story.

For a world where everyone can be whoever they want: Tough female fighters (above) define Azsa West’s first Nike campaign Training is the opposite of hoping, while dreamy artwork defines her creation for an album by artist, musician, and rapper Bunny Michael (below)

Probably the next big thing would be to overcome ageism. You’re rarely see women over 50 in agencies.
Absolutely. We should be judging people for their thinking or their ideas, not their age, their gender, their sexuality, or their skin.

Now you’re in Berlin and I saw that you already have a tattoo on your arm that says Berlin.
TBO, I got that 15 years ago and try to keep it a secret! I was very young and probably drunk at the time. But maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way (laughs).

What makes Berlin so special for you that you wanted to come here?
Berlin is like a paradox. It’s this big city and cultural epicenter of Europe. There’s so much creative energy here and so much is happening. At the same time, it’s so peaceful and so laid-back. I like this balance and love to just walk around and look at everything. I always see something interesting and inspiring, and I’m very fortunate to be here and to be a part of it.

This article was being published in PAGE 05.2022. You can download the whole magazine here.

PDF-Download: PAGE 5.2022

Design für Start-ups ++ Graphic Novels: Styles & Stories ++ ENGLISH SPECIAL Azsa West ++ Making-of: Plakato von Underware ++ Praxis-Check: Digital-Kompetenz ++

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