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CONSTRUARTE

Ivan Mikolji interviewed by Isabella Marinelli C. of Construarte Magazine in Venezuela. This interview was published on Volume 15 Number 125, Year 2018. The interview was also published online at the Construarte.com Construarte.com website.

“I paint when I am away from the wilderness, because I paint out of the emotion of longing to be there, this is how I know I am an explorer,” Ivan confesses.

At first, Ivan Mikolji’s work can be defined as geometric abstractionism. It mainly consists of aquatic and subaquatic photographs, paintings and drawings. His photographic language is closely related to visions of light in the underwater world of rivers. However, he does not leave out the landscapes that have accompanied him throughout his life.

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He captures his pictures and drawings on paper. He paints on the same material on which he prints his photographic work. He prefers to use a single material. He chooses paper instead of canvas. He likes to work fast and complete the job in three days and not in a month. That’s why he likes acrylic on paper, he admits, because it dries quickly.

Art came into his life during his adolescence. He did not decide to become an artist; he considers that he was always one. He says that his sister had canvas and oil paintings in a closet that she did not use. Then one day, the young Mikolji took everything and started to paint and he has continued doing so since he was 12. A couple of years later, he started taking photographs after he bought his first camera, and he has not stopped since.

Ivan Mikolji

What artists were key to your artistic development?

“In photography, Gregory Basco. He has a website called Deep Green Photography. I had always taken pictures, but when I saw Greg’s work, I reached the next level, where I am today. I understood that there could be perfection in photography. I realized that to get to that point I had to try harder. It was then that my work began to acquire international acknowledgment. That was thanks to him.” Ivan comments.

“In regard to Painting, Armando Barrios always caught my attention. When I was a child, I would go to bookstores to look at his books. If someone asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I would ask for his catalogues. Whenever I saw his work, I was inspired to paint, much more than by the work of any other artist. Today, when I want to paint, I sit down and look at Armando Barrios’ paintings. He still inspires me” he adds.

Beyond the artistic side, what gives life to his work, is his work as an explorer. It is inspired by an ambitious mission, which goes beyond showing the beauty of ecosystems in their purest form. There is an intrinsic task in his art, which carries the weight of a greater responsibility.

The fundamental aspect of Mikolji’s work cannot be seen at a glance. To discover what is hidden behind his art, perhaps requires sitting down, to appreciate the passion with which he talks about his work, always showing his smile, perfectly drawn from ear to ear. Although he uses art as a way to express himself, he is in pursuit of something beyond art.

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He wants to raise awareness through his creations by showing what others cannot see unless they actually dive into a river. He hopes that, once the people recognize the beauty of underwater landscapes, they will learn to love ecosystems. “If people love them, they will not want to destroy them, and then they will strive to preserve them” he says.

Mikolji, more than an artist, is a man in love with all things water, an emotion that has transformed him into a consummate aquarist. Adventure is his passion. Some would say, he is moved by an overwhelming, even dangerous curiosity… It’s hard to pin down. His North has always been Ecology and Preservation, and the way the wind is blowing, it looks like things will not be changing for now.

Approach, Order and Precision

His system is different than that of any other artist. His studio is completely clean, all materials and tools are organized in bins, he keeps the place spotless. His pictures are archived in a codified list. The meticulousness with which he keeps everything in order is surprising. He excuses himself saying that he must be careful because he does not have a proper workshop: he works from home.

A planted aquarium stands out in the middle of his living room. At the moment, it is empty of fish, because he is waiting for a new endemic species from the Morichal river: they do not even know what genus it is. This aquarium is only used for scientific studies, he clarifies. They take DNA samples for analysis and study the behavior of the fish.

He needs to buy new computers every 4 years. He has to keep his work tools up to date. Belkis takes care of the extensive data records process. Planchart, is in charge of the curatorship and research of the imaging, and Emiliano handles the Photoshop work. They only use well-known companies for the distribution of their products.

Mikolji emphasizes the use of only the best and highest quality imagery products. Maybe that is part of his success and his achievements; he aims high. He aspires to achieve UNESCO acknowledgement for his work, but he is aware that he still has a long way to go. He exudes energy when making this statement. There is no doubt, he wants to change the world.

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He is a man who discovered how to combine his passions, based on a project to improve the planet. That is how he defines his work. He defines his art as a by-product through which he can reach people. In his own words, to have them “click with his proposal“. The same happens with the hobby of fishkeeping, of which he has become one of the major exponents. Finally, everything is about the preservation of the freshwater habitats and the hydrological basins which humanity depends on, he says.

The Rivers, always present since his childhood

The explorer says that as a child he was always fascinated by riverbeds. He is originally from Caracas, although he feels more of a Valencian than a native of Caracas, because in the capital he loses himself, he says. From his Croatian father, he inherited his strong passion for the fishkeeping. From an early age, he had aquariums at home, with colored stones, plastic plants and small fish. It was the usual back then. But the story does not end there.

He tells us: “When I was a child, my family visited the Guaire River, almost daily,. I wasn’t even in preschool. As our car approached (the river), I would roll down my window to peek out. I wanted to jump into the water to find out what was there. I was dying to know what was under the river’s surface. Meanwhile, my sister, who is 5 years older than me, would punch me to make me roll up the window because she couldn’t bear the smell”.

This is the history that comes to his mind when he recalls the roots of his passion. But before becoming Ivan Mikolji, as he is recognized today, he spent many years working with his “Peces de Venezuela” Foundation; and after five years of not seeing any financial support from the government, he decided to start sponsoring himself. The efforts of his perseverance and dedication are beginning to pay off.

Mikolji is completely empirical and self-taught, having only a High School diploma. Today, like a fish in the water, he dives into the waters of Venezuela to take the most striking pictures of freshwater fish in their natural habitat. He has traveled the entirety of this Caribbean country, from border to border. He is driven by the desire to find those hundreds of species that are yet to be discovered. That is part of his job.

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All the fish we look for and take photos of, are ornamental fish of value for the aquarium hobby. There are over 1,100 species in Venezuela, and at least 70% are of commercial value for fishkeeping (…). In the UK, for example, there are only 40 species. I have taken pictures of approximately 480 species; there are over 600 more species, many undescribed, unclassified, preserved in sampling jars that we don’t know what they look like alive.” he says.

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His underwater biotope photos were the first aimed at complementing the fishkeeping hobby with true information, he proudly assures. Before him, Natgeo had made documentaries from time to time, but they did not focus on showing aquarium fishes, but they showed dolphins or men fishing, a generalized picture of aquatic wildlife. No one in Venezuela had photographed freshwater fishes in their natural habitat. Nobody, he reaffirms.

“When I started showing these pictures on the Internet, they became a boom. I made a documentary called “Natural Freshwater Aquarium” and it went viral. A new movement began, biotope-oriented aquariums became a worldwide sensation”, he says.

Biotope aquariums simulate the place where the fish come from. No one had done it before because there was no reference. People were trying to do it, he clarifies, but for the first time, there was enough data to make it possible.

“I didn’t invent it, I was Mother Nature’s Play, I just unveiled it. A few years later, I took a fish tank down to the river and began to set it up using the natural resources available in the surroundings. I called it ‘Wild Aquarium’. This video became even more viral. It became a worldwide trend which I fired up. Now they are doing it all over the world, even in Russia. Some of my social media followers have referred to me as the “legendary river explorer ”, and all I can say is that I really wish someday I can deserve such a title, but for now, I realize it is only the internet that separates me from those who have dedicated their entire lives to exploring and finding so many beautiful fish species we have in our tanks today. I take my hat off to them.  

Fishkeeping: from Hobby to Preservation

This is how Ivan Mikolji becomes the foremost judge of Biotope Aquarium competitions worldwide. His images, results of hundreds of expeditions across the Venezuela and Colombia, have become a reference to recreate ecosystems. When you admire them, you have the impression to be in a river. It is no longer the traditional fish tank with pet shop purchased accessories, now it is as if you were actually underwater, one with the habitat.

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Today, his work has become the quintessential model for the Biotope Aquarium movement, a major trend in modern fishkeeping. It was from here, that everything exploded. Furthermore, he is an expert. Out of his 2,000+ followers on Facebook, 95% are aquarists and the remainder, are artists, he says.

Thanks to him, the cultural perception of fishkeeping in the world has changed. Nowadays, there are contests which aim to recreate the habitats in which freshwater fish live as true to reality as possible. More and more hobbyists grab their camera and go out to take photos underwater. Currently, creating Biotope Aquariums has become a very popular thing for Czech aquarists, he adds. What people are really creating is an information bank of everything underwater, he says.

And what about Sea Fishes?

From North Carolina to Brazil, fishes are the same. Also, marine underwater photography, is a niche that has been heavily exploited. I was very lucky to live in a country where there were hundreds of freshwater species, many still undiscovered. Also, no one had ever dived into the rivers to take pictures of them. That is why I focus on freshwater aquarium fish.

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Thanks to the internet, his work has been seen in all parts of the world, including India, Sweden, Colombia. His videos have gone viral, from Siberia to South Africa. He attributes everything that has happened to being “in the right place, at the right time, and using the right tools. Without the Internet, he admits, he would be just one more fish keeper in Valencia, Venezuela.

“I’ll give you an example. Let’s put Picasso, in his time, in Uganda. What would have been of him? Likely no one would have known of him. But Picasso was in France, in the right place, at the right time, and surrounded by the right people. He was a friend of the museum curator” he adds.

Mikolji believes that fishkeeping, has great potential as a tool to develop ecological awareness. He has very passionate followers, he says. Some people send him videos of themselves crying as they watch his documentaries. Other people even have tattoos of his pictures, he adds.

“Now you understand that what everyone is doing in Singapore, in the Philippines, with this “Wild Aquarium” movement: is that they are gathering information. Fishkeeping today, is not only a hobby, it is preservation.  And we did it here, in Venezuela. The country’s first “public” wild aquarium was made in La Zamureña, in the State of Bolívar, located between the Aro river and the town of Caicara,” he explains.

He tells an anecdote in which he was diving in a Boston river and a local person arrived and began to tell him of all the fish species that inhabited the river. This person even asked Ivan if he needed help. That gesture surprised him, but more so, the way how well this person was so familiar with the river’s biodiversity. “That doesn’t happen here in Venezuela”, he explains.

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“Rivers with gold, minerals and oil reservoirs are not precious. Diamonds are not precious. What is precious? Water is precious, but people don’t care. Everyone seems to know the rivers that contain gold and minerals, and they have no idea of what fish or plant species live in them”, he adds.

He also comments on how dangerous the rivers have become in Venezuela. Anything can be found, from loads of garbage, to people partying and drinking, polluting the environment, there are thieves (his equipment has been stolen several times). But he keeps doing his job.

Before taking off on a new expedition, Mikolji and his team make a list of what they want to photograph depending on the location they are visiting. He starts by asking scientists what they need. He visits the museum with them, and they tell him what to look for. He gets excited about finding something for which there is no data.

Work Routine

Ivan Mikolji is so determined he can spend eight days straight in the same creek. The day is hard, typically waking up at 4:30 and ending at 9 or 10 at night. Often, he usually travels alone, sometimes up to two people accompany him, never more.  Most people get along, some don’t. Others don’t. His motto is: “when I go out to work, I focus on making history”, for he acknowledges the scope and impact of his work.

Ivan Mikolji Photo by Orlando Escalante

He can spend hour after hour underwater, with a mask and his photographic equipment before he encounters that magical moment, the perfect picture he so much wants. Similarly, he admits – perhaps with a slight regret – that human beings are not fit to spend so much time underwater. I would be happy, he says, if I could be a fish. His pictures show his determination and how much he plans his work. Every single image is planned with so much detail, with nothing left to chance.

“The first day we start by collecting garbage. It is a procedure that we repeat at every location we visit. We collect all the garbage we see, not only from the riverbed, but also from the riverbanks and surroundings, because we want to take pictures of the site. We pile up all the trash. The first two days are usually cleaning up. No one wants to see trash” he says.

“Once I went to Alcatraz Island (in the Venezuelan Caribbean), have you been there? You have the islands of Isla Larga, Santo Domingo and then Alcatraz. There is a spectacular bay. It was full of garbage and there was no one to pick it up. People would travel there in boats and they would dump everything in the water. I went there with one of my workers. We made twelve trips just to pick up trash. Back then, I had a long chassis Toyota Landcruiser (In Venezuela we call them “Machitos”), like the ones used by the National Guard. So, we arrived at Quizandal Beach and we placed all the garbage bags on the dock. When we were getting ready to leave, the dock supervisor came up and asked me what I was going to do with the garbage? I told him that we had picked up all the garbage for free, and he said that they would charge him to remove it from there, so we had to take the garbage with us. We brought it all the way to my home in Valencia to dispose of it. I had to leave it in front of my house. I ended up having to pay the garbage trucks to haul it away,” he concludes.

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The most important thing about his work is that it can be used as data. Mikolji has recorded images of rivers and species that have later gone extinct, lost because of human intervention. Often, this is the only evidence that those species or bodies of water ever existed. But beyond that, it demonstrates how freshwater resources are being depleted without any scruples.

Ecological awareness

Mikolji talks about Justa Fernandez, whom he refers to as the “Amazon warrior”, a symbol of dedication and focus on her professional career, and whose work, serves to highlight the negligence on behalf of the authorities. Every day, she used to head to the port to make written records of all the fish species caught by the local fishermen. She spent 30 years collecting fish specimens from freshwater habitats, placing them in sample jars with alcohol. But she can no longer do it, simply because she does not have enough alcohol. Still worse: it is impossible to send it to her. Ethanol is forbidden there.

In short, Fernandez keeps a record of everything in the area. Mikolji took the Amazon warrior to a creek called Picantonal, which is located 5 minutes from Puerto Ayacucho, it is about 6 kilometers long. There is a 50 meter section of the creek that contains a unique species of a red aquatic plant that Mikolji, who has travelled through all of Venezuela, has only seen at this one location. Prof. Fernandez had never seen this plant before in her 40 years in the Amazon region.

“The entrance to that creek is already being invaded by people. The species will disappear if those 50 meters dry out. The only record of that species is in the pictures saved on my hard drive. As of yet, is has not been described. So far, this species only exists on that 50-meter extension. Perhaps it may exist somewhere else, but I have only seen it there,” he cautions.

He says that the purpose is not that people learn to care for the Amazon Rainforest, but that they learn to care about the pond close to their home. “There are people from countries like Ireland, who have told me that every time they see the Northern Lights, that they thank me because they know that I am helping to preserve the Amazon Rainforest. For if the Amazon Rainforest disappears, so will the Northern Lights”.

“The idea is to preserve our natural habitats. Ivan doesn’t paint flowers because he likes them, he paints them because he hopes people learn to appreciate them, as he does. “Many people still don’t understand what is behind my work. I have enough material to make a book about the fishes of Venezuela, but we have no support” he says.

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In this sense, he is concerned that people from his own country have not supported his proposals. It is important, he says, that people in Venezuela, become aware of the rich biodiversity of our rivers. If you love the water, you will think twice before littering it. He is saddened that fishkeeping has not reached its own frontier, and its extraordinary consequences, in teaching preservation.

Ivan also tells us that in the upcoming days that he will be speaking at a Fishkeeping Congress at the Autonomous University of Mexico. He will be emphasizing on the ecological aspects of fishkeeping. It will be in Mexico, not here in Venezuela, he says with a bit of sadness.

Of course, he regrets such activities are not held in Venezuela. His face changes, expressing high hopes that eventually, his country people will understand. He knows this is not the time, but it will come, someday. Meanwhile, he will continue in his endeavor to continue spreading his message around the world, he wants to keep opening doors and always welcoming those who want to help.

Text by: Isabella Marinelli C. / redaccion4@construarte.com.ve

Translated to English by Edgar Ruiz