[All photos used in this post were from Nick Christie]
A few months ago I was scouted to be a part of an exhibition with RAW. I had to write a short biography: who I was and how my art reflected that. I had to write about my interests and inspirations. This should have been straightforward, right? But the more I wrote, the more uncomfortable I felt – my art so far had just been reproductions of popular pieces or pretty photos. Yes, they were impressive and people-pleasing; technically and stylistically they looked great – almost identical to the original. I won’t say my art was shallow, but there usually lacked a dimension beyond the appearance. Here I was, typing away about being a feminist, caring about social issues, yet my art didn’t in any way express my passion.
I didn’t have a collection of work built up – I usually painted to sell, and what remained were a few paintings that didn’t fit together. So I had to produce a body of work and this time, I wanted it to be meaningful. I knew I wanted to paint women, but didn’t want it to be reduced to another item for the male gaze. I decided to base my work on Bram Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity and Julia Kristeva’s theory of The Abject, “what I permanently thrust aside in order to live.”
The abject refers to all the bodily functions, or aspects of the body, that are deemed impure or inappropriate for public display or discussion. The theory has a feminist context; in particular, female bodily functions are “abjected” by a patriarchal social order. “Abject art is used to describe artworks which explore themes that transgress and threaten our sense of cleanliness and propriety particularly referencing the body and bodily functions.” (Read more here) I wanted to paint things that women are conditioned to repel; things that we are told to hide, to not talk about. Why? Because they’re “dirty”, and threaten the patriarchal fantasies of femininity – that women must remain childlike and pure; soft and docile. Why are women censored in the interest of maintaining ridiculous ideologies?
I decided to paint things like menstruation, not focusing on the child-bearing-service side of it, but the hidden side; the discomfort of bloodied underwear and pads. It’s obvious that body hair grows naturally on females too. On our legs, belly button, in our arm pits – everywhere it would on a male. My nipple painting was a product of the anger I felt and continue to feel when social media moderators remove photos with ‘female nipples’ in them. Nearly every woman I know has stretch marks, yet we rarely see them in photos. Even in advertisements for stretch mark-reducing products, they are never shown. Why should we be ashamed of growing?
And why should we be ashamed of sweating? It is a normal bodily function to regulate body temperature, yet we aren’t allowed to. We aren’t allowed to smell, we aren’t allowed to pronounce our presence.
We are born into a society that decides what parts of our bodies are acceptable and what parts aren’t. But they don’t get to pick and choose – we are not products. For far too long we have been taught to reject the variability of our bodies in a vain effort to achieve the untouchable ‘feminine’ ideal. Our bodies are wonderful and we should appreciate the amazing variety that is so often oppressed.
I wanted people to feel disgusted or shocked or uncomfortable, but as a secondary reaction, realise why we feel this way. I wanted to show people that these things are a part of us too. A lot of people told me they were initially shocked or surprised but found it interesting, even aesthetically pleasing. Another person said my work was the most interesting and enjoyable. Though art isn’t a competition, it felt really good to be able to make someone feel something and leave an impression.
Some of the reactions to my vulva painting included:
“Is that…? What I think it is?”
“Is that a strawberry?”
“Is that an onion? Why is it pink?”
“Oh, is it an almond?”
“It reminded me of my pap smear last week!”
It also felt good to finally make art that reflected who I was and my inspirations; I feel like I am more able to say that know who I am and what I am passionate about.
See more photos here: