'The human body also carries this full spectrum of human emotions, and what’s interesting about that is that although a lot of my work is portraiture, I try and use the portraiture to make wider points about the human condition.'
What drew you to pursue a career in art?
I mean, it’s sort of been something that I always knew I wanted to do, there’s no two ways about that. I remember when I was a kid, somebody saying, ‘what do you want to be when you’re older?’, and I was like, hmm, don’t really know, and they were like ‘don’t you want to be an artist?’ and I was like wait, you can do that for a job?! Like, are you serious? And that was sort of it. I took a bit of a roundabout route in doing kind of fashion first, and I certainly never expected to become a teacher, but you know, these things happen unexpectedly.
Your works are abstract and figurative - what is it about the human body that you find so interesting?
I mean for one thing it’s the roundness - I know that sounds funny, but it is - the human body is a unique organic shape, and the smoothness of it really lends itself to particular ways of using a medium, which I really enjoy - so that’s a kind of technical side of it. The human body also carries this full spectrum of human emotions, and what’s interesting about that is that although a lot of my work is portraiture, I try and use the portraiture to make wider points about the human condition. And you know, that’s what all great art that I love personally does, it makes points about the human condition, like Francis Bacon or Jenny Saville, or whatever, not that I’m comparing myself to them - I should be so lucky! There was a great quote by Hans Bellmer, that the body is an anagram, it’s like a sentence waiting to be rearranged. I heard that quote when I was a teenager, and that’s really always stayed with me, just this idea of fragmented bodies, and taking something apart and putting it back together, again, kind of how far you can push the human body before it stops giving you that sense of human emotions - and the answer is actually a really, really long way.
You had a solo show at Brixton Village called Finding Artemisa: Unheroic Traditions. The works you created were centred around gender based violence - can you tell me more about this show and the processes behind it?
Yeah, that was an incredible show - it was the first really, really big show that I’d done, though ironically there were only six drawings, but they took me ages. Well, I mean actually, in comparison to a lot of people I work really quickly, so a lot of them were made in, like, maybe two or three days? And they were like two and a half meters by two and a half, or something like that. But yeah, the gender-based violence part, that’s something that’s really important to me. As you probably know, I do a lot of feminist lectures and campaigning and stuff like that, and one of the sessions that I had been planning on doing for a while was called ‘Violence Against Women in Western Art’. Basically, I’m talking about the idea that there are unbelievable amounts of paintings about rape, in collections all around the world. And that’s really problematic, because the high-culture institutions are giving us this kind of sumbliminal messaging, I suppose, in our highest of highest culture that violence against women is somehow sanctioned. So obviously Artemisia Gentileschi is one of the really interesting exceptions to this rule, and I talk about her a lot in that session. She’s really the first time in art history that you see a woman’s point of view, in like the Western Canon of art history anyway, that you see a woman’s perspective, on the big questions, and the biblical narratives and stuff like that. She had the most incredible life, you know, I mean she survived so much - she survived sexual assault, her mother dying at an early age, she survived her father basically being a bit of a prick, she survived literal volcanoes and earthquakes, she survived the plague, she survived childbirth, which was in those days like a pretty big deal actually. I think she buried four out of her five children, and just, woah, she had the most incredible life, and she carried on making these incredible works. So in some ways it was a homage to her, but the way that I was dealing with it was to try and create my response.
Great art is often like a conversation - and you get it with poetry too - you find that in art history, if you know it well enough, you will see in an Artemisia painting that there are references to a Michelangelo, and references to a Carravaggio, and that’s something, because I’m quite embedded in Art History, as part of my practice, that I do as well, I nod to different people. Like I say, it happens in great poetry as well, you kind of lift phrases. And I suppose that’s really what I’m doing, lifting phrases from Artemisia but also trying to make the point that many of the things that she struggled with are still exactly the same and they haven’t got any better, especially in terms of gender violence. So I worked with five models and myself, all of whom had experienced something on the kind of sliding scale of gender violence, which can be anything from being groped or verbally abused to childhood sexual trauma or manipulative relationships, all of these things - I didn’t want to put a limit on what was and what wasn’t abuse. The participants also had no impetus to tell me about their experience, unless they wanted to. I thought that was quite important because there’s a sensitive line I think, and some projects that do this kind of thing can inadvertently profit off of people’s trauma, and that was something that was really important for me not to do. And yeah, it was amazing, so I approached these women and they all said yes, and they chose a painting, and a story to recreate, and then we did a few sessions and then we put the exhibition on. It sounds simple, but it wasn’t!
'Great art is often like a conversation'
Some of your series, including sepia paintings, portray erotia and the female body - what inspires you to depict these particular concepts in your work?
The sepia paintings are based on a really interesting book, which is called A History of Erotia I think, or it could just be called Erotia. I found them really interesting, because there is this idea that porn is different to erotica somehow, because erotica has its genesis in ‘art’, and is somehow more proper or beautiful, whereas porn is disgusting. I think there’s an interesting thing about that, because we are looking back at that through rose-tinted glasses, and in the sixteenth century some of the stuff that I was working from would have been considered heinous. And I find that the passage of time, and the dulling of our sense of what is immoral, is really interesting because there’s the question of where does that lead to? But yeah, I just think it’s an interesting thing, how we reclaim sexuality moving forwards from a female perspective, because I for one had innumerable PSHE classes, but never once was there any mention of my pleasure. And I didn’t even realise that until I was talking to the filmmaker Julia Schmitz, who did the Artemisia film for us. She was doing a film about the clitoris, and I’d never even considered it before she mentioned it, but you know, it’s true.
You are based in London - has the city influenced your art in any way? If so, how?
Oh, it’s a bitch of a city. I love and hate this city, I mean I think I’ve described the city in I think the same way many artists would - like, it’s both the best and worst place for you to be, because everything is here, there is that question I suppose of how much cultural power we devolve from London, like there should be more in other places, but the truth is at the moment that London is where it’s at, and in order to kind of ‘make it’, in inverted commas, as an artist, you do kind of need to be here if you’re going to be anywhere in the UK. Although that’s up for debate for sure, for me, this is where I need to be, but, you know, the rent is astronomical, my rent isn’t even expensive, because I’ve always lived in fairly cheap places. So yes, the city has influenced me, it has given me a drive, more than anything else, it has influenced my actual work in a way, but it’s certainly given me a pretty good work ethic, and the city does that. I spent six years working in the restaurant industry as a waitress or whatever, studying, or stuff like that - I can work, I can be a workhorse and I don’t fuck about either, when I have a free second, I will be painting. But it’s also allowed me to put on London Drawing Group, which has been amazing, because, you know, the drawing group kind of allows me to earn my money not waiting tables anymore, which is a really big deal for me actually. So the last four years have been amazing and I don’t think I would have been able to do that anywhere else.
Additional concepts you portray on top of those already mentioned involve spirituality, mythology and ritual - what have these ideas taught you about your own creative identity?
Great question! Like I say, it’s about the human condition, and mythology is storytelling, essentially. My partner is a writer, and he talks a lot about like what storytelling is, and if you think of any book, any piece of fiction, or any essay, like they’re nearly always telling us something about the writer, about the world the writer lives in, about what the moral compasses of that world are, what you believe in, what you don’t believe in. That’s what myths are - at the end of the day somebody wrote every myth, or somebody wrote down, or somebody thought up, like we don’t have them (as far as I’m concerned) directly from the mouth of god, or gods, they are human inventions, and what they attempt to do is explain the world around us. But they’re also these intense vehicles of human imagination, which is just incredible. Looking at different ways that different people look at myth and explain themselves, explain the world, like, all over the globe, is something that is unifying, and something that when you talk about archetype theory and stuff, it’s trying to distill what the human condition is. So in a way, myths do exactly the same thing as great art, they say something about the human condition. But what I love about them is that they’re nonsensical - they don’t have to have a clear narrative. Sometimes shit happens in myths and you’re like, this happened, that happened, then everybody died, the end, and it’s just like, what?! But that is what life is like, you know, like the kind of chaos theory and like the idea of entropy, sometimes nothing does make sense and myths do a great job of explaining that. I’m not sure that really answered the question, but nevermind!
' Looking at different ways that different people look at myth and explain themselves, explain the world, like, all over the globe, is something that is unifying '
What are we to expect next from you and your art?
Well, I am currently working on a series called Iconoclasm, which is very pertinent to what’s going on right now actually. So the act of iconoclasm is the art of breaking something to pieces, breaking apart images, particularly icons - obviously image, clasm is to break or smash apart. When we’re talking about like defacing statues, spraying spraypaint on them or dropping them into the Thames, it’s a really interesting process and one that I think isn’t talked about enough. It’s not actually destruction, you know, if you look at the kind of Indian mythology you have Shiva as a kind of integral part of the trio construction and preservation and creation. And one of the key tenets of that is that you cannot have new life without destruction, and I think that’s something we’re really unwilling to do - you have to destroy old ways of looking at things in order to have fresh eyes, in order to move forwards otherwise everything becomes static. So Iconoclasm is, again, working with survivors of gender-based violence, and what we’re doing this time is taking narratives from art history, so particularly
biblical narratives, where women are portrayed in one way or another. Again, you see a lot of male artists portraying women in these kind of classic, but also kind of really saccharine kind of ways, like, you know, ‘save me, save me’ kind of ways, even when the narrative tells us that she’s a hero, and so we’re rewriting those narratives. So far we’ve done Sampson and Delilah, which has been really interesting, we’ve got Esther, I am going to be doing the Annunciation as a self portrait, because I had a kind of trauma around a miscarriage, and an abortion. And so it’s how we kind of reframe these narratives to make them relevant to 20th century, 21st century women, and to talk about the issues that we still have. So I think yeah, that’s where I’m headed next, and I’m also starting an MA in September, so I will be kind of continuing on the Iconoclasm series, but I’ll also be experimenting - I’ve actually not said this to anyone yet but I’m actually going to be exploring the mythical figure of the trickster and kind of how he or she relates to kind of history.