Art & Feminism talk at HFWAS, Birmingham

A discussion held at Unit 9 of Minerva Works, Birmingham on the 11th of April with HFWAS and artists Hellen Burrough, Demi Nandhra and Lucy Hutchinson.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a selection of female artists convened at Home For Waifs and Strays to discuss feminism and art. Leading the conversation were artists Hellen Burrough, Demi Nandhra and Lucy Hutchinson. Nandhra and Hutchinson are a part of the current exhibition within the Minerva Works building as part of their ‘Soup’ residency at Stryx. The trio discussed themes running through their work, however, the meeting had broader scope. The purpose of the event was for all to talk about their opinions, experiences and struggles as female artists in a relaxed and understanding environment conducive to free and open discussion.

Hellen Burrough

“Themes of loving and fighting, the transgressive feminine body, fetishism and romance are explored through a mix of brutal and beautiful imagery in pieces that often involve bloodletting and precise wounds.”

London based artist Hellen Burrough was first to introduce her practice, presenting examples of previous live performances through photographs. Burrough explained that her practice had grown out of her interest in body modification over 10 years ago. She challenges her body’s limits through performance, exploring rituals of pain and endurance as forms of entertainment or as provocative experiences to convey emotion and change.

Burrough talked about an interesting collaboration with her husband entitled Union. During the performance, the couple are joined by chains attached to piercings in their heads and lower bellies which can be described as both intense and intimate. Extreme or dangerous materials such as needles and glass (She was the universe) are common in Burrough’s performances and inevitably, her audience enquire about pain although it is not paramount to the work. Her response is “yes, sometimes it does hurt”. Burrough’s husband is a professional wrestler, so when uniting for Union, a compelling demonstration of strength is present between the pair. The group discussed strong females within society and more specifically, in sports. Currently, MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) is the only sport that is not divided according to gender, meaning that men and women can compete equally. Although recognised as a positive thing, members of the group still questioned the treatment of the women practicing the sports, wondering whether they has become sexualised. This was something I questioned myself as I had previously watched a Louis Theroux documentary titled Body Building as part of the BBC presenter’s Weird Weekends series. The documentary followed the lives of bodybuilders, both male and female. The female body builders had become fetishised by men who happily shared their admiration of both the women’s strength and beauty during the programme. Burrough explained that the women practicing MMA had been sexualised to some extent, however, it seemed that the equal opportunities offered to both sexes allowed the sexualisation to be slightly overlooked. She explained that she was intrigued by the transgressive female who is seen as “beautiful but tough”.

Blood has been a reoccuring material in Burrough’s practice. Her performances can often be seen as extreme, or as mentioned painful, however, this is counteracted with beautiful aesthetics which have been carefully considered. A member of the group recalled a performance by the artist. Although Burrough was hung from meat hooks for at least 1 hour, they remembered a euphoric and joyous atmosphere to the performance due to its set up. The group spoke about the uncertainty of live art. To a certain extent, a live performance can’t be planned, however thoughtful preparation can ensure specific themes are recognised in the work. For example, the use of materials, whose importance was questioned by the group in regards to Burrough’s practice. Burrough stated that the materials she chose were becoming more important as she’d noticed how they could have specific associations or create an atmosphere. In Achillia, the artist pierced needles in her thighs and therefore shed blood. The blood was mixed with milk towards the end of the performance, which was used as a cleansing material chosen due to its maternal and organic connotations. Burrough spoke about her experiences using glass for a performance titled She Was The Universe. She claimed there was a tension amongst the audience as the glass created an element of risk and this was important. The artist walked and lay upon the glass, a skill she had learnt from professionals in order to use the material safely. However, during a previous performance she cut herself accidentally. Hellen Burrough said that at the time this mishap enhanced the experience of the performance as it was confirmation to the audience that they were not witnessing a illusion.

“Have you noticed a trend in blood letting? Is it more common with women?” somebody asked. Burrough explained that modern body piercing and body modification methods had originated from American fetishism and is said to be common amongst gay men in history. A contemporary example of bloodletting is artist Franko B, well known for his performance I Miss You at Tate Modern in which he walked down a runway, shedding blood from his arms. Previously Franko B has claimed to be HIV positive, causing despair to those who were present at a performance that entailed him throwing blood on his involuntary audience. Burrough claimed that bloodletting had become more popular as a kind of “macho quest” for the sexes. Recently, blood tests have been included in risk assessments and therefore possibly limiting who is able to practice bloodletting. However, Burrough did claim that her blood tests have always been clean and therefore wasn’t certain on the severity of the consequences for failing tests. Both Burrough and the group recognised that the idea of pain is a typical response to blood shed even though it’s not always a demonstration of pain. A member of the group claimed that to some extent it can be related to self-harm. Hellen Burrough explained that though continually asked, the use of blood within her performances is not a representation of pain although having to endure a element of pain to achieve its use as a material. She revealed that the painful part of her performances are prior to entering the space, when she is alone preparing backstage. Its debatable whether a performance containing blood can ever be completely disassociated with pain. The group conversed about pain within art, agreeing that it isn’t always a crucial, or even relevant association when blood is used as a material within art. The group concluded that humans are constantly enduring pain for a beautiful aesthetic and that technically Hellen Burrough was doing no different. Examples were given by the group such as model Kate Moss who has been in the press for taking the drug Cocaine, yet rather than being ridiculed, comments were made on her weight saying ‘at least shes not fat’. Kate Moss herself has said “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”, a clear indication of sacrifice to look ‘beautiful’. A connection with Selina Thompson’s work was also made, questioning why our approach to hair is tolerated or even expected?

A member of the group asked us to think about beauty in general; “Why do we make beautiful images?”. I wondered whether as humans, we could ever avoid creating something we saw as beautiful due to the way our minds and senses function as well as the constant impact of capitalism and marketing. Thinking about beauty in terms of appearance, I think body modification has become such a big part of our culture due to our desire to improve. There have always been trends to follow and role models to aspire to, whether that be celebrities or goddesses, impacting our outlook on beauty.

Demi Nandhra

The role of the indian goddess Sita has been explored in work by Demi Nandhra. The piece, which is titled Sita, is a combination of text and imagery and is symbolic of the relationship Nandhra has with her mother. The artist explained that she saw her mother as a version of Sita; an indian goddess who is the principle of womanhood. Nandhra talked openingly about her mother’s history, revealing that she had conformed to indian traditions and “sacrificed” her life for an arranged marriage. Nandhra explained that throughout history people have tried to rewrite the goddess, however, she takes a more vicious approach in her work wanting to ‘kill’ Sita and all that she stands for. Personally, I take a similar stance to the artist, questioning whether any kind of ‘ideal’ woman still exist within a modern society? These out of date representations place restrictions on women and therefore need to be obliterated in order to achieve equality and freedom.

Nandhra’s practice is generally a mixture of installation and performance, exploring the role of women in modern society. Feminism is central to her practice, drawing upon the ‘construction of binary opposites, public/private, us/other, identity/nameless’. Her most current work, Life is no Laughing matter, explores mental health, depression and anxiety and will result in Nandhra’s first solo show.

Demi Nandhra is currently part of the ‘Soup’ residency at Stryx, along with artist Emily Mulenga and Lucy Hutchinson. All of the artists were invited to show older work as an introduction to their practices. Nandhra displayed a selection of works, including Sita, which although connected in their subject and aesthetic (presented on paper), each of the works were described as “part of something else”. The works reference a well known rape case in India, 1964 that introduced a change of law. Unfortunately, this adjustment was unsuccessful as in 2012 there was another uproar due to a gang rape case. Nandhra claimed that the original case was a well known tale told to young girls, warning them of the dangers a young woman faces. One piece titled Boys Will Be Boys (2014) evidences a number of quotes from government officials in 2012 which favour the male over the female rape victim.

Nandhra’s mother had been present within her artwork previously and was obviously a huge influence to its creation. During Fierce Festival, the pair collaborated for a performance piece in which Nandhra’s mother lay naked covered in long hair (a sign of beauty in indian culture) and remained silent. The artist confessed that she had repeatedly spoke for her mother in order to protect the image she was creating of her. Nandhra said that her recollection of the performance is negative, however, it became important because her mother adopted the characteristic she’d created for her. Although able to engage with the public during during the performance, she remained silent and laid still. The group wondered how Nandhra’s mother felt about the work, asking whether they regularly exchanged thoughts about the work. Another member of the group asked; “Is your mum a traditional indian woman?”. In response to the first point, Nandhra said that the pair continue to converse about the work which she claims has helped enormously in terms of development as it offers another perspective from another generation. Nandhra said that her mother has been accepting of the work and fairly laid back in her response, saying “this is my life Demi”. However, the artist’s response was indirect in regards to whether she would class her mother as ‘traditional’, questioning what traditional even means anymore.

An interesting contrast between Demi Nandhra’s and Priya Saujani’s approach and representation of the goddess was made by one of the group. Whilst Saujani embraces the role of the goddess, Nandhra rejects it. A previous performance titled From Visions saw Saujani embody the goddess, her collaborator played the whore. “Does the whore redeem herself at the end of the performance?” somebody asked. This sparked conversation on redemption, challenging whether there is any need for a whore to redeem herself. Is it ok for a woman to be a whore if she wants? and actually, should this title even exist with such negative meaning? The opposing views formed a possibility for future discussion on the role of the goddess between the two artists.

Lucy Hutchinson

Prior to her current residency at Stryx, Lucy Hutchinson had been awarded a residency at The Library of Birmingham by New Art West Midlands. The artist explained that she worked with the archives, creating small portrait stage cards. I Sell the Shadow to Save the Substance was presented within the Photographer’s Wall in the library and focused on culture, in particular the identity of British status. For this particular show, the artist created a installation emulating the process of creating a photograph.

The installation consisted of a framed photograph rested against a corner of the room, a hanging image of plants with the words ‘Buy less, Choose well, Make it last’, which is a quote from Westwood, stencilled on it, a astroturf anarchy symbol and a mask replica of the females face in the photograph. Each element within the space allowed it’s viewer to engage with the work, creating a version of the original photograph that is presented. The setup succeeded as an interactive artwork on the most recent Digbeth First Friday. The photograph itself was composed of a variety of objects that had been made out of materials Hutchinson described as “crap”, however they had been made to look opulent and expensive. Hutchinson discussed the dilemma of owning artwork that you no longer want to exhibit, similarly to the older photograph she has displayed within Stryx. “Where does this work exist? In the studio? or online?” she asked. Once a work exists online, it is reaching a wider audience and therefore open to greater interpretation. The artist explained that when placing the photograph into google images with no prior associations, it formed a relation to fashion designer Vivienne Westwood because of the headband that she was wearing. After time, the work became tagged with many other words on various social media sites, some from the general public and others from organisations such as the library. What affect does this have on the work? or shape the viewer’s experience of the work?

Hutchinson explained that she was interested in the organisation and preparation that is required when setting up an event. She spoke about a previous set up of work at a National Trust site in Worcester which was dependant on a element of engagement, similarly to the work presented in Stryx. Due to the site attracting a large number of visitors, Hutchinson faced an array of restrictions. This was similar to her experience at The Library of Birmingham, which is a major public space. As well as its restrictions, the organisation expected a number of things from the artwork. One of the expectations was that the work was to appeal and therefore engage members of the public. The location as well as the timing (school half term) meant that the work had to be accessible, though not particularly a critical factor for the artist. The artist expressed that the final outcome of work wasn’t as she’d hoped. To engage her audience, Hutchinson created replicas of elements from within her photographs similarly to piece in Styrx. Hutchinson tends to photograph women for her work, often appearing in the photographs herself. Although present, she is not recognisable as herself. She explained that her work ‘questions and follows the idea of transformation’, hence why she ‘appears as other characters as all of the images are reconstructions of Victorian images based on current trends within today’s middle classes’. Therefore, when recreating elements of her photographs such as wigs and clothing, they were all feminine. Hutchinson revealed that members of the public reacted negatively to the lack of diversity in the objects and was labelled as “sexist”. The group wondered why this was such a big issue. Why couldn’t the men see that the objects simply related to the work and therefore embrace the ‘female’ hair and clothing?

The artist’s experiences lead the group to talk about their own encounters with participation. Everyone seemed to agree that the level of participation in a performance was dependant on its location. The venues used as a part of Digbeth First Friday have a much more relaxed atmosphere as well as attracting an audience that have a greater knowledge of art, therefore its understandable that a artwork reliant on participation would be more successful. General members of the public, who may have a limited knowledge of art, may be hesitant to engage, especially when confronted in a space which isn’t established as an art space.

I wonder whether Hutchinson’s audience would have labelled her sexist if she was a man and had displayed male props? The group questioned whether an artwork is viewed differently if its viewer is aware of its creator’s gender. Does stating your name on a artwork affect the way it is viewed and interpreted? If the work is obviously created by a woman, can it be deemed as more or less successful than if a man was to create it? A few of the women revealed their experiences of discrimination, both within public and within the workplace. Someone from the group spoke about a experience their friend encountered when applying for a job. Her name was Charlie and therefore assumed a boy. When attending the interview and realised a woman, she was refused the job and told the company was looking for a male to fill the position. Unfortunately, all of the woman present could recall a time in which they had been a victim of discrimination or of chauvinist behaviour. We all discussed how to approach someone who has acted inappropriately towards you and by doing so, will there be greater implications.

As a live artist, a member of the group expressed the extreme lengths she went through to alter her appearance. She spoke about some of her previous performances in which she had changed all of her features and therefore no longer looked like herself. This new appearance attracted the attention of her audience. She was desirable. How do you deal with an increased level of attention in reaction to your appearance which isn’t a true image of how you really look? The artist expressed that she found the transition difficult. Could the same level of desirability be achieved by a man? She asked the group; “If I dressed as a ‘man’ would you find me more of a construct than is I dressed as a ‘woman’?” In many cultures and religions, a woman is expected to be ‘pure’ remaining a virgin until marriage, however, men are not expected to do the same. Whilst these expectations still exist, I doubt whether amongst a general audience, a man could ever be as sexualised, untouchable or desirable in the same way as women. Regardless of wanting to escape sexual objectification, it’s still very much a reality for women today. This sexualisation was questioned in regards to live art by one member of the group – “Are there ways of escaping the ideology that the naked live woman artist’s body is always about being sexual? or are women so sexualised to the point that we’d never be able to?”.

Whilst most people would agree that women are sexualised and suffer inequality to the superior male, not everyone is accepting of the title ‘feminist’, or supportive of the movement. Everyone within our group was a female and a artist, and therefore interested and affected by the feminist movement, however, still not everyone classed themselves as a feminist. The group shared their concerns with the term feminist and why some people, male or female, were reluctant to take the title. One member explained that her boyfriend struggled with referring to himself as a feminist although he believed in equality for women and wholeheartedly supported her practice. It became apparent that there is still a hesitancy to be associated with feminism and that people are more welcoming to the term equalism. Arguably these are the same thing, and if everyone saw feminism as a approval of female rights, then more people would be willing to class themselves as a feminist. One person mentioned singer Beyonce, claiming that she had boldly stated that she is a feminist, “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes”. A recent song called Flawless by the artist [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17hPCHLMpyM] talks about the expectations and restrictions placed upon women; “We say to girls: “You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful otherwise you will threaten the man” and “Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important”. As well as making bold statements and referencing feminism within her music, the artist displayed the title ‘FEMINIST’ during her performances on stage. The artist’s fan base is huge, and by openingly saying that she is a feminist, she is encouraging women around the world to do the same and therefore was praised by the group.

Although as a female only group, we all shared a commonality and therefore created a comfortable environment for the event, conflicting views were expressed on consciously creating female only spaces by the group. Whilst some of the group thought that female only spaces are a requirement in order for women to feel safe in certain situations, the opposing opinion was that gender specific spaces create greater division. My thoughts are that female only spaces should be kept to a bare minimum, only existing when there is an element of threat or an uncomfortable atmosphere created by the male. I feel that in a open discussion, and particularly one about feminism, men should be invited to share their opinions. By excluding them, we are creating a greater problem for feminism as people continue to have a limited knowledge on the subject. By inviting all to conversate, we can educate and open up the possibility of change. In this scenario however, men have been excluded from our discussion as the event was the first of its kind, acting as a trial for future possibilities.

Our session was coming to an end, and it seemed that our discussion had opened up more thoughts and questions. Therefore, it was decided that everyone write down a question in which we could consider and then answer at our next meeting. They are as follows:

Do you think labelling yourself as a feminist artist makes you less successful?

When it comes to art, and more specifically performance/live art, how do we decide or who decides what is appropriate?

What is your knowledge of Drag Kings?

Is it necessary to define yourself as a feminist if you’re not making work that expressly deals with the notions of femininity on a conscious level?

Can you describe female beauty?

What are your thoughts on women only spaces? What, if any, value can you find in them?

Does feminism need rebranding? if so how?

Is ‘women’ art ever going to be the mainstream?

Do we want the subvert icons of femininity or destroy them?

How would you describe the nature of how you experience desire?

What do you desire?

What are your experiences of porn?

Are women their own worst enemy?

What are your experiences of pro-feminist porn?

What makes you feel strong? Where is women’s strength?

Personally, I have previously wondered whether feminism is needed in a contemporary society as although I have experienced chauvinistic behaviour, I have never felt as if I am inferior to men or suffered discrimination in regards to my gender. By labelling ourselves a feminist, are we placing ourselves into a category and creating further division? Recently I have been reconsidering the title due to my realisation of FGM (Female Genetial Mutilation) as well an attack on a close friend of mine due to the nature of her art practice. Deep down, any sane person would agree with the equality of men and women, however, some people need more than just educating on the subject. I think that in order for some people to become an active feminist, they must be converted by an experience that confirms the realisation that inequality still exists today.

For more information on the artists:

Hellen Borough http://www.traumata.org

Demi Nandhra http://www.deminandhra.com/home/

Lucy Hutchinson http://www.lucyhutchinson.co.uk/#

This was the first feminist discussion meet up which was run by Kate Spence, Co-Director of Home For Waifs And Strays. The next discussion meet up will be open to all on the 31st May in Unit 9 Minerva Works. To find out more, visit: http://hfwas.co.uk/

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