For those of you who follow the work we do at Sweet ‘Art and our annual Intersect Project, it will be of no surprise that we of course had to adapt the project this year. Our normal format of women sitters joining the Sweet team and 4 selected artist IRL, to collaborate on the creation of portraits that challenge the ‘male gaze’ in art by creating an intersectional ‘female gaze’, for obvious reasons needed adaptation in 2021. We did not host the project in 2020 either, as the Covid19 pandemic hit the UK and lockdowns began in March, when we would normally celebrate International Women’s Day.
This year, like many other events, including our exhibition The Great Leveller, we took Intersect online. We expected this necessity to be one that would need to be tolerated for safety, but would inevitably take from the usual impact and experience the project.
However, in retrospect the Intersect team have reflected on the way in which this necessary shift in thinking around the project has prompted interesting, welcome and insightful change to its practical and conceptual realisation.
The History of the Intersect Project
The Intersect project existed in its first incarnation as a live art portraiture project exploring and challenging the male gaze in art from an intersectional feminist perspective. We decided this would be the perfect way for us to celebrate women’ history month each year. The project was first hosted in collaboration with WOW London and felt like a meaningful and exciting start. Read more about that one here. The format of the event, taking place in the Market Place of the festival in the Royal Festival Hall, helped us to get immediate feedback from visitors, sitters and artists and set the scene for the projects ethos of support and solidarity.
Aims and Objectives
The Intersect Live Art Portraiture Project set out to explore:
- The concept of the ‘female gaze’ in art.
- A Subverting of the concept of the traditional ‘male gaze’ in art and society (that of women as objects, often sexual objects, in the passive role of the observed only)
- The concept of intersectional feminist perspectives (the idea that even if we all call ourselves feminists we all come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, gender identities, sexualities and socio economic positions which effect the way we see feminism and what it needs to be for us.)
- Women supporting women (we know from past projects and exhibitions the importance of women joining together, talking to each other and having fun with a common aim.
How Could Intersect do this?
In its first incarnations, four women artist were selected by Sweet ‘Art for the Intersect collaboration due to the exploration of feminist issues in their practice from very different social, personal and political perspectives. The artists each worked at one of four stations on a portrait of a women sitter for a set period of time. When the time was up, each artist moved to the next easel and continued work on the previous artist’s portrait until each artist had worked on each portrait. The resulting four portraits hoped to act as an unpredictable, collaborative representation of different feminist perspectives, exploring a ‘female gaze’.
This year the project responded to the current restrictions in our abilities to truly be together in solidarity and support on International Women’s Day by moving online. Many marginalised groups have been disproportionally affected in various ways by the pandemic and we wished to make a creative, collaborative and safe space in which women and non-binary people may be seen and heard in their unique experience, during this ongoing difficult time.
In practical terms the online format of the project allowed for greater opportunity and inclusivity as the Sweet ‘Art team selected this years intersect artists. With artist and sitters being able to join from anywhere in the world (and yes we did a have a few time zone calculations to do!) it was an exciting and rich experience to be joined by artists in the UK, Israel and the US and sitters from a far as Texas and Korea!
As always the importance of the evolution of language and understanding of identity related experience, must be embraced and meaningfully held, and at Sweet ‘Art we are dedicated to this in the updating and reevaluating of mission and ethos.
The inclusion of nb artists and sitters in the project came from a desire to extend our interpretation of the concept of a ‘male gaze’ informed by contemporary thinking and increased understanding of the experiencing of gender and gender binaries, by gender queer and nb people.
Part of the Sweet ‘Art teams exploration and debate of this issue included the decision to expand definition and use the term ‘patriarchal gaze’ and ‘male gaze’ interchangeably. Rather than a desire to just perform inclusivity, this decision felt to greater encapture that which we seek to subvert and challenge with the project. Our reevaluating of terminology led to increased understanding of what the male gaze may really be in its complexity, and also to our desire to adapt language to more accurately respond to understandings that the male gaze is not one that is necessarily held only by men. Nor is it a product of sex or biology but one of social construction much like gender.
We decided that each of our 4 selected artists would use a 15 minute slot to create portraits of a woman/nb sitter, via an online meeting platform.
As part of this year’s unique take on the project, sitters were also invited prior to their sitting, to contribute a piece of writing to us in response to the question “How would I like to be seen and heard?”
Responses could take any form including poetry, prose, a letter, statement or diary entry and would be read out by one of the Sweet ‘Art team within the drawing time slot. Artists would be invited to create a visual representation of the sitters as they reflected on the sitters’ words. We can truly say we were blown away by the beautifully human, honest and important thoughts our sitters shared with us before the day.
I was so struck by how important it felt to get it right for the sitter when reading their contributed text, and how this gave me some insight into the feelings of the Intersect artist each year, as they often share feelings of anxiety and responsibility but also joy and pride, in there attempts to truly see those they are drawing, while embodying feminist solidarity.
Following the sittings, one of the artists would then be commissioned to use a combination of all 4 portraits to create one final composite portrait for the sitter to keep. All final portraits hoped to represent differing intersectional feminist perspectives that challenge a patriarchal gaze, creating space for women and non-binary people to be seen and heard in their experience in relation to this gaze. This artwork would then be sent to the sitter to keep at the end of the project, as a gift in honor of support and solidarity this IWD.
Meet the Artists
Jessica Mitchell (she/her)
“I am a Brooklyn-born, London-based artist specialising in drawing and needlework. My art is informed by my interest in issues of identity and internal worlds and by my work as a psychotherapist. I have a particular focus on working collaboratively and have been engaged in a long term mixed media project, entitled ‘Sour-Puss: The Opera’, with the artist Diogo Duarte.
It is my own need to get my feelings out that has driven me to make art. I want to set down on paper and fabric how I see the world and how I feel. As a therapist, I work with words that are spilled out of bodies so that they can then be considered for their meaning. I love stories but sometimes words are not enough to do stories justice.”
Dania Latar (she/her)
“I live and work in Israel. I’m a figurative-expressive painter, and work with oil, charcoal and pastels. My subjects include portraits, life drawings as well as large scale narrative paintings. I think of art as a form of dialogue, and portraiture for me is a substitute for verbal communication, which I’m not very good at. It dissolves barriers and allows us to see through the painter’s eyes. It’s a triple relationship – the artist, the subject and the viewer.”
Thyme James (they /she)
“I am a non-binary, femme presenting, interdisciplinary artist based in Glasgow, graduating from Glasgow School of Art in 2019. My practice is based in expanded painting, combining traditional notions of painting and printmaking with performance and film making. I focus primarily on the female form, both as subject matter and as a conceptual tool to explore womxn’s place within the arts and society, inclusivity, sexuality and object-hood within a digital era, with themes stemming from gender theory, philosophical thought and current affairs. Most of my work features the nude body, however I began my time at art school focusing on portraits, and still regularly complete self-portraits.”
Cassandra Harner (she/her)
Cassandra is a video artist and illustrator. She is already familiar with thinking about herself in the third person, performing as alter egos in drag, music and comedy. She is a draglesque performer named Rusty Bucket and a self absorbed piece of art work, Kay – T Critiques. She’s queer and kind and swears a lot. In the pastiche of Cassandras artists practice, there are two main pillars holding it aloft: camp and fashion. If her audience isn’t laughing or at least being bewildered, she is not fulfilled.
Reflection on the project.
Despite reservations about taking the project online, this did raise interesting questions surrounding both the intimacy of portraiture drawing and the use of online platforms such as zoon where you often ‘meet’ others in the context of there own, potentially private spaces.
In our preparation meetings for the project, Thyme raised the issue of voyeurism and the possible intrusion of the format. For me this felt to potentially add to the sense of intimacy that can be lost over platforms like zoom. But Thymes thoughts did however make me question the important archiving of the project on this blog, in the context of the new format, and how this may impact that which we share here of a process made paradoxically more and less personal and intimate by the adapted format.
In response to this and following the project, Thyme fed back that their expectations had been challenged.
“Contrary to this, it could further the sitter’s agency, allowing them to set up in a space they feel safe, comfortable, and further reflects themselves. In a physical setting this element of control is removed. The organisers and artists dictate the surroundings, angles, and subsequent presentation”
Many of the sitters did indeed set the scene in their own space and choose a specific pose that felt significant and reflective of the words that they had provided to be read.
Thyme also reflected on the timely nature of the project, taking place in the week following the discovery of the body of Sarah Everard here in London, with a serving met police officer being held in custody on suspicion of her murder, committed as she just tried to walk home safely.
“After the events of this week the project seems even more pertinent. Voices of women, non-binary, and other queer people need to be amplified. Conversations around our safety are brought to the forefront of our society here across the UK. We discuss how we walk with keys in our hands, call our partners, wear “suitable” or “appropriate” attire and prioritise routes with cctv or street lights. We know these things can only keep us so safe. We know that however we dress or present ourselves it does not really matter.
The male gaze cannot be excluded from this dialogue. It is intrinsically linked to the patriarchy, and thus toxic masculinity and male violence. As soon as our gender is confirmed, perceived, or assumed, we become targets.”
Indeed on the very day we held the project, a vigil in London to honor Sarah ended with women being violently attacked by police, handcuffed and restrained in what were claimed to be attempts to disperse the crowds. Crowds of grieving women, laying flowers for yet another dead sister and as a way of processing and marking all the trauma experienced as a result of misogyny and associated hate crimes.
“Furthermore, in a week where the voices of women, non-binary and queer people are fuelled with fear, hatred, and mourning, hearing the sitter’s words read out has been much needed. These words of strength, celebration and honesty has reminded me that we are amazing and powerful beings beyond the trauma we have gone through.”
Many of our sitters were able to feedback at the time of their sit, how the process had felt and themes seemed to emerge surrounding the surprising level of compassion, intimacy and connection that could be achieved and felt through this unusual process.
Some used social media to share the experience and feedback how it had been important to them.
“…from writing and crafting my note about how I wanted to be seen and heard, and sharing these strange 15 min with compassionate strangers….again thanks for this out of body experience!”
I personally really enjoyed packaging up the final composite images and creating arty presents to be opened. I really channeled my younger Riot Grrrl zine making self with the stickers and glitter, but when has there been a better time for a bit of retro crafty fun? The pandemic and constant online interactions and digital content (the doom scroll is real!) has made receiving actual objects in the post a real treat, and this is what we wanted to embrace, with all of our sitters choosing a present in the post rather than digital versions of their portraits. For me there felt to be something of the sincere and fun that Sweet ‘Art likes to embody, captured in this process.
Following the day of the project and on completion of the composite portraits, the Sweet ‘Art team and our Intersect artists enjoyed a lively post project meeting, where all fed back to each other how the day had felt and what important questions it may have raised for us surrounding the patriarchal or male gaze.
We explored again our use and adaptation of language to find ever greater and meaningful ways in which to challenge such social and political complexities, along with reflecting on how each artist utilized the collaborative process to inform their own interpretation of the sitters and their identity.
We were able to further support each other in sisterly and feminist solidarity and acknowledge the ways in which feminism may not be inclusive and how to best challenge this. We were also able to share more about the harm and resulting grief and trauma that a patriarchal gaze wholly contributes too in society and the experience of less socially dominant groups. This felt important to consider in relation to art and activism and the artists were able to feed back how valued they felt in being paid to be part of the project, when so often artists and their labour is not valued in many societies.
For me Intersect: Seen and Heard 2021 embodied something of the importance and power of art to reflect society and shared and personal experience, to comfort and support, and to subsequently subvert, challenge and make change.