What is 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’s history month each year and its debut at WOW London felt like the perfect place to start and join with other women to develop this collaboration to continue in the future, while also archiving the project. As many of you know, at Sweet ‘Art we have a passion for the importance of archiving artists projects carried out by marginalized groups in accessible ways such as the SHE book, our responsive zine publication T’ART and this blog!
Sweet ‘Art at WOW 2019 with Intersect!
Aims and Objectives
The Intersect Portraiture Project set out to explore the following:
- The concept of the ‘female gaze’ in art.
- Subverting 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 affect the way we see feminism and what it needs to be for us.)
- Female solidarity (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?
Four female identifying artists are 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 work at one of four easels on a portrait of a woman sitter for a set period of time. When the time is up, each artist moves to the next easel and continues work on the previous artist’s portrait until each artist has worked on each portrait. The resulting four portraits act as an unpredictable, collaborative representation of different feminist and female perspectives exploring a female gaze.
This year we held an open submission for the four spaces on the project and had varied and enthusiastic responses. The successful artists were selected based on a combination of their artistic abilities and style, their exploration of feminist issues personally and through their art practice and their varying identities.
Leena identifies as a white, British/Finnish artist who is married and a mother to three boys. She is studying for an MA in Fine Art.
“Through my studio practice and now as part of my MA in Fine Art studies at UCA, I am continuing to investigate the female gaze in portraiture. Previous work has explored how women choose to represent their erotic identity, in such paintings as a ‘Portrait of Ms Ruby May, standing’, which was censored by the Mall Galleries for being ‘too pornographic and disgusting’. I am currently developing a new form of portraiture I refer to as ‘rhizomatic portraiture’. I want to examine what a portrait is beyond a single representation of a person at one moment in time. How do I, as an artist represent the multifaceted nature of a person, their memory, their connections to places, spaces, people, habitat, their rhizomatic being in a visual image? And how does my connection with the sitter reflect in the artwork? This is an ongoing portrait project I am investigating through a series of self-portraits and portraits of my mother, who has cancer. The Intersect Portrait Project offers a unique opportunity to explore this rhizome theory with other artists and sitters – the end result will be a ‘map’ of lines, a ‘becoming’ of a shared experience of four artists and sitters.”
“My abstract paintings deal with my story as an immigrant: I was born in Mexico City but three of my grandparents immigrated to Mexico from countries such as Cuba, Spain and Ireland. My parents were both migrants. My husband too as he came to study in Mexico from South America and now we are migrants in the UK, making our children migrants as well. I realise that identity is fluid and subject to social construction, as I played with the emotions and expressions of the model to shape my own interpretation of the human body in my painting.Recently I am immersed in portraying, which helped me in my attempt to answer the enigma of identity. Therefore I am very interested in participating in this year ‘s Intersect Portraiture Project.Due to my history of displacement, I explore the politics of identity and its intersections. I address issues such as identity, migration, femininity, memory, repression, desire, absence and loss.”
“I am an Iranian independent woman living in exile for the past thirty years. After the revolution I witnessed dramatic changes in my country. My identity was always in a question as I have a strong cultural background which was influenced by Islamic government and the roles which must be obeyed. My choice to leave my country and my experience living in a Western world with all the freedom and choices to live was challenging and was very difficult. I always dig into my emotions to find out who I really am and where I belong. Lost in the middle of Western world and Eastern world.”
“I have a life long passion for art and experienced challenges in managing the process with full-time work commitments. Anecdotal evidence has proven that this is the story of many people within the descriptor BAME. Currently, I am an Advice and Outreach Officer for an arts organization, the project supports economically inactive BAME women to access the arts. An attempt, to even the balance of opportunity for the work of marginalised minorities creativity and exposure. Old enough to remember the Feminist movement in the late 70s/80s, when I was completing a degree in Fashion; I feel that wave of revolution feminism is so much more about inclusivity. So, I whole-heartedly embrace the concept of an intersectional feminist perspective. My female gaze has absorbed thousands of images but in my art practice I have chosen to focus on men and women, who would regard themselves as being ‘other’.”
Intersect at Crabtree & Evelyn
This year we were asked by the awesome team at Crabtree & Evelyn if we would like to host something to celebrate sisterly solidarity, creativity and self care at their new concept store and event space in Islington, London. The store is a pilot in the organisation, reaching out to communities and offering opportunities for community activity in their stores.
We jumped at the chance to host the project in such beautiful surroundings in such a great location but also to explore the concept of the project in a new way. We felt hosting the project in a commercial space in which skin care products are sold appealing to women was an interesting way to subvert and explore the ideas central to Intersect.
Those ideas are about exploring a female gaze, the way in which those who identify as women view and look at each other and themselves from differing social and political perspectives. We also hope to challenge the traditional male gaze with Intersect and we focus on the male gaze in art specifically with this project. However art does reflect society, and general societal attitudes towards women are reflected in art practice and the approach toward women as subject.
The media, capitalism and the way in which women’s bodies become commodities in the striving for a very specific type of western beauty standard, feels important to consider while also negotiating the fact that most of us do enjoy a nice body butter!
I was struck by the consideration of this as sitters arrived for their booked time slots to be drawn by our artists, but also waited in the beautiful surroundings of the store and browsed the products. It made me think about how as feminists we often walk this line. As I bought the truly dreamy Crabtree & Evelyn Lavender & Espresso Body Lotion (Im going back for more !!) I wondered “Am I treating myself to a bit of pampering and self care because I am worth it and deserve to feel good. Or am I socialised to feel the only way I can care for myself is to buy products to help me achieve an unattainable and narrow standard of beauty, where my skin should be as smooth as a babies bum and soft as…well…. a babies bum?” You know that old chestnut! It’s a pretty standard thought process for me when out shopping. Did I mention I also bought a Lavender & Espresso linen mist?! Well we all got 50% off!
But let’s go back a bit. I feel it is important to mention the exciting build up to our event but also the unwanted attention that our policy to be inclusive gained prior. Our feminism is intersectional and trans inclusive. It is important for us that our women-only events include all women and we will not entertain trans exclusionary ‘feminist’ ideas. We can not speak from a trans experience as currently there are no trans members of the Sweet ‘Art team but we wish to continue to be good allies and are always welcoming of guidance as to how to best support our trans sisters.
Once set up on the day with input for our artists and the Sweet team we were ready for our first sitter. This year we ran the project as a ticketed event but built in long breaks for our artists. Despite this some did still say they felt very tired and achy at the end of the day and this is something we hope to consider further for next time.
Despite this the day did feel relaxed and welcoming for sitters and shoppers who may want to watch, grab a vagina cake (from under the modesty box in case some shoppers were less vag enthused!) and read some of a selection of our feminist, lgbtq+ self published zines and books.
The team at Crabtree & Evelyn welcomed our sitters warmly offering drinks and chatting about the shop and the project. There was lots of opportunity for the Sweet team to engage with sitters about the project and the concept.
The focus of the project did evoke wider conversations about feminism that felt important. One conversation was even prompted by a sitter noting how sitting on standard sized chairs often feels uncomfortable for women. This led to conversations around the data gap and how research that determines the shape which the world around us takes, including the ergonomics of seating is all based on the average man as a data set. These kinds of discussions remimded me of consciousness raising groups and the importance of women only spaces to reflect on experience and support each other through validation and confirmation of shared oppressions.
The Intersect project does provide a very specific type of setting and focus for this kind of women only shared experience. This focus of course raises many questions in sitters and artists around the female gaze and the way in which we view each other as women, specifically as we are all immersed in patriarchal norms and are all susceptible to societal pressures around what is considered ‘flattering’ or ‘attractive’. We questioned the degree to which we adopt a male gaze in general and in art.
Feedback from artists often mentions a fear of “upsetting” sitters by not making them “attractive” enough in their portraits. This often is followed by questions of what this means exactly and where this standard or type of attractiveness comes from.
One sitter on looking at her completed portraits commented on her nose, saying she normally doesn’t like her nose but felt differently about it, seeing her portraits. I commented that maybe she just hadn’t seen it properly before. I feel this touched on a potential male gaze and the unrealistic body standards we are socialised to hold.
Maybe the artists were able to hand back to the sitter a truer likeness than she is conditioned to allow herself to see alone. My sense looking at the portraits was that her nose was quite accurately represented and that something about the portraiture process allowed her to see a different perspective.
When I trained as an art psychotherapist a tutor once said to me “you can’t lie in your art”. I thought of this comment as this young woman re-examined her perfectly lovely nose through the gaze of our four talented artists. She left seeming affirmed and happy and emailed that evening to thank us again for the experience.
The experience of our sitters is a different one to that of our artists in this project. It is increasingly apparent that the project is hard work and draining for our artists who draw for many hours in the day. This is physically tiring despite our breaks and refreshments! However I sense that the less passive involvement in sisterly collaboration for our artists is also an emotional challenge.
Our artists have little time to get to know each other before the project and I feel with more funding it would be beneficial to be able to give more time to this and an in-person debriefing of the project after.
Artists often start positive and excited about the prospect of supporting each other and sharing an artistic experience but I am reminded of feminism and activism as I see the often unsaid struggles and negotiations that play out as artists work together.
Difference is glorious and should be celebrated but our differing experiences of the world and our varying feminist ethos, makes the need for empathy and understanding ever more vital in all we do. I feel the project’s highlighting and exploration of this is its most important aspect in some ways. It begs the answer to important questions.
In asking for feedback from artists, Leena comments..
“The lack of control in this collaborative process left me questioning my own artistic judgements and abilities. Even ten days later, I still do not enjoy looking at the photos I took of the various portraits. I feel uncomfortable about the end result.
What fascinates me, is why I feel this way? The Intersect Portrait Project has made me question some fundamental assumptions and beliefs I hold. What has informed my sense of aesthetics? My white, middle-class European upbringing? Has the traditionally male western canon of art been the key influencer in my own artistic training?
How does the female gaze, or specifically, my gaze differ to the gaze of the other female artists? Why do I feel a sense of frustration when viewing someone else’s interpretation of the sitter? What is the underlying cause of my need for control over the output? Is it the deep-seated desire to create a self-portrait in every portrait? The need to recognise oneself in the work?”
You can read more about Leena’s experience of the project on her blog
In her feedback Susan comments on her identity and the expectations or isolation it may bring in feeling ‘other’ or ‘minority’ while also expressing the importance of “stepping out of one’s comfort zone”.
“As a Caribbean artist it would have been interesting to draw a black sitter. Both to practice using bright colour pastels and share the challenge of drawing an ’other’ we might not have had the previous opportunity to draw. In terms of identity, I felt a responsibility to demonstrate to minority shoppers access to art practice…..”Yes, I can do that!”. Feminism…….I feel that the ‘intersect’ route is the one I pin my heart to; for its inclusivity. Art practice…..I am relieved that the Sweet Art idea of sharing canvasses pulled me into stepping out of comfort zone.”
Susan also commented in her feedback on feeling “unsettled” by her drawing being worked over and noted that it felt “painful” but also that “there was a bigger issue at hand”. These words feel so powerful to me. I wonder in retrospect about the greater need for a facilitation of open dialogue to voice these unsettling and painful feelings and explore them in relation to personal and political issues and feminist and identity politics. Again important questions asked and issues raised.
This felt really important in regard to feminism and the need for understanding of different positions and an intersectional approach. How being “erased” can maybe feel different from different personal, social or racial perspectives. I’m aware of how damaging the narrative of women always needing to appear harmonious in feminist discourse can be. The idea that feminism has no conflicts or can do no harm. Of course this isn’t true or helpful and the ways in which some brands of feminism do not serve all women, needs to be acknowledged. This starts with women feeling safe to speak up when they feel erased. We will continue to strive to create those spaces and safe opportunities.
As with many of our sitters, Shadi spoke of feeling safe in a women only space that explored these issues and this did feel to be a commonly held thought..
“Being in a group of women, was very comfortable to me. I am sure if it was a man in our circle, it would feel as safe as I felt.”
Many of our sitters mentioned in their feedback and spoke on the day that allowing themselves to be looked at was an empowering goal that they felt proud they could be supported in achieving. As I listened to jokey comments of “can you make me look thinner” or “Please add a filter!” I was struck by how far we still have to come as feminists and activists in challenging the damaging ways in which women are socialised to self criticise and self loathe.
Despite the struggles and challenges and all that the project emotes we did overall have a fun and affirming day! I really feel the project can address important issues while also being light, fun and empowering.
My favorite moment this year was the involvement of a mother and daughter who booked two slots to sit, to celebrate International Women’s Day together. They were greeted with hot chocolate and tea by the lovely team at the store and together they discussed with me if they should sit together or separately for their portraits.
I eventually asked the daughter who I will call A. what she would like to do. She seemed shy to respond but eventually asked her mother if she would be sad if she chose to have her portrait on her own. He mother laughed and assured her of course not and it felt like a very touching, empathic example of how as women we must care for each other’s feelings and an example of how, if we are not sure how our actions are making the other feel, than we can always ask, so we can get it right.
In her feedback A. also said how she enjoyed the project because she liked the way that “..the 4 different artists were helping each other make an art piece..”
We will be following A’s example this year as we celebrate the Intersect project’s achievements, learn from its mistakes and look forward to next time!