totally ruinous/ totally ruin us: In Discussion with Kim Neudorf

Kim Neudorf. Untitled, 12 x 12 inches, oil on canvas, 2020.

Interview by Adi Berardini

Weaving dream-like, obscured imagery in neutral tones of peach, rust brown, and green, Kim Neudorf’s paintings are dense with textual reference. Although their process starts with collaged images and film stills, the imagery is blurred and abstracted with intricate brushstrokes. With a focus on fluidity and the non-linear, their paintings delve into affectual territory, referencing ‘psychic material’ and how trauma shows up in the body. As mentioned in their artist bio, Neudorf’s writing and paintings “explore themes of resilience, healing, and survival, while seeking to undo easy legibility in order to honor the daily, more complicated modes of visibility and existence.” Recently, they have connected their art with their poetry practice, also referencing poetry fragments through small-scale watercolour paintings. Neudorf speaks more about their process and exhibition totally ruinous/ totally ruin us ,currently on display at Support project space until October 17th.

Neudorf’s work has also appeared at DNA Gallery, London (ON); Paul Petro, Toronto; Franz Kaka, Toronto; Forest City Gallery, London (ON); Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre, Kingston; Evans Contemporary Gallery, Peterborough; and Susan Hobbs Gallery, Toronto. They live and maintain a writing and studio practice in London (ON).

Kim Neudorf. totally ruinous / totally ruin us, installation, 2020.

You take an abstract approach to painting. Do you work intuitively or from a certain representational subject matter at first? Can you further explain your process?

When I work out ideas for a painting, this can begin in visual research, collage, or writing, such as poetry. I get information that is almost always a feeling or signal first. I have to work backwards; I search out more and more information that matches the signal (a colour, a visual expression of energy) and create folders and sub-folders as themes begin to emerge. Then I write about what I’ve found, and through this writing, I start to understand what the signal is about. The word intuitive does not always mean vague or mysterious. For me, it means making connections that skip a step-by-step process, so reverse engineering is necessary.

There’s a lecture by Jan Verwoert on how bodily and facial communication “has no story,” or transmits via affect; affect as transmission rather than an effect or product to be capitalized on. It makes more sense to me to create writing and artworks which use visual fragments, like body-forms rather than figures, to hold bodily and unconscious information.

In earlier paintings, I didn’t include specific symbols or visual information from my reverse-research in the work itself. When I started to do this, I could see clearer connections to my past and daily experiences. I had to make work for a long time to see what it was telling me. I started to see that the paintings create spaces/contexts for bodily and unconscious information to live, to communicate. The states in which that information is in relates very well to how painting can show shifting material space, physical states, and multiple temporalities existing together. The partially clear, rough, scribbly, half-formed material states in the paintings are deliberate. The way in which I use paint actively tries to resist a certain legibility to avoid grafting a false sense of resolution or story onto the work.

Kim Neudorf. inner sanctum, 5 x 7 inches, watercolour and acrylic on paper, 2020.

Your paintings have a sense of closer looking that’s required, almost leaning into a sense of opacity or refusal. How is your work influenced by these concepts, if at all?

The paintings and poems may seem like they are deliberately withholding information, but they give partial, unstable information the way dreams do. It’s not about deciphering a code. It’s about looking at each painting as its own context. A dream may not be at all about its content, but how it feels and the dynamics between people and things in a non-linear sequence. There are eyes, hands, bones, wings, flowers, various body parts, and also layers of energy or even tendrils or veins that link things together in the paintings. I’m asking viewers to think about how these visual elements are linked. How is something mashed together or sliced through (or slicing through) or emitting energy or interference in the paintings?

In the work there is a refusal to be or perform what it is to be “correctly” visible. Every day, bodies exist amidst public and social rules that are not designed to include them, even within spaces that advertise themselves as supposedly safe or inclusive.  In my own experience, feeling unsafe has been such a daily experience that blending in is a form of survival, which is simultaneously part of my own privilege. The body-forms in my work try to exist in a state where they are both themselves, in pieces and in process, and where they mimic their surroundings. There is no narrative or ultimate state or goal—only in allowing a continual, daily movement and transformation of form.

Kim Neudorf. totally ruinous / totally ruin us, installation, 2020.

Your recent work in the exhibition totally ruinous/ totally ruin us is connected to your writing practice, and more recently your poetry practice. How has poetry influenced your art (or vice versa?)

Recently I attended a workshop on metaphor in poetry, and I was surprised to learn how a lack of linear narrative can provoke some extremely negative reactions. I’m very new to poetry, but I’ve recently found that it is the closest form of writing to allow very personal, unprocessed information to communicate in its natural form, in a way that doesn’t force it into a normative, linear narrative. Finding a way to tell your story can be lifesaving, as every other form of communication can feel designed to violently suppress and reject that story. To not feel safe to communicate is traumatic. Information that needs to be externalized often appears in abstract or exaggerated forms, which can cause knee-jerk reactions. I want to be compassionate to that kind of externalization.

How is this body of work in totally ruinous/ totally ruin us influenced by healing and psychic material?

The inherent violence of being projected into a story that is not one’s own can embed itself within the body and create specific behaviours of self-protection. Trauma becomes embedded in my body in a way that it reconstitutes rather than rejects, like shrapnel that it grows around. The words that I associate with this are always very sharp and painful, appearing as tiny abstract fragments, which feels like the body getting rid of toxins. I started to see this reflected in my work, along with themes like disembodiment, dysphoria, gestures of contact and intimate touch, and the abstractness of emotional energy. The body-forms in the paintings are also genderless or nonbinary, and I think it says a lot when viewers want to project specific, digestible or normative identities onto them.

The term ‘psychic material’ can mean the way unprocessed trauma or energy take certain forms/states that interrupt daily life, or how trauma shows up in the body. Maggie Nelson writes about how psychic material won’t accept being hidden and controlled in private space but emerges in ways that are very public. My body has often reacted in extreme ways when I had no tools or language to process experiences. In somatic- and trauma-informed therapy, there’s a term ‘co-regulation’, meaning that to create a safe space for someone to feel heard/seen means you need to know how to self-regulate, or not be triggered yourself. Part of this can mean knowing how to decipher your own energy and emotional stuff from others. The body just stores all of it until it’s externalized or until it comes out on its own involuntarily. Visual and verbal externalization, including writing, can be accessible, daily strategies of healing.

The title “totally ruinous / totally ruin us”, as well as the small text paintings, are riffs on poems that I started this summer. Only after I read the poems did I realize that they were referring to recent experiences of violence. Part of the process involved revisiting my writing about those experiences, and listening to the information between the words, like a kind of mishearing. This was a way of getting closer to the information stored in my body.

My brain also supplied some cinematic references, which added a lot of comic relief to the process. The exhibition title also refers to astrology, specifically the 8th and 12th houses, which can be about forms of “undoing” from within, but instead of something negative, the tools for healing in this instance are internal and appear only after undoing, or ruining, old, unhealthy patterns.

Kim Neudorf. para dies, watercolour and acrylic on paper, 6 x 4 inches, 2020.

Who are some artists that influence you and your practice?

Joy Hester influenced me when I started art school in my 20s, and I’ve been returning to her work. The eyes of her figures are prominent and inward-looking, and cartoony without losing their emotional edge. Didier William, Lee Lozano, Gertrude Abercrombie, Michaela Eichwald, Amelie von Wulffen, Leonor Fini, and Jutta Koether are also big influences.

I’m also reading a lot of Johanna Hedva, CA Conrad, and Ariana Reines, and the work of poets who flip or subvert language in a way that gets at hidden structures of power within so-called common or everyday exchanges, as well as showing how multiple temporalities exist in the same space – Harryette Mullen and Gertrude Stein especially.

Do you have any future projects or news you’d like to announce?

I have some writing projects in the works that are in process, including collaborative writing I’m doing with Liza Eurich (more information TBA at a later date). During the present state of the pandemic, it makes more sense to me to focus on learning as much as I can online, particularly from contexts and voices that help me think beyond my own perspective and privilege.

totally ruinous/ totally ruin us is on display at Support Gallery, London ON from Sept 5 – October 17, 2020. To view more of Kim Neudorf’s work, you can visit their website or Instagram.

THIS IS GREAT MATERIAL: Rearranging Remnants for Resiliency

Tamara Bond, A Pearl in N’s Hair, 2016. Collage (silkscreen, intaglio fragments, acrylic on paper). 22 in x 22 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

By Ella Adkins

THIS IS GREAT MATERIAL

Gallery Gachet

July 17-August 21, 2020

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented futures. Within the unknown future, there’s the potential to re-imagine our known spaces. There’s a possibility for a new; a never before.

THIS IS GREAT MATERIAL, an online exhibition and poster series exhibited by Gallery Gachet, explores the notion of reimagined spaces and potential realities through the celebration of collage. The exhibition features the work of five artists: Marissa Diamond, Afuwa, Tamara Bond, Mary Phyllis O’Toole, and Krystle Coughlin Silverfox, all of whom are located throughout the region of the unceded Esquimalt, Songhees, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territories.

As I meander through the virtual exhibition, I first find pause in the vibrant patterning and diverse textures of artist Marissa Diamond’s work. Throughout her five works, I get lost in the layers of cross lateral landscapes of vibrant pinks and greens, triangles of orange felt, a cheetah print ‘x,’ and a hole punched strip ripped out of a Hilroy notebook. I’m reminded of my own past doodles in the margins of my Hilroy as I panic about my upper lip acne, wishing for high school and hormones to be over.

Marissa Diamond, Broken Limbs, 2020. Collage on paper: paint remnants, acrylic paint markers, fabric, plastic, pen. 8.5 in x 11 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

 The title of her fifth piece ‘Skinny Dip’, prompts me to look for the naked body. I cock my head at the purple and the pink with black dots and focus on a small curved pink shape submerged in a blue mass. There is no resolve as to whether or not this is a ‘human’ body, I’m only reminded of the tingling sensation of my bare skin entering cool water.

Through her titling and abstract shapely reminders of bodily parts and forms, Diamond reworks preconceived ideas about the body:

“Piecing and rearranging the components of each artwork allows me to create this new ‘world’ where bodies are liberated. The shapes I use are bodily, but simultaneously reference things found in landscapes and nature such as the moon, sun, sky, plants, rocks, hills, and animals — I think of the collages as ‘bodyscapes.’”

         Diamond cuts and peels remnants of dried paint, as well as other scrap materials, that no longer exist in their wholeness. She sees this discarded material as a speculative metaphor for bodies and physical traits that do not meet the westernized standards of beauty. ‘Unconventional’ bodies are discarded by the male gaze and no longer have use in being ‘beautiful.’ Diamond recuperates these discarded parts and re-appropriates the ‘useless’ body into a useful, functional, and celebrated state and space.

Mary Phyllis O’Toole, Who Am I? An Old Hag or A Beautiful Young Woman?, 2019. Mixed-media collage. 11 in x 15 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

Throughout the exhibition, there is a repeated theme of collecting ‘scraps’ of reality in order to recreate a more inclusive and celebrated future. In Mary O’Toole’s work, she utilizes collage to present the dichotomy of realities she experiences as an individual with schizophrenia.

O’Toole explains that individuals with schizophrenia “view themselves as the person they are and as an imaginary person.” She uses magazine cutouts of recognizable forms such as images of cars, cartoon and real-world animals, and depictions of female bodies and faces. This keeps the viewer rooted in reality, however, her arrangement of this media creates new shapes and spaces, such as that of a castle, or the silhouette of a face, or a neighbourhood. O’Toole depicts the unseeable—her own experience with schizophrenia living between two realities. She hopes to create landscapes “without discrimination and acceptance” for those with schizophrenia.

The exhibition also presents the possibilities for healing through the process of collage. Artist Tamara Bond utilizes collage to cover up written diary entries she crawled on sheets of paper during a past psychotic episode she experienced. The writing is hardly visible: the viewer is enchanted by fantastical fairy-like figures, horses, faces with large exaggerated mouths and gouache strokes. Bond uses collage as a healing practice, almost like placing a whimsical medicinal cloth over a written wound.

‘THIS IS GREAT MATERIAL’ not only strives to create resilient future worlds of healing and inclusion, but calls upon the interconnection of history, land, and culture that makes up an individual and a life story. Both artists Afuwa and Krystle Coughlin Silverfox loosely use the form of the portrait paralleled with textured materials to recall ideas of belonging and interconnectedness. 

Krystle Coughlin Silverfox, Hats’adän echo (Elders teachings) 2, 2020. Digital collage. 18 in x 12 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

Coughlin Silverfox’s works Hats’adän echo (elder’s teachings) are four digital collages inspired by family photos. Each work contains a silhouette of bodies in different constructed landscapes. In one work, two figures stand on a deck near the ocean, in another, two figures are in an upside-down forest next to a bridge to the moon. The spaces that the silhouettes leave are filled with their own landscapes whether it be blue sky, a mountain view, a fir tree branch, or fluffy clouds.

Regardless of the lack of a human figure, these portraits seem to more viscerally connect people’s narratives and history to place and landscape. The non-human elements construct the personal narrative and connection without the human being present. Each figure is outlined with small coloured beads, which recalls Coughlin Silverfox’s Indigenous heritage and practices. The beads act as a visual and tactile tether, evoking the traditional Indigenous craft and demonstrating how one’s cultural traditions and practices form their identities. Coughlin Silverfox creates the shape of her familial figures with evocative elements from her own heritage, figuratively reminding us of the interconnected cultural elements that construct an individual.  

Afuwa, The Matriarch, 2014/16. 23K gold leaf, handmade paper, and hand-painted paper on wood panel. 12 in x 13 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

Afuwa also employs the human empty portrait silhouette in her collection Familiar Icons in order to explore the precious bonds of blood, land and spirit. Her works have a rich opulence in colour and texture—gold leaf on wooden panels make up the background of each work, and each figure is made up of handmade printed patterned paper of rich blues, reds, greens, purples and oranges. These portraits evoke a stunning and iconic family, saturated in colour and intricate textures.

“I focused on the precious and the portable, using handmade paper and 23 karat gold — not only to underscore the value of these relationships that resisted the destruction wrought by enslavement and indentureship, but to lay claim, as well, to the gold and other resources extracted with neither recompense nor acknowledgement of the poisoned landscape left behind.” The process of assembling for Afuwa is part of the gratitude to the sacred artefacts of her history, as part of the ritual and prayer.

This exhibition externalizes anxieties, intimacies, and connectivity in a tactile and visceral sense. Through the process of collage, we can see the layering, recognize material and forms, and are reminded of our reality. However, we must abandon what these familiar images, textures, and titles signify in order to experience these works. We don’t see the naked woman’s body skinny dipping into the cool water in Diamond’s work. Instead, the feeling of the ‘skinny dip’ is evoked, allowing for all ‘imperfect’ shapes forms, and bodies  to experience the sensation. We aren’t seeing the family posed portrait, rather we are  seeing  the opulence and vibrancy of history and blood love, and the felt natural manifestations of one’s heritage. Collage has a foot rooted in reality, and the other in the imagined, a speculative metaphor utilized by O’Toole to explore the experienced dichotomy of the schizophrenic mind.

Collage collects the discarded, the scrap, the small, the insignificant, the forgotten, and blends, mixes, layers, and weaves known materials into new imagined spaces. These are spaces built on the remnants of our troubled worlds that envision more resilient and respectful potential futures. The five artists show how picking through the troubles and complexities of our current realities can result in portraying progressive and magical future perspectives, creating imperfect possibilities through a hopeful craft.

‘THIS IS GREAT MATERIAL’ was exhibited from July 17-August 21, 2020 at Gallery Gachet . Gallery Gachet is located in the DTES neighbourhood of Vancouver, British Columbia. http://gachet.org/

 

Self-Love Tribute: In Conversation with Elia Fushi Bekene

Elia Fushi Bekene. What Home Means series. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Interview by Adi Berardini

Currently based in Berlin, Elia Fushi Bekene is an African/French Queer-Feminist artist. Using a range of visual and audio approaches, their projects— including a podcast and a newsletter— are combined under ‘Self Love Tribute.’ Through their practice, Elia focuses on the strength that lies behind vulnerability and the power of radical self-care to counter the forces designed to oppress individuals based on race, gender, class, and power.

Bekene’s work explores the intersectionality of LGBTQ2IA+ communities, intimacy and vulnerability between women of colour, and how home relates to identity. Bekene is artistically driven by people and the psychological complexities of everyday interactions—reaffirming that emotions are not something to hide away but embrace and work through. Their work ranges from portraiture and video, to audio exploring topics such as decolonization, dating, and spirituality. Currently, in the midst of the intersecting crises of a global pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, Bekene explains that although everyone has a role in the revolution, it’s time to center the Black women and femmes who have been doing the work for years.

I was wondering if you could speak more about how the Self Love Tribute Project started and the project itself?

It started in a funny way—I believe in signs or at least in my story. I moved to Berlin from France three and a half years ago now. I was working as a business analyst in a company and I hated my job at the time. I was also in a relationship that was not really serving me. Even in terms of relationships, and patterns and emotions, I felt like I was always doing circles. I was worried since I was meeting the same patterns over and over and I thought that it must be me since I am the common denominator in all of this.

When I went home after my job, I would take classes [about] feelings since I realize I don’t come from a family where feelings were explained, we just didn’t sit down at the table and talk about things like that. So, I thought that I would learn what those feelings mean, just on Google and I would Youtube what those feelings mean. Like what is jealousy, what is anger, what is hurt, all of the feelings that I felt at the moment? I would write down what would resonate for me. After a while, I [had] a book of just my thoughts. I would read it to a very close friend of mine, and he told me that I should publish it since it actually really helped [him]. I was telling a friend that I was hating my job, and she asked me, “Well what do you want to do?” And I said, “I don’t really know but I know that I want to help people.” Then she said, “Well what is it that you want to do?” And I said, “I love writing.” My first memory in my whole life was writing. I would ask my mom to write down “Maman” so that I could write, even before I knew what “M” was or “A” was, I just wanted to write.

The next day, my friend told me to publish my feelings, and it was just an email that I would send out every Monday. It would be just a newsletter, basically. I called it a Tribute to Self-Love since I realized I just didn’t love myself enough and I was on a quest to love myself more and understand myself more. I started this email sent from selflovetribute@gmail.com and it’s still the same up until now. I just asked 10 friends [if they could] be in my newsletter and they were like okay, whatever. Then I started to send a Tribute to Self-Love every Monday. It’s still going on now, I think it’s been almost two years—tomorrow I will be sending my 130th tribute to self-love—[that] I was fired on that same day. At that time, when I went out of this building, I knew it was a sign telling me that this is my new career, but more than a career, a path. It’s exactly what I’m meant to do. And of course, I am involved in a lot of things, doing photography, audio work and a podcast and everything. The essence of what I want to do is self-healing and sharing my ideas to the world and hoping it will resonate and help others with their quest to also love themselves more.

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Elia Fushi Bekene. Home is a place, from the What Home Means series. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Your work explores the concept of home, and you discuss how colonization fractures home and culture through displacement in your audio piece “Decolonizing Myself from You.” Could you speak more about the significance of home to you and your practice?

I think it’s also a thing that comes back in my practice without me noticing because it’s just so part of my identity. Like so many people, I think that when you’re a Black person living in a white society it’s something that you always come back to since you question whether you belong here—people always make you question your belonging. The whole notion of having a home is a privilege, since so many people are refused a home or have to leave their home since people try to make other people’s home, their home.

It’s always this thing that I think is very personal and very political and very global especially now, with borders and all of that stuff. It’s something that comes up in the collective conscious but also personally being Black and [through] my mixed identity. I think being mixed is feeling like I’m always in the middle. White people tell you that you’re Black, and Black people tell you that you’re white. I think being mixed race, especially being mixed with white, is almost like a weapon against anti-blackness since it’s also light-skinned people who can be centered in Black Lives Matter movements. I think reconstructing the mixed identity is important especially when dismantling anti-Blackness.

It was always something I came back to, even when I went to Ghana. I wanted to document this whole thing around the 400th anniversary of when the first African people were taken off the shores of Africa to be slaves. I went there since I knew there’d be so many things about those topics. Then I found myself having so many feelings and documenting what I feel is home. When you travel geographically, you also travel within. I found myself asking—what does having a home mean? It’s something I think about even if I don’t really want to. I think it’s also in the collective consciousness, it’s on a lot of people’s minds, where is my home, where do I feel most at home and who is my home?

I found your video ‘dating in berlin’ to be hilarious but also heartbreaking when you explain how the queer community loves to hate and divide each other. I was wondering if you could speak more about the video and your process of creating it?

I feel like the more I learn about humans I realize the more we recreate our circles of oppression. I think there’s this sociologist who described it as “close domination.” She gave the example of white women who dominate women of colour in order to have close proximity to white men. [They have] the same hurdles as other women, but at the same time, they still dominate other women because of race.

At first, I just give my tea to everything and everyone in the community around me, but then in the second part of the video, I talk about how everyone wants to recreate their circles of oppression. I think like that’s what hurts me the most, colourism in the Black community. I’m a light-skinned person here in Berlin, I see how people just don’t want to understand their light-skin fragility or their light-skin privilege. For me, it’s so hard to understand that they don’t get it, it’s just so easy for me to get that we may be Black, but we don’t live the same Blackness. We don’t live the same oppressions based on our gender, how we look, if we’re able or not, if we’re older. There are so many things you can think about and I find it so disappointing when a person knows what it’s like to be discriminated against, but they cannot understand their own oppressive ways or that they have certain privileges.

If we don’t protect the ones that we should protect the most, then that’s problematic. If we don’t make sure that Black Trans women are at the center of everything we do, how can we go any further? 

For example, there’s a lot of queerphobia coming from Black people. I just think why would you do that to someone who looks like you? Why are there so many asterisks in your Black liberation? Like “Yeah, I want Black liberation but not for Trans women though.” Why? It just doesn’t make sense. I found it so fascinating but there’s so many “buts” behind liberation. In many ways in Berlin when we get together, there’s so much trauma Olympics, everyone wants to say I’m hurting the most. Of course, not Black Trans women who are actually the most oppressed in our community. It’s not a matter of you not being oppressed, it’s just a deep insecurity of being so rejected outside of this world that we’re just trying to have light when we’re together, so we create this huge amount of pain on top of pain.

Of course, I think the queer community has given me so much, not just here but everywhere. I religiously only listen to Black people or queer people because I find myself so much closer to [them] with politics and spirituality. I just find we can be so destructive when we want to make it personal and not think about the biggest purpose, which is liberation for all. A lot of us personally, we’ve been so rejected, and we didn’t get the space and time to speak. So, when this happens and the ego comes up, on an [intrapersonal], political level it’s interesting to see, but on a personal level, it just feels relentless.

My video was more like, it’s great that we’re all queer and people of colour, but we are still hurting ourselves. If we don’t protect the ones that we should protect the most, then that’s problematic. If we don’t make sure that Black Trans women are at the center of everything we do, how can we go any further? There’s so much racism, there’s so much fatphobia, or femmephobia, or anything, there’s always something. In my videos I give a “Yeah, I’m just done,” since sometimes I really just do feel like that, that humans are just trash since the society is trash. We will never get out of a situation where everyone understands that it’s not about us personally, it’s about the bigger purpose. I’ve also tried to make everything about humour since I know most of the time things are so sad that I try to make people laugh.

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Elia Fushi Bekene. Home is the Home-ies from the What Home Means series. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

The Black Lives Matter movement is currently at the forefront globally after many years of activism. What role do you think art has in social change and how does this intersect in your practice?

I think art is such a powerful practice and I believe that everyone has a role in the revolution. There are people who cannot go to the protest, physically or mentally for different reasons, but they will do something for Instagram to spread ideas, some people will make food for people who go to the protests, some people will be able to console or hold space for others emotionally, some people will heal. I think it’s so important to know what role you want to have in the revolution.

The Black Lives Matter movement is not new for us at all, so for us it’s a new wave of consciousness for other people to understand, and people in power. I am grateful for—well, it’s terrible to say this—but the horrible consequences. I’m glad that people are listening even though they don’t want to listen. People will hold them accountable for not listening.

Anything with human rights, for women, for Trans people, for Black people for anyone—I’ve learnt that compassion is not something everyone gets under capitalism, so we have to teach them. I’m worried that I get so emotionally drained from explaining things that are so obvious. I do this without me knowing, I know a lot of people tell me, “you opened my eyes to this.” It’s great, but I still try to stay selfish in all of this since I am a Black person in a white supremacist system and a queer person on top of this. Prioritizing this is such a “fuck you” to the system. I’m going to log off of social media, I’m not going to talk to people, I’m going to stop talking to my mother if she doesn’t want to understand. Social change and social justice are part of what we do because when you’re a Black and queer person everything that you do or say is political, even though I don’t even think of it as political. White, straight men have so much of the power outside that everything I do looks super horrendous or something when it’s not.

Now, I think that art has been such a powerful way to show people that actually [connects] the human experience, change is the only constant. There are people who are trying to put change and revolution down, but at the end of the day with social media, things spread so fast. People are willing to change, hopefully, and willing to learn. I think it’s beautiful to see. I think art is definitely such a privilege, I realize that when I talk to white people about racism they might have problems or things in the way to understand it, but if I do it as an art piece, they will feel more receptive to it. But now it’s so white-washed, museums are just full of white men.

I think everyone is an artist, really and truly, everyone is creative in their own way, but they just don’t put it outside in the world to judge it. Art is definitely important in the revolution. I think it’s the most comfortable way for me to participate while still having pleasure and that’s very important to me. If I just talk and have a dumbass conversation about race and I’m not having pleasure, then I’m depleting myself from my energies and not [getting] anything back.

It’s great that people are doing work with grassroots organizations, like designing posters or graphics to spread the word on Instagram. It’s so powerful, but at the same time it’s a little bit sad there’s been so many people in these organizations who have been doing the work for years and years, oftentimes Black women, and people don’t give them enough flowers while they can still smell them. At the same time, if you can help the revolution to go somewhere and to be even brighter, I’m all for it. This may be the best way.

Do you have any news to announce or projects coming up that you are working on that you’d like to discuss?

No—I think it’s great for people to see. It’s hard to be an artist in this world, especially when you’re Black and queer. I want people to see that I have nothing coming up. I was just going to apply for grants or residencies but not anymore that things are so up in the air. You’re not tied to your productivity. Of course, the financial part of it is really hard because you need money to pay your rent. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic with so many things happening so it’s really okay that I don’t have anything going on. The world has so many other things to take care of. It’s also good that we take a little time off to reflect. Let’s use 2020 as a time to stay home and reflect on the things we can do better and decolonize ourselves more.

To check out more of Elia’s work, visit their website and Instagram, @selflove_tribute.

Josiane Vlitos: Illustrating Environmental Awareness

Josiane Vlitos. Feminist Editorial Illustration, 2020. Image Courtesy of the artist.

By Juilee Raje

As we make our way through the last quarter of 2020, most of us are growing accustomed to turning our screens on around midday and intuitively scrolling through informative graphics peppered across social media. Some offer new developments and tips on how to run alongside, rather than into, the mouth of a stealthy virus which has been slithering into our communities overnight. Conversations bounce back and forth between anti-maskers and compassion fatigue. As most of the world is recovering from sheltering in place, the residue of an impulse to collect vast bits of information from various sources and then retreat deep into ourselves remains. 

In survival mode, it can feel familiar and comforting to circle certain questions while avoiding larger, or more difficult ones about our planet and violent interactions with environmental diversity—preventable measures often ignored most by people who have the power to implement them. Journalist and scientist Sonia Shah, who authored the book Pandemic in 2017, explains that rather than a reductionist approach of framing ourselves simply as victims of a foreign invasion, we should reconsider environmental and social policies—such as deforestation and a failure to resolve a persistent housing crisis among vulnerable communities—which are the real culprits behind harmless microbes developing into irreversible outbreaks. Indigenous scholar and environmental activist Melissa K. Nelson refers to the Ojibwe edgewalker and tidewalker trickster figure Nanabozho to explain the urgency of cultivating marginalized ecological biodiversity, and that our relationship to nature should be regenerative and reciprocal. Having truthful understanding of the communities and animals that thrive in our inherited environment, and the complex challenges they face at the hands of other humans, is the first step to influencing policy and strengthening inter-social well-being. 

In these times, mindful image-making is vital in allowing more people to flip to the same page faster. Illustration is an essential artistic practice that has the ability to compartmentalize issues beyond our immediate realm of understanding, especially when it comes to rapidly evolving topics. Around the beginning of summer, I interviewed North-Vancouver based Illustrator Josiane Vlitos to gain more insight on her research-based art practice and her work around intersectional environmental activism. Vlitos studied Communication Design with a focus on Illustration at Emily Carr University, and has since worked on various children’s books and freelance projects. She is an arts and design educator, as well as the author and illustrator of the picture book Bee Friend. Her endearing characters with carrot-shaped noses and their expressive journeys stem from mindful storytelling and her English roots, and her contemporary style certainly shows an experimental approach to representation.

Josiane Vlitos. Togetherness, 2020. Image Courtesy of the artist.

 Sometimes, a message can be driven further when there is a face associated with the words. A distinctive attribute of Vlitos’s work is her ability to conjure characters which feel simultaneously unfamiliar and familiar; especially in her editorial works. Though there is representation of bodies and faces that don’t often receive enough overt visibility, Vlitos finds a way to avoid reducing them to stereotypes by switching up details of attire and palettes of appearances on a spectrum of realistic skin colour shades to blues, greens, and yellows. Curiously, though they rarely show a relationship to each other or hint at an interpersonal dynamic, their individuality is affirmed when they are shown in very specific contexts of coming together as an intersectional community to spread urgent messages, as seen in Feminist Editorial Illustration (2020) or Togetherness (2020).

Seeing yourself represented in a feminist illustration around topical content can inspire more personal accountability and less political apathy. Vlitos says, “As an engaged citizen, I desperately want to contribute to meaningful social dialogue… Illustration empowers me to participate in these important conversations and allows me to engage with people who might otherwise be disengaged from the discussion.First and foremost, when I’m creating an image with a message, I spend a considerable amount of time on research—images can be powerful, so I need to be sure that my message is grounded in truth.” She explains that though her degree in communication design has equipped her with the skill to distill a few key points of research into an image, fine-tuning work is necessary as social dialogue evolves.

Josiane Vlitos. Bee Friend book page spread. 2019. Image Courtesy of the artist.

The artist borrowed from these values when she wrote, illustrated, and self-published the children’s book Bee Friend at the brink of her professional career. The story is spearheaded by a gender-neutral character named Charlie and pulls young readers’ attention to the issue of colony collapse disorder among honeybees. Vlitos shared some insight on why children’s books are a great vehicle to tackle unfamiliar topics by revealing, “As a child, because of my dyslexia, picture books were my only means of reading to myself. Decades later, I’ve never outgrown their charm, both as a reader and an illustrator.” The severity of CCD has fortunately been on the decline; according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the number of hives lost was halved between 2008 and 2013. Still, as of the last five years, beekeepers see colony loss as a concerning matter that may not be paid attention to due to a skewed stigma of honeybees and lack of public awareness around the role our globalization footprint plays in interfering with pollination.

Josiane Vlitos. Bee Friend book page spread. 2019. Image Courtesy of the artist.

Bee Friend pulls inadequate forage and poor nutrition into focus as a cause of colony collapse disorder. The “cuteness” of the artist’s style takes away the threatening reputation of a honeybee, making it seem more likeable and invoking sympathy, while chipping away at some of the stigma. Though the bee is fleshed out as a mystery and a difficult guest to entertain, its presence in the community is welcomed. The focus leans on Charlie as he engages in trial-and-error in order to learn what is causing the bee to become disempowered and ill. Through tuning into the bee’s reaction to holding a lone flower, the solution is eventually discovered; the book then shifts gears into subtly putting out a call to action to adults and children alike to plant more bee gardens if they are able to do so. While reading aloud Bee Friend to young children, Vlitos engages the bustling class by asking them what flowers and vegetables they are able to identify in a brilliantly illustrated fold-out section. Though it is natural to feel frustration over an initial lack of knowledge or understanding of biodiversity, the character of Charlie illustrates that remaining open, listening to the affected party, and showing reflexivity in his desire to help is the successful approach.

In every form—whether they are erected on the walls in our homes, spread across books and magazines, or present on social media—images undeniably take up space in influencing public perception surrounding an issue. For the visual learners, for disabled individuals, for young learners, and many others, images are more powerful than words alone in creating an emotional and rational impact. During the Black Lives Matter social movement and global pandemic, illustrators are in the position to sketch an accurate portrayal of issues outside of our windows. The good news is, these subjects are not exhaustive and accessible illustration practices make headway for many entry points into engagement. The responsibility of the viewer, however, is to recognize that the images we consume often have short lifespans, and to extend their messages and how they apply to our own practices or routines.

You can view more of Josiane Vlitos’s work on her website or her Instagram.

Profiles on Practice: Khadija Baker

By Nadia Kurd

Khadija Baker. “Birds Crossing Borders.” 2018. Photo Courtesy of Artist.

In 1987, Chicana poet and feminist Gloria Anzaldúa wrote, “a borderland is a vague and undertermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.”[1] Born in the Northern Syrian town of Amûdê‎, Montréal-based multidisciplinary artist Khadija Baker fully understands this constant state of transition as her birthplace sits uneasily between Syria and Turkey. “I always saw the border in Northern Syria in the Kurdish region where I was born as a tool to divide and stop the fluency of daily activities,” reflects Baker.[2] 

As an artist, the border, both as a metaphor and the actual division between nation-states has long informed her approach to art making. Baker reflects that she has, “developed various ways to reflect on the re-creation of what we can literally and conceptually call a map in my artwork…[in my work], the border is a developing, changing form that can reflect our connection and comfortable daily lives and can also respond to human needs.”[3]

However, Baker’s work is not only informed by her lived experiences as a Syrian Kurd, but also the current events and Kurdish oral storytelling traditions. For example, in My little voice can’t lie, (2012/2019), Baker sits motionless on a plinth, with small speakers braided into her long hair. Gallery visitors can approach Baker, take hold of a braided plat and raise the speaker to their ears. What they will hear are the recorded stories of displaced women from Kurdish, Palestinian, and Persian backgrounds. Here, Baker’s body becomes the medium for these narratives, collapsing the distance between the women’s stories, the artist and the audience.

Khadija Baker. “My little voice can’t lie.” 2009, 2012. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The multimedia installation Behind Walls (2008/2017) looks at the systematic program of renaming of Kurdish places in Northern Syria since 1962.[4] To visually acknowledge this history, Baker made 80 clay spheres that are connected by a mesh of strings suspended overhead. These strings are spun from clothing and combined with sand to create an altogether web-like formation. An audio soundtrack that accompanies the installation and audio soundtrack of recordings by Kurds living in Montreal. Fading in and out, is a projection onto the clay spheres also reveals the Arabic names—directly onto the names of Kurdish places which have been inscribed in the clay. Viewers can walk through the work and reflect on the impact of a forced map on the daily lives of stateless Kurds—ultimately, to show audiences, as they move through the installation, “the arbitrary nature of maps and history, the fragile nature of memory, and even the interconnectedness of a diaspora scattered across the globe.”[5] 

Khadija Baker. “Behind Walls.” City Hall, Karsh-Masson Gallery, 2008,2011. Photo Courtesy of the artist.

In another installation, Birds Crossing Borders (2018), Baker weaves together a complex assemblage of water filled and tube-connected Plexiglas boxes, video and live performance. One Plexiglas box is filled with tinted water, and with the connecting tubes, transports its contents to the next box, and so on. The eventual transference of colour serves as a metaphor for both migration and adaptation. Moreover, the videos that document the stories of Syrian refugees surround the linked containers, further emphasizing change and movement. In this project, Baker asks, “How will the host society own the collective memory and generate the sense of understanding? How will it grow more familiar with the newcomer?” In the installation space, the viewer is confronted with these questions, but more importantly, they are asked to examine disconnect in humanistic values that separate the refugee from the citizen.

Khadija Baker. “Coffin/Nest.” 2007, 2017. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Coffin/Nest (2007-2019) take up borders and displacement in a much more personal and material way. Using recycled clothing from friends and acquaintances, Baker weaves a circular nest around herself. Surrounding her woven fabric nest, are long, life-sized bundles of fabric, which mimic a cocoon or womb (or alternatively, body bags). As Baker weaves, she becomes fully immersed in her protective nest, and each time this work is performed, the final outcome manifests in different ways. The work examines on the difficult history of systemic mass murder and burial of people in northern Iraq (mostly ethnic Kurds, but also Shia Muslims), and how the only way to identify human remains was through articles of clothing.[6] The self-made nest also acts like a shelter – Baker enfolds herself within this history in a way to commemorate lives lost and to also recognize survivors.

An intuitive process guides much of Baker’s work, and she often relies on stories and materials to guide each project. “I work against a specific methodology,” notes Baker, “my work reflects things I have witnessed and lived.”[7] In other words, in each of her projects, Baker researches, embodies and pushes the narratives she gathers. Varied and never totally finished, her multidisciplinary performances and installation works are highly emotive and fused with a lived, collective sense of pain and mourning. Baker’s art channels and comes to terms with the current turbulent history of Kurdish displacement through performance and storytelling. By placing herself publicly at the forefront of this lived reality, Baker seeks to present and visualize not only her experiences, but also the humanity of Kurdish people.

Since completing her MFA (Fine Arts) in 2012, Baker has remained a core member of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University (Montreal). A participant in numerous international exhibitions and residencies, Baker’s work continues to articulate the story of forced displacement and struggles especially women and children who face violence around border issues in all its aspects. Her life and work straddles place, language and belonging – all borne from cruel necessity to preserve Kurdish life. The precariousness of life also echoes the poetic words of Gloria Anzaldúa when she writes:

This is her home

            this thin edge of

                        barbwire.

To see more of Khadija Baker’s artwork and upcoming projects, visit:  http://khadijabaker.com or follow her on Instagram @bakerkhadija

Nadia Kurd (she/her) is an art historian and curator based in Amiskwacîwâskahikan  (Edmonton, Alberta). Her work can be found on www.nadiakurd.com.


[1] Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (aunt lute press: San Francisco, 1978), 25.

[2] Baker, Khadija. “Imagining Borders” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2016), 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] As Human Rights Watch reports, “In 1962 the government carried out a special census in al-Hasakeh province in northeast Syria on the pretext that many non-Syrian Kurds had crossed illegally from Turkey. Kurds had to prove that they had lived in Syria since at least 1945 or lose their citizenship.” This evolved into land expropriation and a process of “Arabization” of the region. For more on this history, see: “Repression of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria,” Human Rights Watch (2009) https://www.hrw.org/report/2009/11/26/group-denial/repression-kurdish-political-and-cultural-rights-syria

[5] “Artist Spotlight: Khadija Baker’” Aesthetica Magazine https://aestheticamagazine.com/profile/khadija-baker/ (accessed 25 August 2020).

[6] Artist website, http://khadijabaker.com/index.html.

[7] Artist interview with the Author, 2020.


Contaminating states: Sophie Cundale’s The Near Room


Sophie Cundale, The Near Room, 2020 (film still). Installation view at the South London Gallery. Photo: Andy Stagg. Courtesy the artist and FVU.

South London Gallery

Aug 15- Sept 13, 2020 (Main Gallery)

By Kit Edwards

Arriving at the South London Gallery to see Sophie Cundale’s ‘The Near Room’ last week, I felt already irritated by the return to IRL art. Obviously not the seeing work in the flesh bit, but all the other stuff that comes along with the experience – the pressure to be enriched in some way, all the standing about, the feeling of being watched whilst watching (am I looking in the right way, for the right amount of time?), now delightfully combined with the fear of spreading/catching COVID. But I had truly forgotten how much I liked being out in the world looking at things, and the quiet closeness of the SLG, the dark blanket of the (well distanced) screening room, felt not dissimilar to the isolated space in which I’d been consuming art for the past five months.

Sophie Cundale’s new film ‘The Near Room’ takes its title from Muhammad Ali’s description of the nightmarish space which came to him in the depths of a fight, as described by George Plimpton in his book Shadow Box (1977):

            …a door swung half open [into a room of] neon, orange and green lights blinking, bats blowing trumpets and alligators playing trombones, snakes screaming. Weird masks and actors’ clothes hung on the wall, and if he stepped across the sill and reached for them, he  knew that he was committing himself to his own destruction.

Inspired by this vivid and strange psychic space, Cundale constructs a similar dichotomy between the life of a boxer and the manifestation of his post-knockout hallucinations. The film begins with a carousel of scenes from a life of constraint, and though we have not yet entered the ring there is something strange on this side of the psyche. The tight choreography of the training boxers gives a sense of the constructed nature of this reality as they pause and begin in perfect unison. Things become increasingly uncanny as the close images that punctuate the boxer’s life swing round again: he wakes, he weighs, he sweats. These repetitions situate the viewer in the disorientation of monotony – have we been here before? How many times has this scene replayed? Groaning audio sways us into a state of anxiety as the boxer’s fears that he may be past his prime are articulated in this impotent cycle of discipline. A sand timer bathed in red light slithers on, and the lip of his opponent begins to curl – almost imperceptibly – into a threat. This first part of the film is tight and affecting in its quickening pace, working to untack the pins of coherence.

Sophie Cundale, The Near Room, 2020 (film still). Installation view at the South London Gallery. Photo: Andy Stagg. Courtesy the artist and FVU.

The bell rings and the boxers take their places beginning their slow dance. Devotional singing starts up and as their bodies wash over each other, the boxer is knocked unconscious and we enter into the ‘near room’. We are introduced to a queen from times past, and her courtiers who are concerned about her deteriorating mental and physical state. The action that ensues takes on the conventions of melodrama and Greek tragedy: a chorus is recognizable in the two courtiers gossiping between song, the sensationalizing of lust and violence is active in nearly every scene, and there is a sense of catharsis achieved through the enactment of a fantasy so concerned with defilement.

As the boxer deprives himself in pursuit of physical greatness, so the queen of the near room disintegrates, the two strangely connected by the psychic threads of the near room. The queen is afflicted with ‘Cottard Dellusion’—a rare neurological condition in which the sufferer believes themselves or part of their body to be decaying or already dead—but she nevertheless remains the far more tangible protagonist. Brilliantly played by artist and poet Penny Goring, the queen maintains a chaotic sense of erotic potency over the other characters. Lipsticked and filthy, she cackles wildly whilst abusing and seducing her courtiers. The notion that she must be diseased and deluded to believe her body is decaying becomes less convincing as she hovers over the lifeless body of her son (once the boxer, now the prince) and a parallel between their mental states becomes apparent. The queen is aware of our fleshy precarity and so lives voraciously, whereas the boxer/prince lives in denial of his vulnerable and changing humanity and so lives in a relative un-world of discipline. She stands above him, symbolic of the threat of all he guards against.

Sophie Cundale, The Near Room, 2020 (film still). Installation view at the South London Gallery. Photo: Andy Stagg. Courtesy the artist and FVU.

This tethering of reality and the near room to the mother/child dynamic between the boxer and the queen enacts elements of Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection as outlined in her essay “From Filth to Defilement.”[1] Kristeva explains the occurrence of abjection as the process by which our perception of the world first splits in two. The first object we encounter in infancy is the mother (the model for all proceeding ‘others’) which we must ultimately ‘abject’ or cast out in order to realize ourselves as distinct. The abject is the horror that exists in the liminal space of the in-between—between self and object, our internal and external worlds. This process according to Kristeva is the impetus behind the incest taboo which veils the threat of the loss of the self across the ultimate boundary of life and death, and prevents the temptation to enter into the murky waters of liminality where one might ‘find death, along with nirvana.’[2] This process of abjection is enacted in the film through the blurring of boundaries between previously distinct realms (psychic/physical, self/other, reality/fantasy, desire/disgust) which works to expose their closeness and the inescapable reality of being as a state of flux.

Consumption and excretion are recurring features of the near room in contrast with the boxer’s abjection of all indulgence. In one playful scene, the queen’s advisor is seduced by the revelation of her filthy feet and writhes in pleasure on her lap before she pulls out a dagger and slits his throat – blood gushing in place of ejaculation. The drinking of urine features a number of times in the near room referring to uroscopy, a medieval medical practice used to assess health. The queen, cognizant of her internal rot, seems to revel in this realm of the abject.

Sophie Cundale, The Near Room, 2020 (film still). Installation view at the South London Gallery. Photo: Andy Stagg. Courtesy the artist and FVU.

One aspect of the film that I was unsure of was the use of sound. From the moment we enter the near room out-of-sync audio is layered over each scene. Initially the effect made me think of the moment between dreaming and consciousness when real but distant sounds (an alarm, the tv, a loved one’s voice) become enveloped in the dream space, bending in and out of sense. The video/audio can never quite sync and the more you strain to cohere it, the more it is lost. As it continued however, I began to recognize the repetitive nature of this layering, that the audio of the following scene was simply layered over the present one in a way that made the process transparent and wearisome. I think a more playful and varied layering of voice and sound would have worked better to disrupt a chronological narrative, aligning with the film’s concern with flux.

Still though, the visuals are consistently strong, implicating the viewer in the strange delight achieved through the corruption of opposing sensibilities. In the final scene the boxer looks on at his slippery reality, bathed in deep blue light. We can’t unsee the chaos of the near room, can’t shake the sense that this is the unreal space where movements appear nauseatingly rehearsed. The two realms, though separate, touch each other and therefore contaminate. The film constructs a space in which the precarious nature of our fleshy and psychic realities is exposed, and we are invited to slip deep into a playful world of polluted borders where the fear of destruction is not so far from the realization of pleasure.

The Near Room is commissioned and produced by Film and Video Umbrella with support from Arts Council England, South London Gallery, Bonington Gallery, Curator Space and The Gane Trust3 and is available (for free) at the South London Gallery until 13th September 2020.

The film will also be on display at Bonington Gallery, Nottingham
December 2020 – February 2021


[1] Julia Kristeva, “From Filth to Defilement” in Powers of horror: an essay on abjection, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982)

[2] Kristeva, p.64

Folklore and Fashion: In Discussion with Reilly Knowles

Reilly Knowles. “Taking, Giving Root.” Embroidered fabric collage (cotton, linen, wool, beeswax, sumac, yellow onion, black-eyed Susan, goldenrod, avocado, wood and nails). 16¼”x9”. 2019.

Interview by Adi Berardini

Using the language of feminism, folklore and religious icons, interdisciplinary artist Reilly Knowles visualizes the liberation of monsters living somewhere between life and death, male and female, human and nonhuman, and reality and fantasy – exploring the creative, liminal space between dualities. Drawing particularly from ancient Irish art and an eco-centric ethos, he constructs artworks which celebrate living entities that society attempts to tame into exploitable classifications, including the land itself. Knowles addresses how the western obsession with binaries hinders the spectrum of possibilities.

Working in a variety of media including painting, sculpture, textiles, and using natural dyeing techniques, Knowles creates art that explores how women, queer and transgender people are labelled as ‘Other.’ He envisions a radical enfolding of these bodies into an understanding of nature, with care towards women, queer people, and the environment as crucial components of working towards a healthier ecosystem. Recently, he also started a project called Swingout Sewing to document his process of hand-sewing a 1920’s wardrobe while conducting historical research, adapting the designs to meet his needs as a trans man.

Splitting his time between London and Milton, ON, Knowles is a recent graduate of Western University’s Honours Bachelor of Fine Arts program, with a Specialization in Studio Arts. He has exhibited work since 2015, showing in such venues as Artlab Gallery (London, ON), Good Sport (London, ON) and Holcim Gallery (Milton, ON). He is a recipient of the Gray Creative Arts Award in Visual Arts, the Mackie Cryderman Award for Excellence in Visual Arts, and the Kate and Robert Taylor Scholarship in Visual Arts, among others.

Reilly Knowles. “Nativity.” Wood, acrylic paint, coloured pencil, straw, sand and found figurines. 18 ¾”x16¾”x11¾”. 2019.

Your piece Nativity (2019) is a sculpture depicting a nativity scene, constructed from wood and painted, featuring straw and figurines. Can you speak more about how you use religious iconography, symbolism, and folklore in your work?

I’m really drawn to working with myths and legends. I love stories that use the fantastical to describe earthly experiences, like the cycles of life and death. I accumulate these stories over time, and they cross-pollinate in my imagination, sometimes reinforcing one another and retaining their recognizable points, while other times reassembling into personal mythologies that aren’t as easily picked out.

Stories are constantly changing, even though we might be able to trace their lineages into the far past. Biblical stories are interpreted in a wide variety of ways according to the disposition of whichever Christian culture, sect, or individual is telling them. Since these stories are meant to describe reality, the storyteller holds the immense power of ostensibly interpreting truth. For myself, even though I wasn’t raised as an active Christian, I absorbed Christian stories and their messaging around gender and bodies on a deep level. Nativity marked the beginning of an artistic exploration into stories surrounding the Virgin Mary. I wanted to see what would happen to the Nativity if Mary’s presence was centralized and liberated from a focus on her reproductive capacity. I think the result is a different kind of nativity – a birth into an exultant and independent female power.

How does your art explore the liminal gap between binaries, such as man and woman, life and death, and human and non-human? How do you find navigating this in-between space encourages you creatively?

Western society is very dualistic, but things aren’t nearly as black-and-white as we’d like to believe. For example, the male/female binary, which overwhelming favours males, collapses under a recognition of intersex individuals. The human/non-human binary, which favours humans above all other lifeforms and finds its logical conclusion in environmental destruction, becomes a mostly arbitrary distinction when we grasp the depth of our relationship with other living beings, like the trillions of bacteria that make up our bodies. These liminal gaps between binaries have immense creative potential because they’re so expansive. Embracing liminality is like getting to paint with infinite shades of grey as opposed to just that black and white.

One way I try to work with liminality is by combining supposedly opposing imagery. I like to create characters that are both male and female, plant and animal, or dead and alive. One of my favourite subjects is the mandrake plant. In legend, its root resembles a human body, and when torn from the earth, it kills its attacker with its piercing cry. The mandrake is at the fascinating intersection of fact and myth, growing and destroying, human and inhuman, and above and below. I like how it’s neither here nor there, and that’s precisely what makes it potent.

Reilly Knowles.”The Mandrake Field.” Oil on wooden panel. 36″x48″. 2019.

Your work touches on environmental themes, addressing how people attempt to classify and restrict living things including the land itself. In what ways do you address the environment and ecologies through your art?

I think my relationship with the environment is always going to be evolving, along with the ways I express that relationship in my work. I’m hesitant to make any definitive statements about what the environment signifies to me as an artist, because I know I have a long way to go in terms of fully unpacking what it means to be a white settler relating to the land in Southern Ontario. But in terms of what I’ve produced up to this point, much of my work has been about using religious imagery to frame my immediate environs as spiritual. I think that if white people put the same energy into venerating and glorifying the rivers and woodlands in our backyards as has been expended on cathedrals and illuminated gospels, then maybe we wouldn’t be experiencing environmental catastrophe.

By the land being classified and restricted, I mean that Western society teaches that humans are separate from the environment, when in reality we exist on a continuum in which we rely on and blend into one another. I’m trying to make art that collapses my body back into everything around it. One of the ways I’ve been doing this is by dyeing textiles with plants available within walking distance of my home. To be a responsible natural dyer, I have to learn what plants to use, and where and how they grow. I have to think about the seasons, the weather conditions, and the sensitivity of London’s ecosystems. It’s a slow process. It means I have to pay attention to and care about the land. It forces me to see first-hand that all art does have an environmental impact, one way or another.

Who are some artists that are influential to you and your practice?

Definitely Kiki Smith and Shary Boyle. Seeing [that] there were artists engaging with fairy tales, and that they were being taken seriously, really encouraged me early on to explore folklore without feeling apologetic. Also, Allyson Mitchell. A lot of her work operates at this intersection of crafting and queer culture, which is where I like to be.

I noticed that you have started a new project called Swingout Sewing. Can you explain more about the project and what your process has been like? In what ways do you think constructing vintage clothing can help navigate gender and queerness?

Swingout Sewing is a project where I’m documenting my process of hand-sewing a 1920’s wardrobe using historical research, while also adapting designs to meet my needs as a trans man. Right now, I’m working on the undergarment layer, which has involved reading period sewing manuals to figure out historically appropriate sewing techniques, as well as adapting original patterns. After each stage of construction, I post an article about it to the project’s website, swingoutsewing.ca.

I never knew I could be a man when I was a kid because I didn’t know trans people existed. I didn’t see them in the media, and I certainly didn’t see them in history class. When you don’t exist in the cultural imaginary of the past, it’s hard to imagine yourself in the present or the future. So, for me, making historical garments specifically designed for my trans body is about imagining those invisibilized folks of the past we might today consider transmasculine, and connecting to them in a very real, material way through the act of getting dressed. It’s also about honouring my trans body and attending to its needs, about adornment over camouflage. So much advice given to trans men beginning their transitions is about disappearing into mainstream masculine tastes. I want to follow my passion for vintage despite the threat of a conspicuous masculinity, while also rejecting the problematic attitudes (namely racism, misogyny, ableism and queerphobia) associated with the past.

In addition, there’s something delightfully queer about transitioning to live in the world as a man but poring over antique seamstress manuals and perfecting my buttonholes. This act of learning vintage menswear construction actually involves learning a lot about historical femmes and feminized labour.

Reilly Knowles. “Swingout Sewing, documentation.”2020.

Do you have any advice for someone who is first learning how to sew or work with textiles?

My first piece of advice is that just about every community is going to be chock full of elders who’d love to pass down their skills. Online tutorials can be very helpful, but they can’t compare to one-on-one teaching from an experienced textile artist. If you’re in a larger city, then you may even have some textile guilds at your disposal. Granted, your mileage in these spaces may vary if you’re visibly queer, but it’s worth considering.

Secondly, you shouldn’t listen to the people who are definitely going to tell you textile art isn’t art. Textiles are devalued because they’ve tended to be made by women. If people look down on your practice, it’s not a reflection of your practice’s worth, but rather of their unexamined sexism.

You can find more of Reilly Knowles’ work on his website, Instagram, and at Swingout Sewing.

Captivated by Film: A Conversation with Eliza Brownlie

The Darcy’s - Itchy Blood - 2013
Eliza Brownlie. The Darcy’s, Itchy Blood. film still. 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Harper Wellman

Eliza Brownlie is a Canadian writer-director who’s ethereal visual style creates atmospheres that beguile viewers and linger in the imagination. The quality visuals are balanced with strong storytelling, often exploring societal issues, cultural phenomena, and how they relate to the experiences of women. The combination of formal education and personal drive has led Brownlie to work with many musicians (most recently Big Gigantic), as well as companies like VICE and Dove. Through an innately collaborative practice, Brownlie has managed to establish a distinct voice for her work.

Could you please tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into filmmaking?

I started filmmaking about seven years ago. I was studying Communications at Simon Fraser University in my early 20s (I grew up in Vancouver, Canada), but found myself taking film theory and history electives every chance I could get. I think I always had this intuition that I wanted to direct… from an early age, I was obsessed with films, and I loved making art, writing, and shooting photos and videos on my parent’s camcorder. But when I was growing up, it was a few years before the women in film movement and diversity behind the lens wasn’t really a mainstream conversation, so I was limited in my awareness and ability to envision myself in the role of a director. You know, there’s that adage “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” which is painfully true. This is why visibility is so important and something that I push for. And I’m grateful that we’re finally starting to see some positive shifts happen as an effect of diversity initiatives, even though we still have a long way to go.

Anyways, in my second year of university, I decided to honour my desire to make films and pursue directing. I started out making music videos for Canadian indie labels, which gained some exposure and allowed me to develop my style as a director. I kept working on passion projects, pitching creatives, and shooting whenever I could (or whenever I could afford to). Gradually, more work within the music video, fashion film, and commercial space followed. Shortly after graduating, I decided to make the move to Los Angeles to attend film school at UCLA. During this time, I wrote and directed a short film that we funded entirely on Indiegogo, and that got into a few festivals in New York and California. I’m currently represented by Boldly– a Vancouver-based production company that does really amazing work.

Big Gigantic - Burning Love - 2020
Eliza Brownlie. Big Gigantic, Burning Love. film still. 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

What does your writing process look like? Are you able to visualize all the details while writing the first draft of a script, or do you find more ideas come to you the more you edit?

As much as I enjoy writing, I also find it to be one of the most daunting aspects of the filmmaking process. Honestly, I’ve had to deprogram a lot of perfectionism just to get words out on the page. I was actually listening to a Livestream recently with screenwriters Emily V Gordon, Jen Richards, and Naomi Ekperigin on the challenges of writing and I was practically in tears hearing that they experience the same mental gymnastics that I do… it’s hard work and it takes consistency, and even though the divine doesn’t always come through, you just have to show up at the altar every day and try.

Anyways, I think the first and most important part of the writing process is falling in love with an idea because naturally, everything will flow better if it’s an idea that absorbs you! Once I have found this, I will free write for a while and start to form the characters, the world, themes, and the story—remaining open to everything that comes through (even if I know that I’ll probably abandon certain elements later). From here, somehow, a rough foundation emerges, and I’ll start developing the narrative and mapping out the major plot points into a beat sheet, which is like a detailed outline of the screenplay. I’m also constantly collecting visual material—photography, art, and film stills—so early on during the writing process, I will put together a visual treatment or mood board. This provides a reference for inspiration for scenes and for the look and feel of the film (having graphic design skills helps tremendously). For me, it’s an important balancing act of capturing the images I see in my head, while also making sure I’m serving the story, character, emotions, and central themes.

Film is a visual medium, so when I’m writing a script, I’m always thinking cinematically—how can I show versus tell? I’ll often include camera directions in the script, which is generally frowned upon if you’re a screenwriter, but since I’m writing with myself in mind to direct, it’s helpful to dictate and remember how I want to shoot it. All that said, I often have a pretty good sense of how I want to visualize the details in the first draft, but inevitably there are always scenes that require more time and contemplation to figure them out. Sometimes you get lost, and the best thing to do is to step away for a bit and come back with fresh eyes and new ideas. I do a lot of revisions, so the script is constantly evolving as more ideas and imagery come to me.

The Invisible Ones - 2018
Eliza Brownlie. The Invisible Ones. film still. 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

While writing can be a much more individual undertaking, there is something unavoidably collaborative about directing. Throughout all your projects, your work retains a distinct, almost preternatural quality. How do you navigate all those new relationships on each project while still capturing your vision?

You’re right—directing is definitely one of the most collaborative forms of expression. Part of what I love about it is its inherently collaborative nature, and that film relies on all of these different people coming together, working towards a common goal of bringing a story to life on screen. And when the energy on set is good, and you’re in a flow and making something cool, there’s something really beautiful about that process. I live for those moments! 

I think that the key to capturing my vision and ensuring that it is carried through during all stages of production is first to communicate that vision clearly and get everyone excited about it and on the same page. It’s also so crucial that you surround yourself with a team who understands your aesthetic and point of view, and whose work you equally admire. There’s a lot of delegating with directing, so you have to trust people to be able to do their jobs. I try to make sure that everyone on set feels respected and appreciated, and provide a safe space for them to voice their perspectives and ideas. I’m grateful to get to work with many lovely, talented, and creative people who bring so much to the table with their unique expertise. My work has only benefited from these collaborations.

But of course, since you are leading the team as a director, you also have to be careful that you’re not compromising the version of the film you set out to shoot. With the self-confidence I’ve gained with more experience, I’ve learned to speak up when I’m not feeling something, or I don’t agree. Even if it seems super minor, you’re going to regret not having said something when you’re in the editing room and it’s too late to reshoot. That is the worst!

How do you feel like filmmaking will change, given the current social conditions?

We are going through a lot right now as a global community, we’re at the crux of several intersecting crises… it’s hard to say where things are headed right now. But in terms of discrimination, this has been a systemic issue in the film industry since its inception and change is long overdue. In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of companies talking about equality and representation, partly because we are in an era in which “woke” culture has been capitalized on—but the statistics are still pretty bleak. The industry’s actions and implementation of initiatives don’t always match their words. We’ve reached a tipping point and people are sick of symbolism and tokenism in entertainment (rightfully so), underrepresented creators want transparency and action. Now it’s like, “how do you plan to commit to diversifying at all levels? We want accountability. We want to see the numbers, then we can have a conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion.” True, systemic change will take time; it’s not going to happen overnight. I’m hopeful that this is the start of some transformation. But time will tell. 

The Darcy’s - Itchy Blood - 2013
Eliza Brownlie. The Darcy’s, Itchy Blood. film still. 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Can you tell us about one writer who has influenced your work, and also one director who has influenced your work stylistically?

At the risk of sounding all too predictable, I’ve definitely been influenced quite a bit by Joan Didion and Sofia Coppola—two women who have developed their own distinct and singular sensibility and whose work has occasionally been dismissed as superficial (sexism!) I admire both for their poetic ability to juxtapose style and subject matter, astutely dissecting culture and tackling weighty existential themes through spare, haunting prose, or, in Coppola’s case, dreamy, hyper-feminine visuals.  

Many of us have been consuming a lot of film and television during the pandemic. What has been keeping you busy?

I just devoured Michaela Coel’s new HBO series, I May Destroy You. God, she is brilliant. 

I have also been enjoying High Fidelity and Normal People, both are coincidentally adaptations of novels that I have been meaning to read… I have a long list. 

Final question, what project of yours should people check out first?

One of my most memorable projects was getting to work with the wonderful Millicent Simmonds (star of A Quiet Place 1 & 2, Wonderstruck), on the music video for FRENSHIP’s song, Wanted A Name. Set against a lush natural landscape, the video aims to bring awareness to how the deaf community experiences and interprets music, with Millicent delivering the most incredible performance of the song in American Sign Language.

You can find more of Eliza Brownlie’s work on her website or Instagram.

Male Fear: Encounters with Roxanne Jackson’s Ceramic Monsters

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Bark At The Moon. (View 1). Ceramic, glaze, underglaze decals, luster, hoop earrings; 19 x 16 x 10 inches. 2016.

By Chloe Hyman

A monster is a personified manifestation of societal fears. Some anxieties are primal, like a fear of death, while others are social, directed towards those whose distinctive appearance or behavior renders them dangerous. Sexual difference has long necessitated the creation of maternal monsters to legitimize a fear of the feminine. This anxiety motivates the policing of women’s bodies, in an effort to enforce a heterosexual gender binary. By transforming women and femmes into demons, patriarchy equates femininity with evil and masculinity with good; monstrous women keep men in power.

That is, until they don’t. Banshees and harpies that subvert monstrosity’s patriarchal parameters dispute the validity of gendered social divisions, threatening male dominance.

Such creatures abound in the oeuvre of Roxanne Jackson, a ceramicist who dissects the politics of monstrosity. In works like Bark at the Moon (2016) and Third Eye Fuck (2019), she oscillates between wish fulfillment and stereotype subversion, crafting figures that embody and disrupt tropes of feminine monstrousness.

The latter’s sexual title accentuates the comingling of fear and desire in monster tales. Film scholars Barbara Creed, Jeffrey Cohen, and Barry Keith Grant discuss how cinematic monsters attract and repulse men, fulfilling their submissive fantasies with the threat of the monstrous woman, and their dreams of domination when said threat is vanquished.[1]

This essay considers how the relationship between straight men and female monsters informs the same audience’s interpretation of Jackson’s work. Analyzing the interaction between an artwork and a particular viewer necessitates an understanding of art as a cultural product; although the artist’s intentions contribute to its significance, its many meanings are also a product of symbolic codes, dominant social ideology, and the viewer’s perspective.[2] By modeling the straight male’s encounter with subversive female monsters, this essay explores what Jackson’s work signifies to a powerful group—the descendants of the architects who constructed the myth of female monstrosity.

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Bark At The Moon. (View 2). Ceramic, glaze, underglaze decals, luster, hoop earrings; 19 x 16 x 10 inches. 2016.

The Archaic Mother

In The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, psychoanalyst Barbara Creed describes a number of monstrous cinematic archetypes. Her analysis provides a blueprint for an examination of fear, desire, and monstrosity in the bodies of monsters coded female. Creed’s description of the archetypal archaic mother elucidates how two of Jackson’s ceramic sculptures are implicitly gendered. Furthermore, it suggests that male viewers will respond to Bark at the Moon and Third Eye Fuck with repulsion, arousal, and fear.

The myth of the archaic mother centers parthenogenetic procreation—that is, female reproduction without a phallus. Mythological figures like Gaia (Greek), Coatlicue (Aztec), and the Spider Woman (Navajo) illustrate the historical lineage of self-reproducing mothers.[3] They appear today in cinema in the guise of monsters, like the titular figure in Alien whose eggs require neither phallus nor fertilization, but a human host. According to Creed, the archaic mother presents as “the voracious maw, the mysterious black hole that signifies female genitalia which threatens… to incorporate everything in its path.”[4]

At the center of Bark at the Moon sits such a mouth, its gaping lips emptying into nothingness. Ridged white tubes, caked in muck, wriggle around it like maggots. With their rounded ends, these tubes could be fallopian or phallic, an ambiguity that, paired with the mother’s vaginal maw, points to her self-reproduction. She also threatens to consume the viewer, who cannot escape her slimy hole. If the archaic mother faces him, he risks obliteration, but if she turns towards the gallery wall, then he must be inside her—an embryo-corpse.

The divine symbols ornamenting Third Eye Fuck invoke the archaic mother in a different context. Unblinking eyes adorn the deity’s cheekbones while cobalt spiders traverse her neck—a powerful allusion to her ancestor, the Spider Woman. Furthermore, the creature’s pearly-white face is bifurcated, revealing a fleshy, womb-like cave. The womb’s proximity to the creature’s mouth literalizes the narrative of the devouring mother. As Creed explains, “The archaic mother threatens to cannibalize, to take back, the life forms to which she once gave birth.”[5] Third Eye Fuck embodies this threat, collapsing the metaphor of the vaginal mouth into a single fleshy cavern, capable of consumption and ejection.

Due to their self-reproduction, Jackson’s creatures render the phallus superfluous. And because they layer vaginal and oral imagery, they threaten to consume man whole. According to Creed, this evisceration of man’s social status and bodily integrity appeals to “a masochistic desire for death, pleasure, and oblivion” that is common amongst men.[6] And yet, it is also repulsive and terrifying, which Creed attributes to abjection.

 

Abjection

The theory of abjection was introduced by the psychoanalyst and semiotician Julia Kristeva, who defined it as “that which evades borders and rules which define identity and maintain order.”[7] When matter passes the skin as it does during birth, people are reminded of their mortality and animal nature. Subsequently, the transgressive matter—in this case, blood and placenta—becomes abject, along with the tools that facilitated the transgression: the reproductive system. Men are more disturbed by abjection because they are less accustomed to the sight of blood than those with ovaries. Thus bleeding, birthing bodies become beacons of man’s inescapable death and epicenters of abjection.[8]

Historically, men in power have expressed their fear of abjection by demonizing the female body. Christian art abounds with womb-like depictions of hell and uteruses adorned with devil horns. Leviticus, for example, associates birthing bodies with decaying corpses, linking femaleness and death.[9] As Creed notes in her analysis of Alien, this trend continues in horror cinema. She describes crewmen entering a spaceship through a vaginal doorway and walking down narrow corridors (echoing fallopian tubes) to an egg-filled, womb-chamber.[10] This intra-uterine imagery roots the alien’s monstrosity in the abject female body.

A mass of tubes, holes, and flesh, Bark at the Moon and Third Eye Fuck exude abjection. Furthermore, each contains a passage through which organic matter can be imbibed or ejected. These vaginal/oral mouths repulse and terrify because they are abject reminders of human mortality.

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Roxanne Jackson. Third Eye Fuck (View 3) Media: Ceramic, glaze, luster; 18 x 15 x 10 inches. 2019.

Subversion

While Bark at the Moon and Third Eye Fuck embody the archaic mother, they also subvert stereotypes of female monstrousness. Both are decadently glazed, their uterine linings shimmering like dew or diamonds rather than blood. Bark at the Moon is awash in lime, turquoise, and salmon pink, which almost obscures a floral motif that emerges from its crevices. This blue pattern, an allusion to Delft porcelain, features prominently on the pale skin of the deity that is Third Eye Fuck.

The ornamentation of monstrous bodies with bright, shimmering colors and courtly motifs subverts the binary between beauty and monstrosity.

The ornamentation of monstrous bodies with bright, shimmering colors and courtly motifs subverts the binary between beauty and monstrosity. Jackson’s sculptures occupy a liminal space between the two, where gender and morality also blur; Bark at the Moon is ambiguously gendered and Third Eye Fuck depicts a monster with an eye for Dutch design. The more viewers peer at each, the less frightening, and more intriguing, they become. To understand why this subversion elicits discomfort for male viewers, the theory of abjection proves useful.

Aesthetic codes, which are tied to gender and moral binaries, function like skin. Just as the epidermal layer protects man from blood and, therefore, the recognition of his mortality, social divisions protect members of the dominant group—men—from the knowledge that their superiority is unearned.

Media maintains these divisions by reinforcing the myth of female immorality. It also demonizes the defiance of heterosexual gender roles by giving female monsters traditionally masculine traits, like promiscuity or voracious appetite. Cinema is ripe with archaic mothers and other monsters who elicit fear in a controlled environment, for the sexual satisfaction of men whose dominance is never really at stake. It is expected that the banshee will be vanquished before the screen darkens, reasserting heterosexual gender roles.

But the fate of Jackson’s sculptures is not predestined. By deconstructing the notion that beauty equates goodness and gender clarity, while ugliness signifies immorality and gender ambiguity, the artist produces creatures of ambiguous moral character. Luminescent and bright, Bark at the Moon and Third Eye Fuck engage in an active dialogue with the male viewer. They threaten him, they tantalize him, and ultimately, they will dethrone him.

Editor’s Note: The beginning paragraph has been edited to use more inclusive language,  recognizing and clarifying that these cinematic tropes affect both cis and trans women and femmes.

This feature is an excerpt from our first print issue. If you’d like to grab a copy you can visit our online shop.

Notes

[1] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster Theory: Reading Culture (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 7-17; Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), pp. 42.

[2] Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art (New York: New York University Press, 1984)

[3] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, 1993 (London and New York: Routledge, repr. 2007), pp. 104-112; Shohini Chaudhuri, Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 95; American Museum of Natural History, ‘The Spider Woman,’ AMNH

< https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/totems-to-turquoise/native-american-cosmology/the-spider-woman > [accessed 20 November 2019];

[4] Creed (1993), p. 116.

[5] Ibid. p. 83.

[6] Creed (1993), p. 170; 470-471.

[7] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (Seuil: Paris, 1980) quoted in Creed (1993), p. 51.

[8] Creed (1993), pp. 190-193.

[9] Kristeva quoted in Creed (1993), p. 184; Margaret R. Miles, Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious meaning in the Christian West (Beacon Press: Boston, 1989), quoted in Creed, p. 170; Creed, p. 170.

[10] Creed (1993), pp. 83-85.

LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS by Rebecca Sweets

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Rebecca Sweets. LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS installation shot, Charles Street Video. 2020. Photo by Roya Delsol. Images courtesy of the artist.

LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS

Charles Street Video

Organized by Margin of Eras Gallery 

February 14th – March 14th, 2020

By Adele Lukusa

LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS is both a figurative and literal invitation to Rebecca Sweets’ bedroom. Tucked into Margin of Eras Gallery’s Charles Street Video space, on the second floor of Toronto Media Arts Centre (TMAC), the immersive installation explores being a neurodivergent, mad, and disabled individual pursuing higher education. Swept in red lighting and underscored by soft indie tunes, the disheveled and realistic bedroom evokes the artist’s presence: a desk with stacks of discarded clothes, notebooks, and food; a bed and screen-printed pillow to rest your head on; and two towers of stacked empty prescription bottles, with an LED sign with the word “take your time” sitting between them. Slide the headset over your ears, and get transported to an all-nighter with Sweets typing rapidly with coughs. A short film documents her executive dysfunction. And if you’re lucky, you could converse with Sweets herself (or scribble messages in her guestbook if you miss her).

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Rebecca Sweets. LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS installation shot, Charles Street Video. 2020. Photo by Roya Delsol. Images courtesy of the artist.

If madness is messy, then Sweets embraces it passionately and unabashedly. At its heart, LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS is an ode to Sweets’ relationship — or rather, her break-up with post-secondary education. Through the interactive nature of the work and the accompanying public programming, LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS also demonstrates how vulnerable art can foster community dialogue.

Incorporating disability and madness into her art had not come to full fruition until Sweets signed up for Ryerson’s Cripping the Arts in Canada and A History of Madness.

Both classes are rooted in disability justice and encourage students to think critically about the ways in which society has created and enforced “normality” in relation to disability and madness, while examining the overlap between those two communities.

According to Eliza Chandler, former artistic director at Tangled Arts + Disability and disability studies professor at Ryerson, the term “mad” refers to individuals with a history of mental health diagnoses or experience with the psychiatric system, which may include institutional stays, prescribed medication use, therapy, and other medical intervention. Members of the mad community may identify as consumers, survivors, and current or ex-patients of the psychiatric system. Historically considered a slur, “mad” is currently being reclaimed by those classed as mentally ill or neurodivergent. It can encapsulate all who experience oppression due to sanism.

“[Mad] a small, monosyllabic three-letter word, but it really did afford me the kind of freedom to stop pretending,” said K Zimmer, a poet and English Literature student at the University of Toronto. 

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Rebecca Sweets. LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS installation shot, Charles Street Video. 2020. Photo by Roya Delsol. Image courtesy of the artist.

“Language is power,” said Sweets. By learning about terms like neurodivergent and mad, as well as hearing students speak about madness and disability, Sweets could better articulate her own experiences, specifically her executive dysfunction that had only been exacerbated in university.

“It’s like your capacity is always on cooldown mode,” said Sweets of executive dysfunction. “You’re smashing buttons, trying to get yourself to do things but your body-mind says ‘We can’t do that yet. We’re still recharging’.”

Within a university setting, Sweets routinely had to pull all-nighters to finish essays when professors refused accommodation.

“No matter how much you accommodate me, or think you’re leveling the playing fields, it will never be as if I am on the same level as of a neurotypical student,” Sweets says, “I’m still going to have to sacrifice my health or in some way, shape, or form.”

Art was a way to motivate herself to create beyond the academy. “At least if a situation is incredibly shitty, I can make and mold something out of this, she said. “Creating artwork for myself as a form of agency is really important for me.”

For folks like Sweets, stepping into mad-positive spaces is essential. Classes in disability studies were the first time she felt “welcomed and encouraged.” Instead of handing in an essay for her final Cripping the Arts assignment, Sweets asked if she could submit a proposal for a showcase idea. Chandler gave her the okay, and so LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS came to be.

At the front of the room, Sweets is on the mic asking about the ways madness manifests itself in art. By Sweets side are fellow mad student-poets Zimmer and Twoey Gray, as well as Max Ferguson, her mentor. Though set up as a panel discussion for the public, the conversation shared by these four artists is filled with uncommon honesty and vulnerability.

There’s no sugarcoating their experiences of sanism, of the ways pursuing post-secondary studies has impacted their desire to succeed academically at the expense of themselves. Their stories are being told, not as a heartfelt tale to make others feel better about themselves, but to embrace the good with the bad that comes with being mad.

Gray described the panel as a very “affirming” space, a sentiment echoed by Zimmer.

“There were times [when I thought], ‘Oh, I’m royally fucking up’,” they said, “[But] I could trust that I was going to be accepted in that space.”

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Rebecca Sweets. LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS installation shot, Charles Street Video. 2020. Photo by Roya Delsol. Images courtesy of the artist.

The comfort, acceptance, and vulnerability present within that discussion is an extension of Sweets and the artwork itself. Take, for example, the wall of actual diary entries, email exchanges, and therapy notes speaking to her madness, a kind of vulnerability described by Gray as “hypersharing.” 

“In some ways, the more naked and exposed and vulnerable I am, the more I’m giving [to the audience] and the more affirming my artwork happens to be,” said Sweets.

It’s what makes Sweets’ artistry so brave, according to Ferguson. “She’s incredibly good at balancing being approachable and being brave,” he said, “And she inspires others to be brave.”

When doing outreach for this show, both in-person and online, Sweets ensures she can be at the gallery. In order to accommodate for COVID-19 measures, she also narrated an online virtual tour of the exhibit through Facebook Live.

“Listening to and seeing the comments is inspiring,” Ferguson said, “It’s inspiring to see [Sweets’ art] inspire other people.”

That inherent reciprocity is what distinguishes LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS and all of Sweets’ work.

“That has helped me feel like [sharing] my vulnerabilities are worth it and I feel less like an open scar,” she said. “It doesn’t burn. It’s good.”