Portraits of a houselife | 2007
To think of memory in terms of representation is to think of it from the percievers point of view. From the makers point of view, it is not the case that something is retrieved in order to be represented, rather something is given to be remembered.
Newman, M., 1994, p273
When feminism doesn't have all the answers, ignore the rules, bend the boundaries and trust your gut.
The notion of personal identity, and expressing it visually is a constant theme for me. During my Bachelor of Arts degree at Camberwell College of Art I was trying to find a way to place my experiences, and create art within the realm of western feminism. In 2006 I made a solo show at the Sir John Cheshire Gallery in Jersey (GB), called "After de Beauvoir: Stage, Expectation and Time". I photographed myself performing tasks according to a 'Plan of work for a small servantless house' that I had found in a magazine from the 1930s, echoing a self portraiture practice already familiar in contemporary feminist art history. The title and themes of the show were influenced by reading Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex; while the imagery I made was heavily influenced by Gaston Bachelards The Poetics of Space (a book I still refer to today!).
Making this project made me realise that my romantic experiences did not fit with modern western feminism - I had been in a monogamous relationship since I was 15; we got engaged when I was 19; we married and had our first child when I was 24. To put this into a social context, this was the time of Ladette culture, and the Spice Girls. Women weren't supposed to follow this path anymore - if anything it was looked down upon! In the UK at this time, women were turning traditional roles on their head - 'the ladette was mouthy, up for a laugh, took her clothes off and could out-do any male companion in the drinking stakes' (Donovan, L., 2017). As a young woman, I rolled with this change just like the rest of my girlfriends; we partied, were loud and gave off an impression of not giving two hoots about what others thought. My relationship was equally liberal and modern, my partner and I had always followed our separate passions, we repeatedly choose opportunity over convenience and safety, and we were financially independent from each other. I was in a long-term relationship with someone I loved and was dedicated to maintaining that. I couldn't see how choosing to maintain a relationship while following my own path and interests went against female equality.
Back in 2005, I couldn't imagine what my future as a wife and mother was going to look like. My generation was far more independant, liberal and financially independant than any other that came before us. What happens when you have so much sway over the road your life takes, but you still want to marry your boyfriend and have kids? At the time, I was of the opinion that as useful as western feminist ideas theories were for emancipation and equality, they also had very stringent rules that couldnt account for the nuances of personal experience. I knew that from a Māori, Ngāti Porou standpoint, these issues around feminism were null and void - a long-standing tradition of female chieftainship in my tribe meant that women were regarded as equal to men in the community; Ngāti Porou women had agency and independance, and I was raised with this attitude*. Back then, I hadn't gained the knowledge and ability to argue this point within western constructs so I put it to the back of my notebook and carried on working within western feminism.
Presenting I just want to be... for my degree show was a gamble - it was sentimental, nostalgic and called out as anti-feminist by some students and tutors. But the artwork represented my relationship at that time - my partner and I had lived apart from each other for four years while we both studied in separate continents, and we were heading into another 18 months apart - I was signed up start my Masters in New Zealand, and he was working on projects in Jersey. I just want to be... was a love letter to our relationship. We had found a way to be independent people who remained together because we continued to chose each other. But it felt like our future together was still a long way off.
Nostalgia and sentimentiality are generally pejoratively regarded - here I'm thinking of how memories for example can be dissmissed as 'sentimental nonsense' or 'mere nostalgia'. I actually think these concepts have emotive power, especially within the visual arts. 'Nostalgia is made possible through the ability to imagine alternative possibilities, if not the way things are now, then the way they might have been, or could be' (Fritzman, 1994. pp170-171). I am an artist, guilty of making work that is nostalgic for a past I have never seen. But actually in doing so, I'm figuring out the future that is yet to come (Probyn, 1996, p118).
Formally and stylistically, these works were the beginning of my art practice as it is today. I'm still interested in self portraiture (in its widest sense), I use biography and personal experience as starting points for my work; there is a performance element to my work, where it is important that I direct myself, I suppose I use performance as a mirror in this way. Finally, I'm still working with lens based media, and remain interested in installation as a platform for a gesamtkunstwork - to make complete sensory experiences (KAI x RYCHÈL THÉRIN).
* 'Mana Wahine: Ngati Porou rangatiratanga [chieftainship] is also unique in the way we recognise mana wahine [the strenght of women; also Māori feminist discourse], where female leaders in Ngati Porou have equal mana to their male counterparts in the role of chief and leader. Many of our senior lines of descent bear female names, and the majority of our marae are named after women. From Ruataupare to Hinematioro and Mihikotukutuku, we have a strong tradition of women’s leadership that defies anthropological assumptions.' https://ngatiporou.com/nati-story/our-korero/rangatira-leadership - accessed 21.02.2020
Donovan, L., 2017. The Rise and Fall of the Ladette: How women taking their clothes off and getting shitfaced were celebrated and shunned in the space of just a few years. Vice Magazine. https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/ypkp9m/the-rise-of-fall-of-the-ladette - accessed 21.02.2020
Fritzman, J.M., 1994. The Future of Nostalgia and the Time of the Sublime. CLIO 23. As cited in https://www.academia.edu/3676780/Strategic_Sentimentality_Nostalgia_and_the_Work_of_Eleanor_Antin - sccessed 21.02.2020
Probyn, E., 1996. Outside Belongings. New York, USA: Routledge.
Weems, C.M., 2005, as cited at http://womeninphotography.org/Events-Exhibits/DistinguishedPhotog/CarrieMaeWeems_2005/Weems.html accessed 22.02.2020