This is part two of my conversation with Adelaide Damoah and Clémence Vazard. If you have missed it, read part one here.
I was so struck by “Sois belle et tais toi” (Be Pretty and Shut Up). Just realised it is the name of two films, a comedy by Marc Allégret (1958) and a documentary by Delphine Seyrig (1981). Through this project, you refer to a couple of big issues—the pressure faced by women to conform to beauty standards and the expectation that they be plain, for want of a better word, dumb. Unfortunately, even after so many decades of all manner of liberation movements, women continue to be celebrated more if they just had nothing to say and everything to show (social media demonstrates this well).
The vast majority of men, irrespective of cultural background, continue to be intimidated by women who are intellectually sharp, with confident opinions of their own on heavy subjects. What we are lacking I feel is a movement of men’s evolution (that can teach and encourage them to be more accommodating, generous and raise their own standards) running parallel to women’s efforts at claiming rights and freedoms. I sense a strange and disturbing silence. There’s no discourse in the media around how men need to grow and change, it’s high time. They are too quickly settling for too little; they are capable of much, much more. What do you think about this?
I have to be honest here: I focus my art and researches on women narratives. What I want is to question and empower female representation by giving women a voice. And I think I still have a lot of work to do with this subject before I start working on the male condition. Others do it very well and I think it’s great, even exciting, but it’s not my subject.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ words in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves are very enlightening on this subject: “Stories heal. They have immense power. They don’t ask us to do anything except listen to them.” It’s my mantra!
So what I want to say to men who feel lost, frustrated, intimidated is “shut up for a moment and listen, you’ll understand”. It’s not that difficult, if you want it! Many men since #metoo have taken the courage, at the risk of losing their privileges, to listen and understand what women need to express. I think this came out of them having grown up and being in tune with our changing society. It is through listening that we understand each other, and it is through this mutual understanding that we will change our society.
The portraits of women that you have put together in #monpremierharcelement show fragmentation. What does it represent? How did you conceive this project? What was the process like?
A year before the #metoo movement was born, I started collecting testimonies from French women who answered my only question: “What is your first memory of harassment?” I experienced what I was convinced of: the power of narrative in the healing process of the trauma.
The mission I gave myself was to bring out the narrative of this memory that remains engraved in us, despite (and because of) our ability to bury it deeply. I wanted to create a multimedia plastic language that would allow me to reveal this collective reality through “affective” visual and sound materials. I photographed their portraits at the end of the interviews, then fragmented them with my collage technique according to unique motifs. Each portrait presents a visual fragmentation pattern that echoes the narration of the recorded individual testimony. The visual choreography, chaotic and unstable, created by all the portraits, responds to the mechanisms of “traumatic memory”. The voices of these women, gathered in a sound device, respond and intertwine to create a unity, a common word, a powerful manifesto.
My aesthetic research focuses on the creation of a plastic semiotics that allows the emergence and diffusion of the marginalised narratives of Universal History. If it is understood today that the notion of the universality of History concerns the narrative of a male experience that led to the invisibility of women and that the content of this “universalist” History therefore deserves a rewriting, the media of its diffusion (an adequate language, which creates the common, the political by invoking the singular, the intimate) remain to be invented. #monpremierharcelement contributes to the creation of an audiovisual language to allow the necessary “passage à l’universel” of these singular narratives (a concept called “universal shift” from Geneviève Fraisse’s book La Suite de l’Histoire – Actrices, créatrices. éd. du Seuil, 2019).
#MeToo has emboldened many women to come forward and share their stories of harassment and exploitation. Thanks to social media, they don’t have to struggle with unnecessary gatekeepers. But the movement has also had a massive negative consequence. Men, particularly in the workplace, have become more hesitant than ever about approaching women. Even the good ones are fearful of being unjustly accused, and this might be affecting women, making them lose opportunities of professional advancement. How, in your view, do you think the tension and discomfort between the sexes in our age could be mitigated?
Like I mentioned in the question above. I’d say to men: “Shut up for a moment and listen, you’ll understand.”
One of your current projects is “Women in Museums”. Tell us more about that…
It is an ongoing and a long-term project, through which I am super lucky to meet many wonderful women. It also allows me to stay creative even when I’m away from my studio.
You are also working on something called “Through the Looking Glass”…
Through the looking glass is a participative visual artworks series I started this January 2020 in Mexico. During my 2 months residency in Mexico City, I asked Mexico women to tell me something about themselves that they have to keep quiet about in order to be accepted. I received strong, powerful, bold, heartbreaking, infuriating, overwhelming statements that I wrote down in lipstick on mirror paper. By using those materials, I transform tools of oppression into tools of expression: my canvas is the mirror and my painting is the lipstick.
The sentences are written backwards, giving the impression that they were written by somebody on the other side of the mirror, stretched out on a canvas. The typography I used is inspired by the Futura Bold Italic, affectionate to the feminist artist Barbara Kruger, which was then recuperated by the hip-hop clothing brand Supreme and inspired Instagram for the texts of the stories. As with the materials I used for this series, I wanted to use familiar visual references to create an intimacy between the artwork and the viewer.
In addition to being a visual artist, you are a “sound” artist. Why did you decide to include audio in your work and are there any musicians, composers or singers that inspire you?
It’s kind of funny that you talk about that because my community is actually made up of a lot more musicians than visual artists. When I was a student, I used to go to concerts a lot more than exhibitions. Now it’s more balanced! But I like being in contact with different artistic languages.
I consider myself as an interdisciplinary artist. In my creative process, I first choose the message I want to deliver and then I look for the most relevant medium to deliver it. From performance to video, through photography, collage and sound, I appropriate each plastic language to transform intimate narratives into visual manifestos. It is probably because I come from the lineage of feminist artists. Feminist art reintroduces the articulation of socially relevant issues within a fine art idiom, while adopting new mediums to experience greater freedom and develop singular artistic languages. So I don’t want to be limited by one artistic medium when I can experience the great freedom to explore them all!
Adelaide and Clémence…
Who are your favourite female artists—and why?
Adelaide: My top favourite is Frida Kahlo. Aside from the obvious reasons, discovering Frida at age 14 at school, showed me what it meant to authentically express your whole being through art and she taught me that art was healing. I continued to use art as a means of self expression, healing and comfort from that point on because of her. Next, Ana Mendieta. I love her because of her authentic use of her own body to meditate on important themes such as feminism, death and belonging and identity. All of her themes are important to me and her work resonates with me on a visceral level.
Clémence: There are so many actually, I can’t name only one! I am very impressed by the Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi, who expressed through her paintings her experiences of rape and harassment by reappropriating biblical scenes. The Cuban artist Ana Mendieta inspires me a lot in her exploration of the notion of the body as political field. Recently we have been getting to know more and more about the work of Claude Cahun, on the borderline of photography, collage and performance, who takes the body as a material for reflection on representations to propose multiple, non-fixed identities…I am constantly inspired by women and queer artists who address political issues by providing new artistic languages.
Barbara Kruger’s collages gathering female portraits and statement texts (“Your body is a battleground”, for example) are a strong reference in my use of words in my artwork, which I’ve revisited through sound art. Obviously, Judy Chicago’s installation “The Dinner Party” is a constant reference for my research on female history, the power of the narratives and the construction of a “HerStory”.
What do you like about each other’s art? What would you say you have learnt from each other?
Adelaide: Clémence has a unique way of utilising her body in her performance work. It is intense and really gets you to think. I love the participatory element in “Sois belle et tais toi” and this performance taught me some interesting statistics about how much time women spend on beautifying themselves. It got me to think about the amount of time I myself spend in front of the mirror. We collaborated once on the “My First Harassment” installation and performance. That was a reassuring project for me—because in the midst of the “me too” movement, I felt I was standing side by side with my sister in arms contributing something significant to this important movement. I love the variety of Clémence’s work and the intensity with which she approaches difficult subjects—always producing something beautiful and at the same time serious and thought provoking.
Clémence: What I love and admire most about Adelaide’s art is the intensity of the emotion it expresses. Whether you are watching one of her performances or facing one of her canvases, you feel a very intense mix of power and generosity. It is very rare to be able to gather such different emotions in the same artwork, and Adelaide has this immense talent. With Adelaide as an art fellow, I learnt a lot about believing in yourself, your choices and the message you want to share. Adelaide is the living proof that determination can get you where you want to go. With Adelaide as a friend, I learnt a lot about sorority in the art world. And this is so precious.
What advice or suggestions would you like to offer to aspiring or emerging female artists?
Adelaide: Do everything you can with what you have. Keep believing, working and building. Seek advice from those who are in the same field who you admire. Find someone to mentor you. You would be surprised by how many people are willing to lend a helping hand if you ask in a way that shows you respect them and their time. Never expect anything from anyone. No one owes you anything. You owe it to yourself to be the best version of yourself possible and to do the work to get there. Try not to piss anyone off. People have surprisingly long memories.
Clémence: Well, it will sound like it’s been said over and over but the most important to me is to believe in your art. Believe in yourself, in what you want to say, how you want to express it through your art. But saying that, it also means another advice: Choose your art community according to their acceptance of you as you are. That is something I have learnt since I have been represented by MTArt Agency. I always had the impression that I was a little apart from the art world, that I didn’t belong there because I didn’t come from that world.
I felt a strong competitiveness, a denial of the existence of women artists, a disregard for artworks that require engagement. In short, the exact opposite of what inspires me, drives me, fulfills me! Then I met Marine Tanguy who founded her artist agency which has represented me since then. Beyond the incredible support that MTArt Agency provides me, I have also met artists who are kind to each other, very talented and hard-working, who create works that have a social or environmental impact. I found my family! Then that family grew, and other families were born. But the important thing is that now I know that I belong in this art world, where I feel confident and supported.
Find Adelaide Damoah (adelaidedamoahart.com) and Clémence Vazard (clemencevazard.com) on their websites.