Female Agency, Decolonisation and Suffering: A Talk with Adelaide Damoah and Clémence Vazard (Part I)

This blog runs in association with eLucidAction.

Last year, while interacting with London-based French art entrepreneur Marine Tanguy—founder of MTArt Agency—I discovered rising stars and performance artists Adelaide Damoah (London) and Clémence Vazard (Paris), both of whom are actively involved in female issues.

Adelaide studied Applied Biology at Kingston University (and worked in the pharmaceutical industry before turning to art) and Clémence graduated with a Master’s in Arts and Culture Studies from the Sorbonne. I invited both of them for a combined interview. With Adelaide, I discuss female passivity/agency in visual culture, her British-Ghanaian identity, what she understands by decolonisation, her experience with endometriosis. With Clémence, I discuss the importance of women’s stories, #metoo and why men who feel lost, intimidated or frustrated in the process ought to just keep quiet for a bit, listen and understand.

Both talk about history, feminism, the need for multiple narratives, and the use of one’s body in art.

Adelaide Damoah

Adelaide and Clémence…

Thank you both for this opportunity! Congratulations for all that you are achieving! I have very quickly become a fan of your work and I invited the two of you for this together because I feel it is important for women to form sisterhoods, create a community and a space of empathy and support wherein they can discuss the things that mean the most to them openly. A good starting point is this—you both deal with women’s issues and are very bold and original. Your bodies are part of the work that you produce. What made you take this active, participatory approach? 

Adelaide: First, thank you for your kind words. My mentor, the filmmaker Simon Frederick started me thinking along these lines years ago. At a time when I was making figurative work in an attempt to tell stories of female empowerment and emancipation, he told me to put myself at the centre of the work in order to express myself authentically. At the time, I did not fully understand what he meant. Later, in 2015/16, my friend Rachel Ara, an artist whose work I admire, in an unofficial critique session of some of my figurative work said that she did not feel I was effectively expressing myself with the artistic techniques I was using. She felt that there must be some other way for me to authentically be me and say what I needed to say. This was difficult to hear at first, but it forced a much needed reevaluation of my practice at the time. So I started to research and experiment. This process led me to find a new, more authentic means of expression. One which allowed me to express what I feel is my true voice. Using my body feels natural, real and necessary.

Clémence Vazard

Clémence: Thank you for your interest in our art practices and for this opportunity to answer a crossed interview! It is of course very important in our approach for both Adelaide and me to build and a supporting community of women in the arts. And I am so glad we can discuss it together here!

I’ve always created from lived experience. I draw inspiration from my own experience and from the experiences of the women I give voice to. So my works are largely participatory in their creative process. The performative work, for its part, is a very particular medium. It allows me to extend this participatory approach into engagement with the public.

I started to work on performance with my project ‘Sois Belle et Tais-Toi’, which denounces the injunction to beauty standards and invites women to express their singularities. The idea of working on this subject through performance came to me quite naturally because I wanted to create a strong intimacy between myself and the audience. My intention was to create a climate of mutual trust, sisterhood and support. During the performance I physically touch some people in the audience, they become the participants, we end up forming a group. It’s very powerful and each person comes out transformed from this artistic and human experience, myself included!

What are your views on the feminism (in the most general sense) and the way it has unfolded? In which areas of life should women assert “sameness” with men and in which areas “difference” from them? (For eg, I’ve been reading/hearing that the modern academic and professional worlds follow a timeline and structure that is built for the male body and mind. They essentially DO NOT take into account female needs—like menstruation and the biological clock—so if women just claim “equality” with men, it might not actually always be in their favour. I’m wondering what are your thoughts on this important issue…)

Adelaide: I think it is an interesting discussion. First, we have to think about all of the ways that feminist discourse intersects with race, class and sex and there are many. This is a complicated conversation, too complicated to get into properly here.

I think it is pretty obvious that for biological reasons men and women are not the same (please excuse the very binary nature of what I am saying). For example, I have endometriosis. A condition which only affects cis females because of our biology. It is not possible for this condition to affect a cis gendered male in the same way as it affects me (although in very rare instances men are affected but in very different ways). For this reason, were I to be in a traditional workplace, I would need my employer to make certain allowances for me in order for me to be able to do my job effectively.

Adelaide during performance

Regarding the biological clock—this is a very real thing for cis gendered females. For example, my friend Wendy Elia—an amazing artist—was telling me that when she was studying art in the 80s, her professor told her entire class that it was a fact that some of them would go on to have successful careers (read the men) and that the women would more than likely go on to have children and, therefore, no career. Basically, you can either have a career or have children. You might not have a teacher today making such a bold statement, but this is still a reality for a lot of women. Cis men can have children at any age and cis women have a limited window in which to have children. As an artist, if you choose to have children, unless you have a very supportive partner or are very well off, life is going to be very tough and you may have to sacrifice your work for your children. It is not the same for most men. I know male artists who have children and they are able to travel the world making work on long residencies, while their partner or mother of their children is at home looking after the child/children. It is much more difficult and complicated for a multitude of reasons directly related to gender for women artists to do this. Yet many still do. I made a conscious decision not to have children because of this and a multitude of other complex reasons.

Clémence during performance

I think equality and “sameness” are two different things. Clearly, we are not the same. We can only have change if we understand each other’s differences and similarities. If we have understanding and empathy for each other. If we know what we have in common and what differences we need to be aware of so that we can make allowances for each other’s needs. For example, as a cis man, there may be something that you are doing that impacts my life in a negative way. But if we are insisting that we are the same, and I stay in victim mode and am silenced by patriarchal/capitalist norms, how will you ever know that you are hurting me? And that all that is required to ease my pain is for you to be aware and to understand? What I am fighting for as a feminist is to to raise up all women. To move away from any idea of victimhood. To empower all genders (and all sexes) to be in control of their present circumstances and their own future. This has to be done with education and empathy by all genders and sexes. Cis men have to play their part too.

Clémence: I think the essence of feminism lies in the idea that gender does not define the individual, and that every woman (like every man) is a singular being. And of course, the women’s stories have been erased from the history we’re taught. What I strive for through my art is the promotion of multiple, singular and unstable histories. I want to make visible, through the intervention of an artistic medium, the forgotten, truncated, erased stories of History. So to answer your question, I think we all need to assert “sameness” and “differences” with each others in every area of life. And we can do that by reclaiming our own narratives, sharing our singular stories. I understand that academia and some professional worlds feel compelled to put individuals into boxes, concepts, create labels…to satisfy their jobs. But I have a strong belief that the society we are building will be able to explore and adopt other practices.

 

This is Me. The Inconsistency of the Self by Adelaide Damoah

Adelaide…

You consider yourself “a living paintbrush”. I was tremendously intrigued by your performance “This is Me. The Inconsistency of the Self”, wherein you paint with your entire body upon a surface. By this work you subvert Yves Klein’s “Anthropemetries”, in which he used the female body as an instrument of paint, but turned women into passive objects who could only act under direction. In your response, you claim back agency. Why did Klein’s work have such a profound effect on you and prompted you to come up with your own version?

First, I was struck by the beauty of the work that Klein produced. I fell in love with Ultramarine blue a long time ago and his use of the women as a living paint brush both intrigued and disturbed me. I read everything I could to try to find out his motivation and could not find much. It was the feminist critique which suggested he had created a “passive female body ripe for objectification by the male gaze” that peaked my interest and got me thinking about a feminist response. The only way for me to respond would be to use my own body and to think about how to create a performance that removed the possibility of turning me into a sexual object. This meant that I had to think about how I moved and to avoid rubbing myself with blue paint in front of the audience, like his models did. A male audience member who is a friend of a friend of mine said that he was impressed that I had somehow managed to turn what he was expecting to be a titillating performance into a work of serious art that was devoid of sexuality. I was very pleased with his analysis as this was my intention and was an important part of the conversation.

How do you bring your Ghanaian heritage to your art? Also, what does being British mean to you? How do these two identities fit together in you?  To what extent do you experience conflict and where do you see the hope of harmony?

I bring my Ghanaian heritage to my work in a multitude of ways, both consciously and unconsciously. I believe any work of art is a reflection of the artist. A kind of self portrait. Whatever the artist is intending to say, a part of them is naturally embedded in the work. I consciously use images of family members going back to the mid 1800s in what was then the British Gold Coast. I sometimes use the languages of my parents in the work. This is a meditation both on my heritage and on the history of British colonisation. I would not be here were it not for that history. At the core of my work is the concept of Sankofa—this is an ancient Akan word which is usually accompanied by an Adinkra symbol which translates to, “It is not wrong to go back and pick up that which you have forgotten.” Or, it is important to understand your history so that you do not repeat the same mistakes in the present/future. This means that all of my work is some kind of historical inquiry which reaches into British, Ghanaian and general African history. So far, I have not experienced any conflict with my identity as regard to being both British and Ghanaian. I am what I am.

 

Into the Mind of the Coloniser by Adelaide Damoah

 

“Into the Mind of the Coloniser” was born out of your interest in decolonisation. This is a difficult and complicated issue. I refer to the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1938-) in this regard (I really like his work!). What do you understand by decolonisation personally and what could the process entail? How could it engage one’s psychology and physicality?

I really like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s work too! Decolonisation is a process of dismantling established colonial systems in order that the voices of “others” can be heard. Currently, we live in a society where most of our institutions are dominated by white, middle class males. As a consquence, certain narraitives are pushed as the norm. This narrative can only be changed by widespread education and active decolonisation processes in all institutions. The point of decolonisation is not to remove any one narrative, but to include the perspectives of “others” and to show more about the colonial context in which much of our cultural output has been and continues to be produced.

Britain colonised 24% of the Earth’s total land area, therefore, a lot of what we have in common, regardless of gender, class, race or sexuality, is the British Empire. It is the foundation upon which our varied identities have been built. We all seem to have collective amnesia when it comes to what the empire represented and to what its legacy is today. Whether that is people who believe everything about the Imperial era was great or people who seem to have forgotten that many of the people they see as foreigners came from previously colonised countries precisely because of that relationship with their land.

I am not just talking about being included or being legitimized by white-led institutions. I am talking about genuine discourse, knowledge and understanding, such that the work of black and minority artists is not just looked at and spoken about in terms of their difference or identity. I am talking about a wide-ranging, nuanced investigation of and representation of all of the complexities of the stories and work of non-white artists in the same way as is the norm for their white peers. I believe that this can only genuinely be done if things are radically changed from the inside through a thorough process of decolonisation and widespread education. According to some recent research by NatCen and Runnymeade Trust, education about the British Empire simply does not exist currently.

In terms of the engaging one’s psychology and physicality, I think it is pretty clear that racism and racial stereotypes are a very real issue in this country, for many people. Too many people, both adults and children simply have no understanding of the complexities of belonging and migration and how those things have been and continue to be influenced by the legacy of the British Empire. If we all had a deeper understanding of these realities and consequently, more empathy for people who are different, it would go some way to eliminating some of the very real problems we face today. From a psychological standpoint, I think it is vital to the mental health of young people to have an understanding of where they come from and who they are. Representation matters and if children (and adults) do not see themselves represented in their own history, it can lead to damaging psychological effects in the long term.

If it comes it affects your relatives (Ɛba a, ɛka oni) by Adelaide Damoah

 

You’ve been open and vocal about your experience with endometriosis. 176 million people struggle with it and yet it remains under-researched and underfunded. I learnt about it a few years ago while reading about the Indian-American model and TV host Padma Lakshmi. You were diagnosed with endometriosis back in 2000 and the pain prevented you from continuing your career in the pharmaceutical industry. One must not romanticise real and extreme suffering but we all know that adversity has its role to play in the creative process. If there’s one thing that the condition has brought to your art, what would it be?

The condition brought me to art in the first place. But on a fundamental level, I think an understanding of what it means to suffer is important to my work. That understanding means that I can reach into those experiences and really, truly embody what suffering means—especially when it comes to performance art. This understanding means that I have been known to bring audience members to tears because of their ability to connect with what I am saying.

My First Harassment by Adelaide Damoah

 

“My First Harassment” is an incredibly powerful performance. What reactions did it elicit from the audience?

Thank you. It was a visceral experience for a lot of people. A woman had to leave the audience because it triggered memories of her own sexual harassment. Another lady was in tears. It was a deeply emotional and triggering performance for me too as I had to recall my own troubling experiences in order to embody that kind of suffering in the performance.

How do you see your work evolving in the future? What else would you like to try?

I am using more text and photography now. I think the performances may become more participatory with time. I am interested in film and will be collaborating with a filmmaker on a project. I am also interested in sculpture.

Read part two of this interview here.

The Mess of the West by Adelaide Damoah