The second wave of feminism undoubtedly penetrated the patriarchal discourse in cultural and historical terms and empowered a large number of women to redefine themselves regardless of the socially desirable cannons. The times changed and in a digital era we are witnessing the emergence of the fourth wave of feminism based on intersectionality, advocating greater visibility of marginalized groups in politics and business, questioning assault and harassment, and proposing the freedom of individual choices over own bodies.
A number of women artists who are not necessarily part of the movement, are exploring same or similar subjects and so are continuing the struggle by recalling the famous feminist maxim personal is political. A really good example of such an approach can be found in the artistic practice of a British artist Sarah Maple.
This mid-generation artist came to prominence for her performative works based on the articulation of her gender, ethnicity and religious background. Namely, Maple was raised as a Muslim in a family of mixed cultural origin. By fusing references from popular culture with racial and religious stereotypes, the artist created powerful and rather witty works aimed to challenge the contemporary notions of gender, identity, and even class.
Currently, at Untitled Space in New York, Maple is having a solo exhibition titled Thoughts and Prayers curated by Indira Cesarine (on display until 9 February 2019). This is the first presentation of her work in the States, and it features a number of new and earlier works expressed through various media spanning from performance to painting to video. This exhibition summarizes Maple’s interest in politics, and all the layers it encompasses such as lack of freedom, violence, as well as the ironies of pop culture. The artist often uses self-portraiture and does a guerrilla-style performance in order to expose her message.
In an exclusive interview for Widewalls, Sarah Maple was kind to share her beliefs in art, and politics.
Widewalls: I would like to ask how you perceive contemporary feminism. My impression is that it is a matter of reason and that each person regardless of gender, class or ethnicity should stand behind those ideas.
Sarah Maple: My ‘feminist awakening’ was at art school. I often talk about how frustrated I was during that time, it really felt that the women artists were not taken as seriously as the men - like our ideas were deemed silly or trivial (to be honest, I still have that problem). For a long time, I also held this unconscious bias. I started to realize that I would be taken less seriously as an artist because of my gender and I got really angry about that. I made my first real piece that I cared about which had text that read ‘I wish I had a penis because then I’d fuck you, then steal your job’. I took it into my next crit at art school and everyone was really annoyed about it - apart from my male tutor! But even at this time this time I absolutely 100% denied being a feminist, I had this idea about feminism and that wasn’t going to be me - whilst at the same time making very feminist statements. It took a while for me to actually realize it and embrace it. This is why I make work about feminism that is accessible, I want to change the visual narrative for women, I want it to appeal to as many people as possible, men included! I get that it’s hard for people to give up their privilege and I poke fun at that. That’s why I make these images such as ‘The Opposite To A Feminist Is An Arsehole’ because I’m asking you to question what feminism is – which to me is basically gender equality. And if you don’t agree with that, then you’re, quite frankly, an arsehole!
Widewalls: Do you personally consider your critically charged works liberated of the constraints of labeling?
SM: Personally I will touch on any issue and work in any media to convey an idea. But as an artist trying to function in the art world, it’s almost impossible not to be labeled! Especially with social media. It feels like people want something easy, they want to put your work and you as an artist in a perfect grid of squares to communicate your ideas.
Widewalls: I find your practice very well balanced; it easily communicates with the wider audience due to an increasing number of pop references. Do you find that such an approach raises questions or declines them? Or is a certain ambiguity your actual aim?
SM: It’s actually a mixture, some it is blatantly obvious what I mean and others I am leaving open to make your own decision. The only problem is sometimes I am being ironic (like my ‘Send Them Back’ teacup) and that can be taken in the wrong way! Like someone said to me after seeing that ‘yeah I totally agree, send them all back!’. I always want people to ask questions and be intrigued. It’s like I’m using it as a tool if persuasion!
Widewalls: Dragging up is one of your main features. Such a strategy was and still is present in the works of feminist artists (such as Cindy Sherman or Martha Wilson). It seems you are using it not so much to deliver a different character, but rather to disintegrate or to reconstruct your own identity. Would you agree?
SM: Absolutely, the only ‘character’ is a version of myself as an artist, if that makes sense. I use myself as a tool to convey a message, much of the time the themes are deeply personal - but I always use humor. In much of my early work, I focused on my identity as a mixed-race Muslim woman in Britain and the conflict that can arise with that. I juxtaposed imagery of a traditional Islamic woman with British pop culture references. Some people may find these insulting but this is actually my lived experience and many other Muslims living in western cultures.
Widewalls: Your projects are considered controversial; those reactions are alarming not because people do not understand contemporary art but because they exemplify the horridness of the socio-political landscape on a global scale. It seems that with Thoughts and Prayers you are trying to put all of those misogynist and racist standpoints in sync with false promises given by (right-wing) politicians. In regards to that I believe you perceive art as an emancipatory tool, so could you emphasize a bit on that?
SM: When I made this piece it was a result of real pure frustration. Politics is absolutely ridiculous at the moment and xenophobia is taking over everything. The gun debate sparked this work but it is more of a wider comment on false statements by politicians all over the place. It really feels like people are more obsessed with power. Anyway yes for me I find it very hard to articulate myself but I have a lot to say. For me, this is an outlet and I am inviting others to join me!
Widewalls: At the end of this brief, yet exciting interview I have to ask you about your further plans and if you have in mind any possible horizon of the feminist struggle in the future..?
SM: I have 3 shows coming up which are focusing largely on Brexit I’m afraid haha! But I have another project coming up in autumn which will be revealed soon!
Featured image: Sarah Maple - Anti Rape Cloak. All images are courtesy of the artist.