Perhaps it is due to a lack of historical perspective, but it seems that feminism, whose stages used to be defined in waves, does not know where to surf, where it is headed. Sucked into the neoliberal maelstrom, the girl power is advertised on the catwalks of Christian Dior, and young women dive like redeemed narcissus into a digital fluidity. The media sells us that the crux of the matter is to debate whether the natural beauty of body hair and stretch marks is more feminine than the beauty that shines after a makeup session.
Angela McRobbie is right to point out how gender ideology slips surreptitiously into popular culture in such a way that teenagers feel liberated and confident in their sexuality, and think of feminism as a burden of the past, and a struggle that has been overcome, to the point where they repeat pre-feminist behaviour patterns, such as the anxiousness around finding an ideal love and get married.
South African artist Frances Goodman explores the paradoxes of our post-feminist era, often starting from an environment near to her, by becoming an accomplice with women from a wide range of social backgrounds: white, black, young and old, lesbians, prostitutes…
1. This aspect, the diversity of voices, takes many shapes in your work: failed dreams as sounds in the background (The Dream), biting phrases written with beads on the backseats of cars (Car seats) … Sometimes, the polyphony is suggested through photographies (Vajazzling series). Hidden desires emerge, but it is difficult to distinguish real desires from what is commonly desired in a society, is it not?
A lot of my work is about the fragility of desire and the insecurity that comes with it, how they can make us feel vulnerable and exposed. But desire is a complex emotion and is often appropriated and manipulated by systems of power such as the media and big corporate structures to influence our choices and drives. We are so bogged down by these fed desires that it is hard to hear our own veritable voice through the constantly shifting empirical views we have.
I think this idea links to a question I find myself asking more and more – what is it to be a woman? It is such a loaded word, so weighed down by history, religion, tradition, patriarchy, culture and dogma that I think it is impossible to understand what a woman is, stripped bare of all these projected concepts. It’s hard to shake the weight of the shackles, even after they’ve been removed.
2. Offstage, your current exhibition, involves a cathartic and intimate experience similar to Vajazzling, I think. In both cases, women do for themselves something that they usually do for someone else or by pure exhibitionism: dancing or acting in underwear in front of the bathroom mirror, having their private parts, adorned with crystals, photographed while remaining anonymous …
I believe all the work I make comes together to form a dialogue, so there are often recurring themes and overlapping ideas in the projects. I enjoy working with diverse groups of women and like there to be a performative and collaborative aspect to the work. I hope the works initiate conversations and encourage women to embrace their femininity and womanhood, whatever that may be for them.
3. The subject is always already subjected, writes Hito Steyerl, so why do we still believe that women’s emancipation relies on refusing to be an object?
I think that a lot of women believe that one of the paths to emancipation is through embracing and owning their bodies, (one of the things previously used to against them) and that includes seizing the idea of becoming or ’being’ the object to state their case, to assert their voices, to actually be seen. Whether this is a consistently effective tactic is debatable, but it does make me think of this analogy: one turns to the body when there is nothing left to colonise. What other weapon do many women have other than their own bodies?
4. Is the subjectivity deliquescent, as your paintings made of sequins suggest, where the image sparkles, decomposing and reconstructing itself before our eyes?
I believe subjectivity has become more fluid, just as opinion has become more vacuous, with the advent of social media and fake news. Our sense of self is more difficult to formulate and hold onto as we are constantly being told who and what we are and should be, and criticised for who and what we’re not.
I do see the sequins and their mirage effect as symbolic of the shifting sense of self a woman experiences, that the image a woman presents to the world is just that, a facade, not a true reflection of all the complex emotions, desires and insecurities that swirl beneath the surface.
5. The word offstage places us symbolically in an interstitial zone, a private space but preceding the stage. If on the one hand, you show that coquetry in solitude can be liberating, on the other, it seems that we cannot escape the voyeur gaze, even if it is our own internalized gaze, almost becoming fetishes of ourselves.
Once again I come back to social media and how people (and women, as that is what my work is about) are thinking about their image in a very different way to how they used. The notion of privacy has become very murky; for instance: even if you send an image to someone privately it does not mean it will remain private. Public and private spaces are blurring and so too are ideas around what we do and who we are in private versus who we are in the public realm.
We have even become voyeurs of ourselves, we are always looking, taking pictures, framing, reframing. The image we post on Instagram which we purport to be true, is nothing more than a fabrication, a constructed and curated vignette of what we want people to see. So the question of liberation, whether it be private or public, is very complicated. Maybe that moment of accepting and loving yourself in spite of yourself is liberation enough? Maybe there is no longer such a thing as liberation as we will never be free of the omnipotent gaze?
6. When the symbolic framework that sustains our reality breaks down, the “real” emerges (what Lacan defined as the most inscrutable of our fears and of our libido). Could we say that the “false” (cosmetic extensions, false nails …) serves you in revealing the “real”? Hundreds of nails giving form to disturbing creatures (related to the succubi, melusines, carnivorous plants …) that embody a feared femininity, mythified by the masculine psyche.
I have always been interested in how fine the line between desirability and the grotesque is, and more specifically, how the moment a woman claims her sexuality and articulates it, whether it be through her words or actions, she crosses this invisible line and becomes monstrous and dangerous to many (take hip-hop star Nicki Minaj for example.) I like to think I use these fake materials (false eyelashes, nails, makeup) that we use as adornments, masks and armour in an elucidative way, as you said to reveal the real. I want people to question the discomfort they feel when looking at the abject made alluring, to try to embrace this monstrous femininity we are taught to fear. Because we are taught to fear it out of the knowledge that it powerful and uncontrollable. I often tell people that what I am investigating is the uncontrollable feminine.
7. In fact, the idea of The Other, and fears associated with it, can be felt in several of your works, not only the masculine vision of the woman as a strange creature, but also the one that is forged in the feminine imaginary about masculinity, or between social groups … How do you think that the complex social situation in your country has influenced your vision of latent violence in human relationships?
I think that South Africans have a violent and traumatised psyche because of our fraught past and our unreconciled feelings around this history. I think that this trauma and inherited violence does live in my work in an implicit way. Having said that, I have to acknowledge that I occupy a very privileged position as a white South African and do not claim to speak for others’ trauma. This is one of the reasons I don’t make work that is specifically about South African politics and conditions.
The other reason is because I believe the latent violence in human relationships is deeper and broader than this specific history. White patriarchy is intrinsically violent and dismissive of The Other, and I find this is a theme that continually informs my work, whether it be intentional and inferred.
Interviewed by Anna Adell
Frances Goodman’ solo show, Offstage
can be visited in SMAC Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
until 13th October 2018