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Essays / November 24, 2020

The Feminine, the Grotesque and the Reclaimed

Writing Prize recipient Louis Fermor discusses the unmaking of the feminine form
Installation view of Kasie Campbell and Ginette Lund’s “Matrilineal Threads,” 2019. Courtesy The New Gallery, Mohkinstsis (Calgary). Installation view of Kasie Campbell and Ginette Lund’s “Matrilineal Threads,” 2019. Courtesy The New Gallery, Mohkinstsis (Calgary).
Installation view of Kasie Campbell and Ginette Lund’s “Matrilineal Threads,” 2019. Courtesy The New Gallery, Mohkinstsis (Calgary). Installation view of Kasie Campbell and Ginette Lund’s “Matrilineal Threads,” 2019. Courtesy The New Gallery, Mohkinstsis (Calgary).

There’s an assumption that our cis descriptors for bodies are our baseline, that they are the most widely understandable, neutral and accessible. Feminist fibre artwork is where I can sometimes find this assumption in a visual format, specifically within the genre of the feminine, like receiving an invitation for an exhibition opening with a photo of a rosy, overstuffed figurative work, and terms like female body, domesticity and womanhood will inevitably follow in the artist statement or exhibition text. I usually cringe and expect the worst.

The grotesque, in a nutshell, is a dramatic distortion of something to the point of repulsion. Our repulsion, caused by this intentional, explicit distortion and its bringing forth of the “unsaid,” highlights the boundaries, restrictions and standards we have for that given thing. In the case of the feminine grotesque, the distortion is bringing forth the unsaid and impossible criteria we have in place for women, bodies designated as female and feminine expression. But this dynamic often abuts another explicit mode of reclamation: cis-female artists’ frequently exclusive attempts to transform the perceived ugliness of the vagina and womanhood through their unambiguous and abundant visual portrayal, such as in the vaginal-centric textile (and non-textile) work of second-wave feminist icon Judy Chicago, or the now notoriously exclusive 2016 Pink Pussyhat project.

As a trans AFAB person, I repeatedly contend with what cis artists see as a mutilated or distorted gendered body.

I’m often at odds with feminine grotesque artworks because the artists who create them frequently don’t comprehend the subjectivity of their understanding of what constitutes a grotesque or abject body. As a trans AFAB (assigned female at birth) person, I repeatedly contend with what cis artists see as a mutilated or distorted gendered body. Though this observable manipulation of body form is considered grotesque by some, it often actually reminds me of my own gender euphoria and the surgical empowerment some of my queer friends have gone through.

Subverting customary depictions of female forms by presenting them, reevaluated, under a feminist gaze and through seemingly grotesque and exaggerated forms isn’t exactly a new strategy in fibre and textile arts. There are numerous artists, both past and present, who have worked with the feminine abject through needlework, fibre and beading for their sculptures and performances (Lee Bul, Sarah Lucas, Senga Nengudi, Louise Bourgeois, Shirin Fakhim and Yayoi Kusama are just a few). The works from the genre that don’t fall into the narrow-sighted tropes of cis feminism—those that are impactful and still successful under a queer critique—are the ones that leapfrog over the subject of the cis form to another subject altogether, be it sexuality, violence, body dysphoria or gendered oppression. Their artists recognize that while the cis-female body is a site for many of these violences, it isn’t the only site of them. These works don’t rely on a universal understanding of femininity to emphasize the impact of these oppressions.

In November 2019, Amiskwaciy Waskahigan (Edmonton) artists Kasie Campbell and Ginette Lund’s exhibition “Matrilineal Threads” opened at The New Gallery in Mohkinstsis (Calgary). Campbell’s sculptures were amorphous yet undoubtedly bodily with their pinky-brown-flesh-coloured fabric and stuffed nylon tights—a feminist fibre-art signature—which bulged out from the sculpture’s gaps and seams. Hung along one of the longer walls of the gallery were several knitted and crocheted sweaters Campbell made in collaboration with her mother, Ginette Lund. The handmade aspect of the sweaters implied traditional motherly care, but each had a message, either knitted into its weave or stitched on its label, that presented the less-spoken feelings of motherhood: “Too many mouths to feed,” “if only you knew,” “many sleepless nights.” The sweaters’ messages provided nuance to the psychological ties between mothers and daughters: simultaneous to the warmth of a generous parent and a sense of belonging within a family line is also a feeling of familial alienation. While they may share the experience of womanhood and family, a mother’s and daughter’s experiences of their own bodies and labour is individualized.

With other messages such as “loop us / loo pus / lew pus” and “my regret is not asking my mom how to make her peanut stitch,” Campbell references Lund’s passing following her 35-year battle with lupus. Lund collaborated with Campbell to create the crocheted works of “Matrilineal Threads” before her passing in May 2018. Exhibited in a gallery next to these sweaters, the odd and deformed bodily sculptures weren’t a generalized description of the experience of womanhood but rather additional supports for the narrative of Campbell’s own personal navigation of grief and its effect on the body.

A doll by Chason Yeboah. Photo: Facebook. A doll by Chason Yeboah. Photo: Facebook.

Chason Yeboah is a crochet artist based in Tkaronto (Toronto) and is a self-described modern doll maker. She focuses on marginalized human forms and self-love, nudity and safe-space creation. I first saw Yeboah’s work in Daniel Sterlin-Altman’s stop-motion music video Reaching the Sky (2018), set to composer Thom Gill’s arrangement of Rita MacNeil’s song “We’ll Reach the Sky Tonight” and recorded by Queer Songbook Orchestra. The video shows an enchanting story of queer support and love: three queer dolls, crocheted by Yeboah, drive down a highway alongside each other in their cars until they are separated by a fork. Each doll goes on an individual journey of queer discovery to self-love and realization. The video ends with the dolls united once again and all rising naked into the sky, shaking away the wool of the white clouds and floating into a starry night.

According to Sterlin-Altman, the video “works to break some of the clichés of LGBTQ narratives, a lot of which are depressing and focus on the anxiety of being different.” Yeboah’s dolls were a perfect match for illustrating this self-love, compassion and connection. “You exist, and just because societal standards tell you—literally tell you—that you’re not important enough to represent, just know that there are a lot of people out here like you,” Yeboah explains in an interview about her practice. Her dolls portray the vast range of bodies that divert from cultural ideals, without any insinuation that such bodies are grotesque because of their difference. Many of her dolls share features with the bodies found in feminine grotesque works: scars, fat, missing arms and legs, or pubic hair. Yet Yeboah’s dolls emphasize that these are the features of real, living people and not horrific fantasies. She says dolls allow her to reflect on the “actual things that happened in our lives that need to be represented and acknowledged.” Yeboah emphasizes that the dolls are meant for creating space for queer Black bodies like her own. She also diversifies her representations and celebrates the nuances of bodies that range from cis to trans and nonbinary: “I create these things so people can not only understand my journey, but start a narrative on their own journey.”

Doreen Garner is an artist based in Lenapehoking, homeland of the Lenape peoples (Brooklyn, New York). She uses the grotesque to examine the historical and contemporary societal disregard for the bodies of Black women. Her work reveals this contempt by extracting the audience’s overfamiliarity with the visual grotesque in the provisional gallery setting and comparing it to the very real horrors of historical medical experiments performed on Black bodies. For Purge, performed at Pioneer Works in 2017, Garner recreated the vesicovaginal-fistula repair operation that the white “father of gyaecology,” American J. Marions Sims, performed on a 17-year-old enslaved Black woman named Anarcha more than 30 times and without anesthesia from 1845 to 1849. Garner and several Black female collaborators performed the gruesome surgery on a silicon cast of Sims’s body.

Doreen Garner, from Doreen Garner, from "Purge," 2017. Performance at Pioneer Works. Photo: Facebook.

Garner uses fabric and beads, among other materials such as silicon, glass, synthetic hair, petroleum jelly and rubber, to create bodily sculptures whose dismembered, torn and sutured appearances link repulsion and fascination. For Garner, “It’s not about creating a gruesome work. It’s about creating a work that has subtle nuances where you don’t really completely know how to feel.” The most disturbing part of Garner’s sculptures and performances is that, unlike other feminine grotesque works, the mutilation of these bodily forms recalls a historical fact. Unlike many cis white female artists, Garner doesn’t have to look to generalizations, theories or societal inferences of contempt for bodies that look like hers—she can draw examples directly from history.

Garner, Yeboah, Campbell and Lund are not making claims for a feminine or even cis-female identity. They’re not attempting to provide some catch-all statement or nostrum for all women, femininity or AFAB bodies. The roots of their works are their lived relationships, histories, traumas and experiences. This acknowledgement of personal difference is what enables their artworks to exist beyond a flat cis-feminist discourse, because they don’t rely on the audience’s mutual conclusion that the anthropomorphic figures are representative of a universal feminine experience. Instead, they emphasize that each individual’s experience of their body is a story that needs to be told.

The Western feminist movement, from first-wave onwards, has been rightly criticized for its exclusionary definitions of womanhood—including its arbitrary attachment of biological form to feminine expression—and its related injustices. I feel that the feminine grotesque has been similarly misattributed. At times, the genre’s artists forget that what might be a reclamation of ugliness for one person is violence to another, or that what may seem to be images of exaggeratedly grotesque bodies for one person is in fact the reality of the lived experiences of others.

Louis Fermor

Louis Fermor (they/them) is an artist and writer of English-Scottish descent residing in Mohkinstsis (Calgary), on Treaty 7 Territory. Their writing has been published in Momus and Luma Quarterly. In 2018 they received the M:ST and Luma Quarterly Critical Writing Prize and in 2019 they were the runner-up for the Canadian Art Writing Prize. Fermor is the founding writer and publisher for Studio.