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Sarah Maple's Pop Feminism

Martin R√ľnk (1/2013)

Martin Rünk converses with Anna-Stina Treumund.

 

Sarah Maple is a young British artist whose exhibition "Sarah Maple" at Tallinn City Gallery promises to be one of this year's hits. Maple was selected as one of the four New Sensations by Saatchi Gallery in 2007 after graduating from university. Her work mainly consists of photographs and paintings – it is visually accurate yet in its one-dimensionality it is problematic as feminist output. It is clear that Maple follows in the footsteps of the 1990s British movement Young British Art, with its provocative methods of communicating with the media and creating a public image for the artists. It is a legacy that all young British artists of the current generation have to relate to one way or another, and so, in one of her works, Maple is wearing a T-shirt depicting a shark, sitting and holding a sign which says "I'm an edgy contemporary artist". The shark is an obvious reference to Damien Hirst's famous shark preserved in formaldehyde and the sign a reference to Gillian Wearing's conceptual photographs.

Entrepreneur Anne Maisvee invited Sarah Maple to Tallinn City Gallery where she presented a cross-section of her work, which in the broader sense can be classified as a pop treatment of feminism. Maple comes from a mixed-family – her mother is a Muslim and her father is a Christian – and she defines herself as a Muslim. Her first solo exhibition "This Artist Blows" in 2008 primarily dealt with dissecting her own cultural background. What happens when a liberal worldview and religious beliefs clash in a single young Muslim woman? Maple's works include a photograph of the artist dressed in a burka and smoking a cigarette, and another of a woman wearing a burka with a sign on her chest proclaiming "I love orgasms". A painting where the artist is holding a small pig was the cause of the most agitation. The pig in Islam and Judaism is an impure animal; it must not be eaten and it would be better if it was not even touched. The painting upset visitors to the exhibition with religious beliefs, and resulted in a lot of threatening e-mails and a brick being thrown through the gallery window.

Maple has said in interviews that the reaction to her exhibition was so intense that she decided to put religious themes on hold for a while. After a few years she reached a more universal feminist position. The result can be seen in the exhibition "It's a Girl!" which took place in early 2012. Before the exhibition opening Maple pasted the London tube with posters of herself as a seductress with bushy eyebrows, holding a lollypop and boasting her hairy armpit. The central work of the exhibition, which was also exhibited at Tallinn City Gallery, is called "Menstruate with Pride" (2010–2011) and is made up of three panels where Maple is standing in the middle wearing a white dress with a blood stain in her groin-area as her friends and family stand around her in complete disgust.

As always, the reviews depend on the expectations of the visitors. Maple's art is witty and fun and she also has a message, but there is no use in searching for hidden layers. I talked to Anna-Stina Treumund (AT) about the exhibition and the difficulties of finding the right angle for interpreting the show.

 

Sarah Maple "Menstruate with Pride"

Sarah Maple
Menstruate with Pride
oil/canvas
215x275 cm
2011
Courtesy of the artist

 

Martin Rünk (MR): What are your impressions of the exhibition?

AT: Before the exhibition, I visited Maple's website to see what kind of work she makes. I saw a young ambitious artist, but her work appeared to be simplistic and did not make my heart beat faster. Unfortunately, the exhibition confirmed my feelings. It is possible that I have become accustomed to feminist works that are more intensive. I got the impression that she takes advantage of her heritage and race to provoke and get attention. But then again, why not?

MR: There is something poster-like about this exhibition; it provided information which is already out there with witty stories full of punch lines. Maple has said in interviews that humour is important for her and that she wants her art to be comprehensible and accessible to the public. She popularizes the feminist position, but the question is whether it works and whether it reaches the audience.

AT: There is always a danger that the critical commentary becomes lost in the humour.

MR: The art audience has various positions and expectations. For example, you as a feminist artist perhaps expected this topic to be approached in greater depth, but if someone off the street comes to see it then will this exhibition help the feminist cause?

AT: Yes, there is plenty to explore for people who are not familiar with the subject, but I was not moved by this exhibition. We should conduct more substantive discussions. Everyone can comprehend according to their ability, but the artist should not limit opportunities for people who know more about feminism to engage. Compared to "re.act.feminism" at Tallinn Art Hall Gallery, Maple's exhibition will definitely have more visitors and they will stay there for more than a minute. The pictures are bright and resemble comic books.

MR: Feminism has long-standing traditions. The goals of the movement were mostly formulated in the 1960s and 1970s, but words alone are not enough. Those slogans must be repeated and relived. The problems have not disappeared. How long should they be repeated and in what format?

AT: Until something changes at the state level. The field is still dealing with violence against women, rape, objectifying women's bodies (especially in advertising), inflexible gender roles, wage gap, the division of tasks between men and women in raising children. Paternity leave is an excellent thing. But assigning colours to gender – I would like to prohibit all pink-coloured clothes. If kindergartens would only stop presuming that girls and boys should have separate playing areas, that girls should not shout and that their hair should be tidy and their clothes perfectly clean, while the opposite is acceptable when it comes to boys. If parents and kindergartens would abandon this type of distinction and would realise that they are all just children and would give them an equal amount of freedom to explore themselves and the world, then girls would perhaps stop aspiring to be passive princesses and there would be more opportunities for them. This also applies to boys, not to mention inter- and transsexuals.

MR: What is the current situation for feminism?

AT: Some think that everything has already been achieved and that we are in the post-feminist era. But this is not the case everywhere. Feminism is more prominent where it is needed and where it is possible. Academic feminism has progressed and diversified tremendously. Sexuality, post colonialism, third world, post humanism, old age and physical disabilities have emerged as the central themes. White middle-class women were the focus of feminism in the beginning and black women, lesbians and poor women were left out of the equation and womanhood was not considered to be multifaceted. A lot more perspectives have now been included.

MR: What qualifies as good feminist art for you? What is its purpose?

AT: Depends, whether globally or in Estonia. Estonia has to go through some stages that others have already passed. There should be more artists who concern themselves with human rights – not only finding their own identity and the personal problems of being an artist. Too much self-absorption is not good. There are only a couple of artists in Estonia who deal with this subject and that it is not enough. It is possible to use personal problems and concerns so that they create a purpose. For example, there has been very little action against or discussion of domestic violence. There have been a few occasions in the media but it should be publicized more and people should be more aware of the fact that domestic violence, both physical and mental abuse, is all around us. Alcoholism is still a taboo. On the global scale issues like race, religion, different cultural heritage and their acceptance are relevant. Let's take the tradition of wearing burkas in Islamic culture. You can't go to a woman in another country and culture and tell her that this is not how it's done and you should do it differently, I will come and save you. It is a similar situation with prostitution. We can't assume that all women want and need to be "rescued".

MR: In that sense, the works in Maple's exhibition that explore the theme of Islam, where she depicts herself as the cultural, ethnic other, are quite appropriate. It is funny of course that she comes from near London, from a mixed-family where religious views do not appear to be very fundamental. This is not the work of a deeply religious Arabic Muslim woman.

AT: Maybe she has her own identity issues and doesn't know yet which world she belongs to. This gives her the opportunity to play, experiment and find herself. During the artist talk she said that she reached feminism through personal experience where boys were evaluated differently to girls at school. I had a similar experience. This opened my eyes in an instant and suddenly I saw how constructed our behaviours and expectations are.

 

Martin Rünk is an art critic who studied cultural sciences at the University of Tartu and art history at the Estonian Academy of Arts.

Anna-Stina Treumund is a lesbian artist and activist who mainly works with photography.

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