COVER IMAGE I Joy Miessi Looking Back, Looking Blue, mixed media on canvas, 2019
Most people know the artist Lee Krasner as Jackson Pollock’s wife – knowledge that’s reinforced by the large abstract canvases she’s best known for. However, on visiting the closing day of her retrospective at The Barbican last month, which showcased a body of over 100 works spanning decades, I found myself most drawn to a lesser known piece: a self-portrait made in the year 1930 – pre-Pollock. The then 22-year-old had nailed a mirror to a tree, and began to paint her reflection – that of an artist at work. It is, in other words, a selfie.
From Judith Leyster’s 17th-century Self-Portrait to Vivian Maier, Jenny Saville and Jo Spence, of course, female artists, like men, have practiced the art of self-portraiture since time immemorial. But with women excluded from life-drawing classes and educational art institutions until well into the 19th century in the UK alone, the practice has, arguably, played an even more significant role in their development as artists.
Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Now, with Instagram in its prime, we’re all curators of our own galleries. Selfies don’t happen in solitude; like self-portraiture, we create our images and hang them on our feeds for passersby to stop, take in and, hopefully, ‘like’. For women, however, the process of selfie-making is political. There’s a gender-bias baked into self-portraiture that happens on the internet as well as in the best galleries in London. As women we’re constantly encouraged and prompted to think of our exterior selves, forever locked in a process of grooming, ageing and scrutiny. We are incentivised to perform, but lambasted for doing so.
Are selfies just a kind of numb narcissism that’s indicative of the next generation’s navel-gazing, self-centred outlook, or do they in fact deserve a more nuanced critique? Shouldn’t we celebrate the agency and autonomy that mobile phones bestow on women involved in the self-fashioning process? I sat down with curator, critic and photographic consultant Ashleigh Kane, non-binary artist Joy Miessi and self-described narcissist, model and publisher Iris Luiz to discuss.
Nellie Eden: Do you think selfies are narcissistic?
Iris Luiz: I think selfies can be narcissistic but they’re now a form of currency. They have a cultural potency, but they aren’t the be-all end-all of female identity.
Ashleigh Kane: That’s too limited a definition. I really think the ways in which we make selfies and the reasons why we make selfies go beyond the idea of pure narcissism.
Joy Miessi: Self-portraiture holds so much power. You decide how you look on your own terms. Self-portraits recognise your individuality. Seeing someone who you can relate to or connect with in self-portraits is inspiring.
NE: Iris, you’re self-described as a “narcissist” right?
IL: While I understand that true “narcissism” isn’t what I have, I use that term loosely to signify how unabashedly confident I am. We’re at this moment where we understand that you can leverage yourself independently to succeed in life and yet we’re still influenced by traditional concepts that condemn self-love. I feel quite detached from the pictures that I post; I don’t see them as an expression or want for attention or validation even though those aspects subversively play into what I post. Isn’t any public display of work a cry for attention?
NE: Joy, where are ‘you’ in your work?
JM: My family and their sense of style, being at big family parties and witnessing Congolese fashion mixed with a little bit of British style has definitely influenced my colour palette. I like using block, loud colours together, things that clash but somehow work.
NE: Ashleigh, for lots of female artists selfies are integral to their work. How do selfies fit into art history and female self-portraiture?
AK: Historically male artists have had control over how women have been seen. I learned yesterday that Leonor Fini, a surrealist who lived during the 1900s, was the first woman to paint a man ‘erotically’ – which is wild when you think men have been painting women since the dawn of time. And then if we look at the big 1990s fashion photographers, they were mostly all men too. So men have always had that control. As women began to harness their camera phones and social media like Instagram, they’ve been able to take control of the way they’re portrayed, and the stories they want to tell.
NE: Why is that process important?
AK: There was a breakthrough moment when women started documenting their bodies, unedited, flawed, not airbrushed, on Instagram and I think it really gained momentum when they were then getting removed by Instagram for ‘violating community guidelines’. It was another way of society saying, ‘your body isn’t okay’. And so women, non-binary, trans people, began to push back and maybe they even began to post more of themselves. One of the most notable examples in recent history was one of Petra Collins’ earliest images. It’s her in a green bikini bottom, unshaved or unwaxed, and it was deleted by Instagram so she wrote an essay about it online. Of course, there were women making their own self-portraits long before social media, Jo Spence; Catherine Opie, Nan Goldin, Mickalene Thomas, Claude Cahun, Carrie Mae Weems… who all paved the way. Women have really used the ‘selfie’ as a weapon for representation and agency over their bodies and narratives.
NE: Joy, how do selfies inspire your work?
JM: It’s part of my practice, I use selfies as references for my self-portraits. I think that faces are interesting. All the lines and the shapes within them are unique and beautiful and we should take and keep photos of ourselves, little archives, seeing the changes over time.
NE: Who gets to decide what’s a selfie and what’s art these days?
AK: Institutions such as Tate have shown the work of Amalia Ulman, which was an Instagram performance project called Excellences & Perfections. But it was an art piece – she’s an artist. For me, it’s all about the intention of what’s being made. Amalia intended for that to be an art performance so that’s what it is. But then there are photographers such as Vivian Maier who maybe didn’t set out with the same intentions. She didn’t show her work at all during her lifetime; after she died her archive was found in a storage auction. It wasn’t until she passed away that she became prolific. But she has these beautiful, haunting images of herself she’d taken in shop windows, for example. Those show in galleries and are sold for huge prices. I think it goes both ways – art is subjective. And a lot of people would argue that Amalia’s performance isn’t art. So this will always be a debate.
JM: I think critique should be geared towards those who profit from people not feeling good enough, not people who just want to feel confident in their appearance., or decide to make art about themselves, in their image.
NE: What about when women are editing their selfies?
IL: What I’ve always found funny is how much pressure we are ready to put on independent individuals online, but seem to forget that advertising truly moulded us prior to social media even existing. Why would I not use editing applications to further my ability to make money from myself when companies do that anyway, wouldn’t I be at a disadvantage?
AK: I think there is just so much pressure, there always has been, on young women, and that pressure on the LGBTQ+ communities is probably ten-fold.
NE: Do you think it’s important to have had people like Cindy Sherman, Lee Kranser and Jenny Saville taking radical self-portraits?
AK: It’s funny how they’ve always been labelled ‘radical’, though because I think the image is often so ‘shocking’ to many people, that they have to put a term in front of it in order to digest it. They can’t accept that that’s not just a representation of the female form. Petra’s recent project with [her cult magazine] Baron was amazing because it took these body moulds and masks of herself and distorted them; they became a simulacrum, which is kind of how our Instagram photos, or photos online do end up becoming once we’ve filtered them, cropped them, or whatever. You get to a point when you’re like, “Okay, which is the real me?”
NE: Historically, self-portraiture has been quite un-diverse, who’s making self-portraits, be they selfies or paintings, that excites you now and why?
JM: For myself, self-portraits and selfies have been able to do that. Where I had been aware of my image not fitting mainstream beauty ideals, constantly creating self-portraits and seeing other people who look like me posting selfies really helped plant a seed of self-love. I used to hate drawing my face in school and now it’s something that I love to do.
AK: Painters such as Naudline Cluvie Pierre often puts herself into her work; hauntingly beautiful works that capture mythology, religion, desire. D’Angelo Lovell Williams turns the lens on himself to communicate the black queer experience and vulnerability.
IL: I love what people like Lily Bloom do. I also really like video selfies. People such as Mia Kerin do this very well and blur the line between organic and performance.
NE: What’s next for selfies?
AK: We are already in such a dystopian era of living in terms of our relationship to imagery and technology and how it rules us. I’m very interested to see what happens when likes are removed from Instagram because that is potentially really going to change the game in terms of what we make and why, and why we share it with the world.