Visual Art

Seeking to see: female artists working to reclaim their sexuality

"Smashing Images." Painting by Joelle Circé. Oil on canvas.

“Smashing Images.” Painting by Joelle Circé.
Oil on canvas.

In John Berger’s 1972 book Ways of Seeing, he states that “men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. Thus she turns herself into an object- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

Jean Kilbourne, creator of the Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women film series, says this idea is reflected in todayís media reality.

“As a result, we get a whole lot of objectification,” she said. “Not only by men but also by women, because we’ve learned to objectify ourselves. So little of (popular culture) has anything to do with a woman’s real sexual experience or real pleasure.”

A community of women artists in Canada have found art helps them regain their power to see and feel their own sexual desires. They do this by exploring the female body in a raw and truthful way, and by challenging societal views of female sexuality.

Joelle Circe, 57, who lives in Quebec, began painting vaginas after undergoing surgery and hormone changes to become a woman 13 years ago.

“When I came back to my art (after transitioning)…I began creating this series of (vagina) paintings,” Circe said. “It was like a mixture of curiosity and claiming this new body of mine.”

Petals one of those pieces in this series. It is a picture of a vulva, the strokes of flesh-coloured paint wispy and soft, making the lips of the vagina comparable to petals of a flower.

Petals was one of the first vagina paintings that I created,” Circe said. “For me, it was expressing openness, this extroverted reaching out into others and showing (the vaginaís) full beauty and tenderness in all the beautiful folds. It speaks to everything that I expected to feel as a female. It is a bit stereotypical, I will admit, but also very true.”

"Shut up and be pretty." Painting by Joelle Circé. Sanguine, charcoal and pastel on paper.

“Shut up and be pretty.” Painting by Joelle Circé. Sanguine, charcoal and pastel on paper.

After transitioning, Circe realized the media did not project the same truths she was sharing in her art.

“We are not beautiful as we are. We have to be made pretty,” she said. “Those were big pressures for me- pressures to wear high heels all the time, pressures to be thinner. I would see ads online or on the bus…it was all about changing how we acted so we were made acceptable to men.”

Teresa Ascencao, an artist and teacher at Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), explores these pressures in her media-based work. Through photography, digital imaging and video, she has been commenting on the things women can and cannot do with their bodies in religion and the media.

After exploring this theme for over a decade, Ascencao says for her artwork has shifted from creating a political discussion to something more introspective, especially in her current series Text and Tongue, which is being supported by the Ontario Arts Council.

“The work was born from realizing that all the stuff I had done before has always used other women, and I had never put myself into it,” Ascencao said. “I’ve never actually dealt with why I care so much about the work that I do so Text and Tongue is really a physiological underpinning of all the work I have done.”

In Text and Tongue, Ascencao is both the photographer and subject, exploring ideas she has kept in sketchbooks and dream journals for years about sexuality or the body.

“The other part of the series is more explicit in terms of directly mimicking advertising language,” Ascencao said, before quoting a piece of the work: ‘Am I prepared to lose a chunk of my identity by tossing away a language that I know is no good for me?'”

Kilbourne says we see celebrities mimicking, and then pushing back, against the universal identity media has created for women, all the time. It is a concept, she says, that often gets difficult, and confusing.

“The whole huge range of female sexuality and female sexiness that exists in real life is just the tiniest, narrow slice of it that is offered as what it means to be sexy,” Kilbourne said. “Pop culture only has one way for a woman to be sexy and that is to look like a porn star. And then when women choose that way, they says it’s their authentic choice, but itís hardly a choice if that’s the only option that there is.”

Ascencao says she finds this conflict arises when creating her artwork.

“I agree that I am talking about how sexuality should not be controlled and we should express ourselves, but on the other hand I am exhausted by the hypersexualization of the female body in the media,” she said. “I don’t want to say…let’s go and express ourselves explicitly because, of course that would be beautiful, but you do that and the world doesnít understand it.”

Ascencao sees artwork as a connection to the world, and wants hers to be experienced in the way media is replicated in society.

“I want the artwork to function in the same way the real world does- in a subversive way though, because I am trying to unravel the illusions in many of the works that are there,” she said.

This is why she chooses to engage viewers in most of her pieces. Her series of 3D animated photographs, Maria, comments on the suppression of sexuality in Catholicism. In order to see the photographs move, the viewer has to bend up and down, mimicking the act of worship.

“Whether it be religion or media, we are being sold something and we are part of this system and sometimes we do not question it, so I want to question those things,” Ascencao said.

Circe agrees.

“Before the transition, my perception of the female body was outside looking in, whereas today I am looking within,” she said. “My art now brings me here. It brings me to being aware of my body, of other women’s bodies, of the political issues surrounding these things.”

-Alexandra Gater

rouse is excited to debut Teresa Ascencao‘s newest work Text and Tongue, which is being supported by the Ontario Arts Council: 

"Lavender Mesh" by Teresa Ascencao. The text reads: "I have tied up so much of my energy into a language  that does not represent me."

“Lavender Mesh” by Teresa Ascencao. The text reads: “I have tied up so much of my energy into a language that does not represent me.”

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