On June 21, a new exhibit, NSFW: Female Gaze, opened at the Museum of Sex in New York City. The exhibition showcases more than 20 female artists who will, through their preferred medium, interpret the female gaze. Each artist will approach the subject in their own unique way with artwork encompassing everything from Instagram to GIFs to photography to textiles. The exhibit aims to be something that no one — of any gender — should miss.
Co-curated by Lissa Rivera, Artist and Associate Curator at MoSex, and Marina Garcia-Vasquez, EIC of Creators, the women wanted to give these emerging artists a platform in which they could explore not just their sexuality, as women, but identity and politics, too. It's all about empowering the artists, as much as empowering the audience.
It was through their work at Vice NSFW that Rivera and Garcia-Vasquez realized that the artists they were coming in contact with needed to be seen and heard. "We feverishly wanted to give them a platform," Garcia-Vasquez tells Bustle.
Here's what they had to tell me about their inspiration, the process, and what they hope the audience will walk away with after they've left.
We Need To Question What We Know
It's easy to devour what we're spoon-fed, turning a blind eye to the real matters at hand. But with this exhibit, there's the hope that the audience will question the reality they've always known.
"Not everyone will like it, but they'll think about it deeper."
"[The work is] honest... even broaches difficult relationships of sexuality," explains Rivera. "Sexuality isn't always commercialized. We want the audience to be refreshed; some viewers, if they don't connect, they're forced to question and see in a world where sexual imagery isn't really made for them. Not everyone will like it, but they'll think about it deeper."
Inspiration Comes In Many Forms
Whether you're an artist in the exhibit or a someone who just creates in general, it's important to realize that inspiration comes in many forms and can come from anywhere.
"I’m inspired by closing my eyes and imagining a little breath," Koak tells Bustle. "And then thinking of who that breath belongs to and of all the things they might feel."
For Sophia Narrett (pictured above), it's all about love. "My narratives combine personal experiences, dreams, fantasies, and fictional narratives that I’m drawn to," Narrett tells Bustle. "I collage images found online to use as reference material to embroider from, so pop cultural reference points expand the narrative as they illustrate it. Desire for connection to others, beauty, joy, and catharsis fuels me to embroider the images. Embroidered images are immediately intimate, visually tactile, and accessible. These associations have become important to me as I create narratives of love and self-actualization."
Nona Faustine says history is the inspiration behind her art. "Those who have changed and impacted society and this nation, in many cases their contributions continue to captivate hearts and imaginations," Faustine tells Bustle.
The Importance Of This Exhibit Isn't The Same For Every Artist
When I asked the artists why this exhibit was important, not just to be part of, but as a whole, the answers were quite different. Koak, for example, pointed out that it shouldn't be important to be part of such an exhibit, but sadly, because of society, it is.
"Sexual imagery is a powerful way to express ideas and emotions and to address political or social situations, and at the same time it maintains a potential for escapism, pleasure, catharsis, experimentation and self actualization."
"It shouldn’t be important to be part of such an exhibit," says Koak. "Of course I’m honored and excited to participate. But I also feel that it should be completely mundane for women to make art about the feminine experience, about our sexuality, our desires, our bodies. The importance of this show is unfortunately a side effect of the fact that the depiction of women throughout art has long been monopolized by people whose experience in this world is very different from our own."
For Narrett, the topic of the exhibit offers both powerful messages and an opportunity to escape. "Sexual imagery is a powerful way to express ideas and emotions and to address political or social situations, and at the same time it maintains a potential for escapism, pleasure, catharsis, experimentation and self-actualization," says Narrett. "An exhibition that provides such content-driven context for the work is a joy to be a part of, the proximity of other pieces inevitably opens up new meanings in the work. I’ve followed many of the other artists in the show over the years, and it is an honor to show work with such an inspiring group."
Faustine is also thrilled to be among female artists holding an important conversation. "The work being made today by women is massively important speaking directly to issues around the times in which we live that effect us, and I wanted my work to be part of the conversation," says Faustine. "Coming from a lineage of female artists that have shaped and mold the field, it's now our turn."
Every Audience Member Will (And Should) Take Away Something Different From The Exhibit
"I hope that [the audience] will feel a sort of echo in themselves," says Koak. "A little reverberation in their body that recalls a time when they felt the same. I hope they feel a kinship that engages them and that they can find a part of themselves or of others they know."
For Narrett, each piece has a specific narrative meaning to her, but she doesn't necessarily want the audience to decode the original story. "In She Whispered and They Tried Things On, the woman in the black dress is whispering to one of the three men in her entourage, while she shops she has two women posing for her as strippers and models for the clothes so she can decide what to buy," she says. "The metal object on the right of the piece is a blown up image of the mechanism that holds the clothes to the posts that the women dress against. The girl in the blue shirt and backwards hat and boy in the white shirt behind the fence near cash register are both trying to distract and flirt with the cashier. They are friends who sometimes make amateur music videos. Naked Bride in the New Basement shows a bride's fiancé trying to leave her while she begs him to stay. Blood drips off the keys to their new house. When he is gone she finds herself in the basement of what would have been their home. She is about to have a threesome with a sexy ballerina and Paul Allen, right before he was killed by Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. By exploring my own fantasies and ideas, I hope to make images that each viewer can have their own personal experience of. It’s not important that they decode my original story, but that the backbone of my narrative gives a structure for them to project onto. In the same way that a tarot card invites one to consider how a universal yet specific image might apply to their life, I hope my work brings up a personal memory for, or invites a unique imagination from, each viewer."
Lastly, Faustine hopes the exhibit will be eye-opening. "I want them to see the beauty and strength but think about the ever-enduring struggle of womanhood," Faustine.
If you don't live in the NYC area, NSFW: Female Gaze is definitely a reason to head to the city if you can. The exhibit runs through September of this year.