by Sara Khan
Last year we saw women from around the world coming together to respond to decades of sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault. From the Women’s March, #MeToo campaign, and Weinstein effect in 2017 to the Time’s Up movement at the Golden Globes and the Baftas. 2018 shows no signs of stopping and will be the year of women.
As we mark a 100 years’ anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the UK, we will be celebrating the works of progressive female artists and makers pushing boundaries within their work to create dialogue.
Each week we will profile an artist as a run up to International Women’s Day on 8 March 2018. This week’s artist is Jess De Wahls who will be exhibiting at Stitch Fetish 6 at The Hive Gallery, LA until 25 February.
Originally from Berlin, Jess tackles wide ranging subjects such as feminism, misogyny, and fetishism as well as combining creative textile recycling as part of her practice. Jess creates highly intricate embroideries as well as hand-sewn relief portraits from up-cycled clothing, a technique for which she has coined the term ‘Retex Sculpture’.
We met with Jess to discuss her passions, work, and feminism.
What led you to become an artist and maker?
Making or creating has been something I have always done - it's always been a part of who I am. If I had to choose a moment in which it became clearer to me, it was when I was around 20 years old when I first watched the movie Frida about the life of Frida Kahlo starring Salma Hayek. The film moved me deeply and does so to this day.
Her legacy made me believe that despite being entirely untrained in the arts, I can be who and what I want to be. I then moved to London and delve into the idea that I could take my talent, run with it, and become and artist.
What are the main themes in your work and why are these important to you?
There are two major themes which I explore throughout my work. The first being intersectional feminism, gender inequalities as well as the civil rights aspects that are often closely aligned with one another. I never really chose those themes; they somewhat arose through my personal experiences and I found my art to be the prefect medium to work through issues, ask questions, and make statements.
The second theme is our waste culture which I try to tackle by using predominantly recycled materials. My recent project patchYOURSELFhappy is an attempt to create something beautiful using unique embroidery iron-on patches. Through the project I encourage people to restyle your old clothes and turn them into something new. They can use my patches as building blocks instead of constantly buying new clothes, and throwing them away at an even faster rate without considering the consequences.
Do you feel the issues you raise in your work are relevant today?
Absolutely! Feminism has always been interestingly described in waves. With each wave, different issues have surfaced and progress was made. If we look back through history, the waves went somewhat back a little each time they crashed.
I'm not so sure this is the case any longer. The current state of affairs seems to be gaining more and more momentum. There are more women in politics, and places of influence than ever before. That said, there is a very steep hill still to climb. Things like the #MeToo campaign and #TimesUp are things that have never happened before. To be alive and be part of a tangible change in our culture is exciting and scary at the same time. I think I try to reflect that in my work and in particular through my #bigswingingovaries embroidery pieces.
Can you tell us a bit more about your latest work?
I never work on just one thing. It helps me to keep my creative process going by having many project at the same time.
I am currently preparing work for my upcoming solo exhibition in Australia this June, which will be an entire gallery clad with Big Swinging Ovaries designs. I am exploring current affairs, politics, ovary related illnesses, delights, pressures and injustices as well as gender. I am also reflecting on what it means to be a person that has ovaries, those that don’t and people that used to have them and so on.
Another super exciting project, is one of many upcoming embroidery workshops that I will be giving this year. This particular one is a collaboration between myself and the Vagina Museum that will be held at the London Loom at the end of April. Much like with my Big Swinging Ovaries workshops, I will be guiding embroidery novices and enthusiasts alike through basic stitches whilst breaking down old notions of how one ‘should’ embroider and introduce a more contemporary approach to the art of embroidery. Frances of the Vagina Museum will be educating and entertaining participants with Vagina related trivia and more. For the workshops, I have specifically designed some very beautiful Vagina Mandalas that I am currently in the process of stitching. Half of the proceeds will go towards funding and eventually opening a physical location of the Vagina Museum.
What are you hoping to evoke in the viewer through your work?
First and foremost, I make my art for me. I have ideas, thoughts and issues that I explore and work through by using textiles and threads. I adore the process as it calms me and helps me to address certain things that might trouble me.
What the viewer does with that is out of my hands as whatever the intention was or is through my work, people will always read into it whatever is most important to them. That's just art. Incidentally I know that what I do has spoken to many people and at the very least opened conversations – to me that can only be a good thing!
Do you think now is an important time for women in the arts?
Women are still just a tiny portion of artists represented by galleries and shown in museums all over the world. I have personally experienced and think that there is that a major shift happening whereby the traditional model of artist, gallery, and agent is rapidly changing through social media. The way Instagram has allowed me, and many others I know, to essentially create my own market with people who relate to and actively buy my art. So instead of me trying to approach galleries to make a name for myself through their representation, I can make a name for myself through my work and through self-marketing. It's marvellous, and there isn't a day passing where I am not grateful for the opportunities this has brought my way.
I hope to see many more women making this work for their practice. Needless to say that women are an irreplaceable asset with unique perspectives in the art world and the world at large. So it seems to me that this shift in how women can make their way into the arts, will have a long lasting affect and will create interesting and profound changes.