After my trip to Scotland, it is really good to be home in The Bahamas. Scotland was, as ever, the land of greys, blacks and browns with an infrequent blanketing of white when the snow transformed the landscape.
It was not the trip I had expected and, sadly, I missed out on visiting any art galleries or museums, I am very ashamed to admit.
However, all was not lost as I invested in some fascinating art books. One in particular is a brief exploration into contemporary female artists.
I find it inspiring, exciting and fascinating to read about women artists that are expressing themselves and their art in a surprisingly fresh way, even though many of the artists have been working since the 60’s.
The art work is diverse, ranging from installations to performance art, new media, painting, patchwork, photography, and ceramics.
What appeals to me is the raw energy and unflinching truths that are portrayed. There is a steady gaze of comprehension, comprehension of the artists self and comprehension of the context – society- in which the artist exists. Self – being the pivotal point of reference for a large amount of the work.
And it is this dynamic between the artist and society or even the ‘female’ (artist) in society that brings drama and tension to a lot of the work.
In 2003, after the shocking demise of my marriage, I put on an art show called "Into the Crimson Room".
At the time, I was in survival mode. After 15 years together, my husband’s sudden departure made me question everything I had believed my life to be. I used my art work as a life buoy. My intention was an urgent need to discover SELF after the loss of a self I believed in. I believed I had been a ‘good’ wife, a ‘good’ mother and a ‘good’ person in society. But irrespective of my 'good' life - the worst had happened and I needed desperately to discover who I was beyond ‘wife’,‘mother’ and ‘good’ to survive.
Why the title "Into the crimson room"? Because it alluded to the womb - a place of pain and bleeding but also of creation and birth, which was the perfect analogy for my life at the time, and the process through which I was going.
The works presented in the show were paintings and photographs - nude self portraits. Despite the fact that in many places the word "nude" carries a connotation of sexual expectation, in this case, it was being used to express a vulnerable state and a natural state. Sometimes my nudity was a statement of my defiance and pride. At other times, it was the exposing of my most hidden self.
Before the show, there were some teasing and assumptions about what would be seen at the show, complete with winks and smiles - anticipation at something "interesting". But what was interesting was that though every image was of my nudity either through photographs or paintings, they lacked overt sexual titillation. My naked form was thus an expression of pure emotion, vulnerability, and yet, strength - my body - by its very nature, being the essence of independence. (Through the paintings and situations I placed myself in the photographs - I attempted to reclaim my body as some fundamental expression of me).
The images are raw. Bereft. Abandoned. Painful. Like witnessing a scream. Most of the images are of my back. I am turned away from you the viewer, from your gaze. Yet paradoxically, I am revealing my inner most hurt. Every piece of art had a piece of myself, an expression - or a search: for self, for comfort, for escape, for death, for love, for life, for survival - or a realisation about my abandonment, my pain, my loss and my strength. The show in its entirety was a testament to that moment in time - all those paradoxes and dualities.
The photographs, were themselves a therapy, dancing around a fire in my wedding dress, then naked with the flames rising up through my body, burning the past - a phoenix rising. Or my body stretched against seaweed that has been dumped on the shore, as I felt abandoned. Or curled as a foetus lost against the panorama of ocean, sand and sky.
The most provocative set of pictures were the ones taken in the loft bathroom of my house. I had used this space to vent onto the walls every black, white and red piece of written emotion from my journals and thoughts. Before having the walls whitewashed over, I entered the space and reacted to the evidence of my angst. The photographer captured images of me lost, sad, naked, vulnerable, enduring and searching, all against a backdrop of my written words of pain, anger, confusion, and love. A shot of me folded up on the bathroom counter, contrasts with a shot of my search in the mirror for a new self. Visually, I become the evidence of my thoughts, as I painted on my body the words that were scrawled on the wall - linking my thoughts, emotions and body, into a single expression of my experience.
Why this need to express so much of my "self", my pain? We all have pain. And we rarely hold it with the gentleness it deserves. My experience is but a mirror of the pain that is present in the world for us all, whether we acknowledge it or not, release and transform it or not, is up to each of us.
It's five years this spring since the show, I have had many comments from people who were genuinely moved by the openness and braveness demonstrated by my creativity, strength and my pain. Some told me that the works stayed with them and would swim up in their thoughts giving them new perspective, or raising questions about their unexamined thoughts or emotions. Their responses sometimes reflected a new acceptance of themselves and by extension, others.
And yet, so many years on, I also still hear comments - am I still a 'man hater'? I find it interesting that by revealing my pain in the form of my vulnerability, I have been branded a man hater! It seems the show reverberated and indeed raised questions:
Was it taboo to be genuine, to ‘wash my dirty laundry’ in public?
Was it an attack on my ex-husband or exposing of my own experience?
Should emotion be kept behind closed doors?
Is the nude female seen only in the context of sexual, the only form that is acceptable?
Should art be purely aesthetic?
If not, is it art?
At the time, I remember one night at 2am in my studio, looking at these intense and ugly images I had created on the canvas, trying to find some explanation for their creation. At 5am I wrote in my journal…."I am searching for a truthful line". An epiphany long recognised by artists - this need to express a truth in line, form, colour, essence or emotion. In this case I was exposing the truth about my state of being.
I believe in truth. I believe that truth is a language that in today’s society we seem to have neglected, lost somewhere in the images of white teeth, credit ratings and SUV’s.
There seems to be confusion and endless arguments, is This art, is That art….contemporary art confounding the public….but to me, the question is: does it represent or portray a truth? And if it portrays a truth how do I, the viewer, feel about it? And then starts the dialogue, and art should always be a dialogue -- an interaction with one’s heart, soul or mind. Society has fed us bland and pretty for so long that we, happy little consumers, are appalled when confronted with anything else. We are challenged.
We might feel uncomfortable to witness pain, anger or brutality in art work. Ironically, so much of life is pain, anger and brutality, yet in the familiar form of media we accept it easily and readily. Somehow the tv screen belittles our true emotions as humans, as if there is some collective denial - wanting our art to lie to us about our reality. How soothing to relegate art to the realm of pure aesthetic like pretty white teeth or designer labels.
Art, however, is the crucible that condenses society to a spot - a moment in time that requires us to be confronted with a view of ourselves – a truth that suddenly we may not like. (e.g Francis Bacon’s realistic nudes- no computer generated touch ups)
Jerry Springer, for example, is ok- we can laugh at the ridiculous intricacies of infidelity, the fringe reactions of emotions. Soaps are an amusing escape from reality. The news is a separate place of ‘them’ not us (thank goodness). Movies a diversion.
Art demands we wake up and see and be given an opportunity to make a different choice, to open one's eyes to a reality presented by the artist’s vision of truth. In this case, the pain of an unwanted separation and the subsequent search for self.
Maybe through the comprehension of the artist we have an opportunity to remember we are all human, we all have hurts and joys and that life is bigger than the television screen or the latest rap song. We seem as a community and society to be so deadened and detached, watching endless violence on television everyday, fictional and fact- how can we even discern the difference, life becoming so like the movies we watch…..but somehow art still has the capacity to move us - even in uncomfortable ways, somehow art can distill the essence of a truth and present it in such a way that we are confronted to interact.
Just like the contemporary female artists in my new book, using their own experiences and observations artists can present an universal truth of our human experience.
So the next time you are looking at art that you don’t understand or you don’t like, maybe stop and breathe for a moment and remember you are, after all, a human, not just a consumer, and that maybe there is a question for you to answer to yourself - a truth or a taboo that might enlighten.
The art work from "Into the Crimson Room" ? Some pieces hang in friends houses, in patrons homes, and even a lawyers office, and the ones left, the ones that survived the hurricane? I cut them up and made them into boxes, to show what we do with our past pain - package it up neatly into a little box and tuck it into a closet in our minds!
And I? One short week after the show, some five years ago now, someone commented to me, "well, you can move on with your life now that, that’s over."
Yes, I move on, but life is an ongoing process - a perceived movement from one place to the next, but always with the past, present and future existing inside of us at every moment. And so I embrace my past as I embrace my future, and live in the present and I will continue to use y life and experiences as a window to find truths about our human condition.
I am incredibly proud of "Into the Crimson Room", it was not easy, either artistically or emotionally. However, I feel that breaching the truth and questioning societal taboos of emotional nudity are worthy endeavours, and I have grown inexplicably by challenging those truths and taboos within myself. And I hope I have allowed the participants and viewers of that show to learn some truth about themselves and to see that art is not just about ‘pretty pictures’,but the essence of life in all its colourful and sometimes painful diversity.
About the author: Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Susan Moir Mackay is a professional artist with a B.A. (Hons) in Art and Design from Edinburgh College of Art. She is an impassioned advocate of art and has a deep abiding belief that art benefits individuals and communities. Susan has travelled extensively, observing art in all its forms and has invested much of her time to art education projects, as well as developing her own art works and exhibitions. Susan currently lives in Freeport with her two children, Fiona and Dylan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(EDITORS NOTE: This audio and article was first published on The Bahamas Weekly in 2008)