Sunday, 6 May 2018

The Hidden Pin Up #20 - Taking the Mic!

Friday was a very exciting day where The Hidden Pin Up got taken to the next level via song and spoken word as we spent the morning recording our very own vogue track!

Since we have the first half of the fan dance performance mapped out to a chosen song that evokes the bluesy burlesque of the vintage era (see this past post for details), it was important that the second half was just as strong yet gave our dancer the chance to move and tell her story in a totally different way.

Myself and co collaborator Darren (house mother of the House of Ghetto) decided to go down a vogue route as that is something the House of Ghetto are especially famous for and can be tailored, much like burlesque, to convey whatever message you want. 

With his strong knowledge of dance and music Darren suggested using the words from the feathers on the burlesque fans as direct inspiration to create our own customised track. Cue the arrival of talented performer Justina Aina (check her out, she's great!) who came with us to the Salford's Lowry Theatre to record some samples that will be laid over music.

It was fascinating to see how Justine worked. Having already been given the full set of stories from the fans, she had put them into sections and created a poetical arrangement that could be broken down, repeated, spoken and sang.

With technical manager David Wimpenny on the sound desk (he really knows his stuff and is a technical wizard, thanks so much Dave!) we were able to record several layers including, repeats of lines, whispered paragraphs and free-styled sections.

The next step will be putting everything together and creating the finished track, however we will be having a trial run of the performance including the fan dance and live vocals later this month, more info to follow!

Here's a sample of Justina's freestyling over a track, this wasn't recorded for our final piece but gave everyone an idea of how the live vocals could work. Hearing the stories put together in this context is both uncomfortable and funny. I'm loving how this is turning out and I am looking forward to sharing the finished thing with you!

Monday, 23 April 2018

The Hidden Pin Up - #19 About the fans

Now that choreography has begun on The Hidden Pin Up (see last post) I thought I'd do a little overview on the burlesque fans I created as they are in integral part of the work which explores the black Pin Up, a figure lost in time due to prejudice and the racial fetishes that still surround women of colour to this day.

Based on traditional burlesque fans, I decided to use hessian instead of luxurious feathers to replace the usual glamour with something basic and crude. This was to highlight the 'primitive' and 'savage' stereotypes about women of colour that have surfaced throughout the project and also the hessian harks back to collective ideas of plantations, slavery, poverty and the unrefined. 

An added bonus to using hessian to create individual feathers was that the frayed materiel moves and looks like dried grass, which added another layer of meaning to the fans, evoking tribal garments like headdresses and skirts that typified the stereotypical view of the uncultured 'exotic'. You can see how I made the fans HERE

I knew I wanted to decorate the fans in some way and as the project progressed it became ever more apparent to me that women of colour today face the same prejudices and fetishes as their vintage Pin Up counterparts, in fact, today's women of colour are still dealing with a hangover from colonialism and Western privilege that began centuries ago. 

With this in mind I started to collect real life stories of racial fetishes towards contemporary women of colour. Friends and colleagues and women I had never met shared their tales and an uncomfortable pattern of everyday micro aggressions began to emerge. These became the inspiration for the embroidered words on the feathers. 

I used different shades of brown black and tan and I wasn't too bothered about how much the words stood out because micro aggressions aren't always easy to spot. Some are glaringly obvious and others can sit there unnoticed yet still leave a mark.

With the stories in place the fans became a physical barrier between the viewer and the dancer that spoke only of false fantasies, bias and discrimination, not of the true person behind them. They became a literal way to hide the dancer mimicking the project's title, The Hidden Pin Up and highlighting the fact that real black and non white Pin Up's from the vintage era were largely obscured from the mainstream due to these stereotypes.

There are spaces left on the fans which I hope to fill up as the project continues and I'd like to collect new stories at every performance. Perhaps if I get enough I might even stitch onto the dancer's hessian costume too so that eventually she is covered. 

The fans were made to be danced with but also be seen as a stand alone piece that tell the history and ongoing story of the black Pin Up. I'm excited to see how they progress.

Monday, 9 April 2018

The Hidden Pin Up #18 - Choreography part 1

On Friday we finally got to visit a dance studio to begin choreographing the routine for The Hidden Pin Up!

I met with Lenai the dancer from Manchester's House of Ghetto and Darren Pritchard, the house mother and choreographer, and all three of us were raring to go! I was really keen to see how my hessian burlesque fans would perform and also excited to put our ideas together. After researching and working on this concept for a year, it was thrilling to see it come to life and put some meat on the bones!

The performance is based on a traditional fan dance and anyone who has been following this project for a while will know that using fans was inspired by my research into vintage exotic dancer Jean Idelle who was one of the most successful black burlesque performers of the 1950's. You can find out more about Jean HERE

The aim of a fan dance is to tease the audience by only showing hints of bare flesh as the fans move around the dancer's body. It's important to captivate the audience with the fans movements so they highlight poise and footwork and emphasize what the dancer does with her arms and legs. It's usually the last third of the performance where the dancer does a 'reveal' and their full figure can be seen.

Darren was fantastic at giving direction and using traditional fan dance moves mixed with some of the vogue moves he is famous for. We even came up with some new moves I've never seen before. I was especially impressed with Lenai, who has never done any fan work before but picked up the skill almost immediately! 

It was exciting to see the fans in action. I was interested to know how they would perform as they are made from hessian instead of the soft floaty feathers usually used in burlesque. It turned out they had a grass skirt/ dried grass movement that I loved as they reinforced the 'primitive' character the project calls into question. They did shed fibres like crazy but there was something satisfying in watching the hemp fly around Lenai as she shimmied and turned.

It literally gave me shivers to see the dance performed to music. We wanted a song that not only hit the vintage mark but also spoke of women of colour and strength over adversity, for while this work plays on stereotypes and fetishes built around women of colour, it also puts the agency entirely in the dancer's hands and invites the viewer to look past the cliches. The piece we chose was Miss Celie's Blues from the soundtrack of The Colour Purple. Here's a little taster:

The full first half of the routine is now mapped out and we were all really excited by how much we got done. It was a fun morning and I can't wait to work on the second half which will have a a totally different feel and energy.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Get your Mum's portrait done for Mother's Day

This Sunday 11th March I'll be drawing postcard portraits at Love Thy Neighbour in Chorlton Manchester, 12-3pm

This is a drop in event and portraits are free to Love Thy Neighbour customers! Plus you don't have to be a mum to get your portrait done!

Each picture takes about 10 minutes and is created with ink and brush pens. To see more examples of my postcard portraits check out the page on my website.

Friday, 2 March 2018

The Hidden Pin Up #17 Can I Touch Your Hair? AGAIN!

I saw a friend had recently posted this on Facebook and I asked her if I could share it as the thread made some really important points. What is it with the lack of awareness about personal space and black women's hair?

I've been thinking a lot about this. The instances of hair touching and commenting on afro hair has come up a few times in my call out for everyday stories of fetishisation from women of colour. I think this thread highlights so much about how this small gesture has such huge historic and cultural baggage attached to it and the negative impacts it can have. 

The online magazine Everyday Feminism has a fantastic article called '8 reasons You Want to Touch a Black Woman's Hair - And Why They Mean You Shouldn't'. It cleverly puts into perspective how this objectification is not only racial but sexist, even if the intentions behind it aren't coming from a negative place.

'[It] comes down to one of our core feminist values, consent – respecting everyone’s agency over their own bodies, including their hairHaving our hair touched is just one of the ways Black women are often denied this agency in our society.'

This is a brilliantly insightful and well written piece and I urge anyone to read it. Similar versions of other stories I've collected for The Hidden Pin Up make an appearance here too making it clear how curiosity and ignorance are rife everywhere. This article breaks down the nuances behind the 'Can I touch your hair?' problem perfectly. 

Another issue that the hair topic throws up is how afro = inferior. (See one of my past posts also about this). The person commenting on how their niece is getting a complex because her hair is different is really upsetting. Women have enough to compete with when it comes to our appearance. We are constantly told we should look a certain way. We can't age, get wrinkles or grey hair. We can't be too fat, or too thin. We can't be too sexy or too dowdy... it just goes on and on. But women of colour have the added pressure of not fitting the Western ideal. There very few role models with afro hair in mainstream culture. Most women of colour in the media have weaves or straightened hair and that is fine, it's their decision. But without full representation of different cultural identities in the public realm this might never change and the vicious cycle of afro hair inferiority just continues. Without afro hair becoming a normal fixture in everyday life it keeps it as an 'other', a fascinating object to be touched and commented upon.  

It's just such a huge subject and hair is just the tip of a very tangled weave of problems about female representation and how women of colour specifically are interpreted.

Friday, 23 February 2018

The Hidden Pin Up #16 - Date me, I love jerk chicken!

 Most recent 'feather' stitched with a real example of racial fetishisation which will be added to the hessian burlesque fans for The Hidden Pin Up art piece

I recently decided to take a stroll around some online forums to see what I could find in way of research for the Hidden Pin Up project. As I naively typed the line 'black women forum' into the search engine it soon became apparent that such a simple request can open up a deep rabbit hole of casual racism, historic stigma and male entitlement that made for some really uncomfortable reading.
It's quite an odd feeling reading threads from past conversations, like you are eavesdropping on someone's private chatter, and just like overhearing a bit of juicy gossip, these online discussions had some eyeopening (for me at least) moments.

I clicked on a forum link for male body builders as it had a thread titled, 'Are you comfortable dating outside your race?' Among the expected laddish banter lots of casual racism began to seep through and it didn't take long for the conversation to begin rating women sexually based on their ethnicity; 

Latin women are 'so eager to please', 
'White women do what ever you tell them',
'Blacks are aggressive in bed' 

It felt like I'd stumbled into one of Donald Trump's 'harmless' locker room chats, and it incensed me. Women are always judged on their fuckability and in this case race boiled down to something to add 'spice' to the overall experience with no interest in individuals or individual culture.

Granted, the men posting on this forum came under my own presumptive stereotypes of machismo, competitive morons but now and then someone would ask, 'does the colour of her skin really change what she's like at sex?', or say 'I'm dating a black women and I have no regrets'. This didn't change anything though as the conversation stayed mostly on the side of racial fetish and stereotype.

Another link I tried was an everyday chat site with a thread titled, 'Would you date a black woman?' (what is with these questions?) Answers, mostly from men, came under three categories: Looks, pros and cons of black features, big butts, big lips etc. Black culture, or the lack of knowledge about it, one guy literally wrote, 'Date me, I love jerk chicken!' and yet again, sexual value, well we've already explored some of that and this forum wasn't any better than the last.

What was interesting though was when women of colour got in on the conversation. 'Why you all fetishising black women?' one woman asked and literally stated that the ideas that were being thrown around were based on centuries of white privilege and the 'Jezebel stereotype' about black women. Another woman agreed and very calmly asked for more understanding about fetish verses preference. This provoked some discussion between the women, one dated a white man and they loved one another very much. However a previous contributor got angry with their chatting. 'Whats wrong with fetishising black women, I'm just saying what I like about them, if you don't like it then get off this forum!' 

I got enough of a taste to know that discussions of race (any race) will always be divisive even if the intentions aren't always meant to cause offense. I also understand that these few examples do not represent all men's views on race or gender, and that of course it isn't just women who get fetishised, yet it was dismaying to see the same old stereotypes being bandied around about women of colour (and women in general in some cases). The same ignorant views that have plagued every era and subject I have explored since beginning this project.

Also for the record, I don't recommend searching out forums about things that just anger you,unless it's for research, as you'll spend a great deal of time shouting at your screen and slapping your palm to your forehead. I know, I have the red forehead to prove it!


The Hidden Pin Up is an art piece exploring the history of the black Pin Up and the racial fetishes and stereotypes towards women of colour that exist to this day. To find out more about this project read The Hidden Pin Up posts on this blog and follow me on Instagram @gemma_parker_artist

Friday, 2 February 2018

Ban the Nymph - Manchester Art Gallery and moral censorship

He leans down to place his pitcher into the clear water of the pool but is startled to find himself surrounded by a group of beautiful red haired nymphs. They emerge from the water, bare breasted with flowers clinging to their long tresses. He looks down and finds one of the women has taken hold of his arm, she looks deep into his eyes and he can't resist the power of her gaze.

Hylas is never seen or heard of again.

Yesterday I heard that Manchester Art Gallery have decided to 'temporarily' take down one of it's paintings from the PreRaphaelite gallery in order “to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection”

The removal is part of a gallery takeover for a forthcoming exhibition by Sonia Boyce and hopes to prompt debate about how females have been portrayed, as either passive decoration or femme fatales, and also raise awareness of how works should be contextualised in the future. I think it's a genius publicity move but one that could be so so detrimental to how we acknowledge historic art in the future.

Hylas and the Nymphs created by JW Waterhouse in 1896 is the painting in question and despite the curator Clare Gannoway insisting the move isn't to censor or deny the painting's existence I can't help feeling that to make an example of it in this way will forever mar its appreciation.

She said, 'For me personally, there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven’t dealt with it sooner. Our attention has been elsewhere ... we’ve collectively forgotten to look at this space and think about it properly. We want to do something about it now because we have forgotten about it for so long'  

I find this very unsettling. It somehow implies that as a society we can't handle anything that questions a safe and sanitised version of the world. Why must we judge the aims and morals of a painting that is over a century old by today's standards? Surely it is better to study the context from the era in which it was painted to place into the framework of our own understanding so that we can learn from it, not point a finger at it.

I understand that the story inspiration for the painting fueled a Victorian erotic fantasy. As a classical myth it gave license for a society that was easily morally outraged to enjoy a bit of titillation and sensuality. Young, beautiful naked girls (the same girl in fact, painted seven times) all wet and covered in flowers suggestively tugging at a young man's arm to join them for... well who knows what, the myth never actually says, and the Victorian imagination could be very kinky.

I also understand that the painting holds layers of meaning. The usual male and female stereotypes being turned on their head. The strong Hylas is struck passive by the intense energetic sexual force of the nymphs. As he enters the water he loses himself... a little death... The power of the female sex overwhelming and destroying him. Victorians reveled in their fascination with sex, and more importantly their fascination and fear of female sexuality.

The painting's style is inspired by the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) which strived to show truth in nature, both of the natural world and natural psyche. It wanted to do away with the sterile primness that had become the fashion and show real feelings and ideas that subsequently shocked and upset the art elite of the time. They painted about love sex and death. As a long time lover of the PRB's I very much appreciate Waterhouse's work for these very reasons.

The ideology behind the female form was so different from what is acceptable today but I understand how and why it was and that doesn't make me appreciate the work any less. I can clearly separate what the artist was trying to achieve from my own modern feminist values and enjoy the art from a place of pure pleasure. Taking away the painting denies future generations an opportunity to learn it's background or enjoy what is truly a beautiful piece of art. 

Also it does seem ironic that a painting that aimed to shake up the art world back in the 'stuffy' Victorian era is now being treated in a similarly 'stuffy' way by an easily outraged age.

In a week when F1 has just announced that it will no longer have 'Grid Girls' at its Grand Prix and Darts PDC is to scrap its 'walk on girls' it's a clever move to then take away a provocative 'girl' heavy painting from a city art gallery, but I just can't see how the two eras can be compared.

As a society we are definitely at a stage where having women appear in part, for decoration and male enjoyment should be questioned. But this opens up further questions still about a woman's right to choose to appear in this way, for what is feminism if not to support female choice? This in turn asks questions about promoting the 'wrong' image of women and how that feeds into the everyday sexism that many of us face. 

If Waterhouse's Hylas and the Nymphs were to be created today then we would have every right to ask the same questions. But it remains an historic art work and should only be judged by historic values. We can hypothesise about its relevance to today's standards, and we should, but if we begin to judge every art work from the past from a modern moral platform we lose sight of all the things they could tell us. We could be setting a dangerous precedent that dismisses any art work that hits an over sensitive nerve.

I am impressed with Manchester Art Gallery for having the gumption to create modern debate about historic art. How often does art, or specifically British historic art make the headlines? It is heartening to know that the public care enough to get involved and make their voices heard. I for one felt compelled to write this to get my feelings out in the open because this REALLY MATTERS!

I just worry that this could start a trend that gives an increasingly self absorbed generation the right to sneer with contempt at the past and ignore all the lessons it has to teach us. Who is to say that in a century from now the art work of today won't be viewed in the same way?

Please Manchester Art Gallery give us our nymphs back and don't treat us with kid gloves. You say this wasn't to censor, but by taking away the very thing that prompts the debate you rob us of the chance to make up our own minds.