A Different Mirror, is a new multi-disciplinary art exhibition that uses digital to explore women of colour’s perspectives on body image, curated by blogger and academic Hana Riaz, founder of The Body Narratives. Hosted at Brixton East from 25-27 April 2014, the works of nine women artists of colour will be showcased to “navigate, understand and own our bodies and our embodied experiences”, says Riaz. In the lead up to the exhibition, we are profiling three of the artists who use digital in their creations. Our second interview is with visual artist Lesley Asare.
Lesley Asare is a 26-year-old visual artist, performer and designer who, with her colleague poet Indigo Williams, has used a three-day poetry and visual art workshop called The Secrets Women Keep, to create a poetry and visual arts installation that explores experiences of shame. Asare and Williams worked with seven young women aged between 18 and 24 to create the installation, drawing on their own disciplines and practice as artists.
“We feel it’s a time to for us to explore being women of colour,” says Asare. “I hope women will leave the exhibition feeling more comfortable in their skin and that they have a right to take up space. Personally, I have felt that I ‘shrink’ myself in certain environments or in certain company, but we really want to empower the women that we work with to take up the space and to own the space.”
The idea for the interactive installation, and for A Different Mirror, grew out of discussions among the artists about body image and how they had navigated some of the issues: “We were trying to understand what it actually meant to reclaim, define and own your body and sense of self. How have we done it and what difficulties have we faced?,” explains Asare. “We don’t think there is a space for women of colour to talk about their body image issues, concerns surrounding shadeism, their sexuality and how our experiences and relationships can affect how we see ourselves.”
Exploring identity, personal histories and the representation of women within society and culture is core to Asare’s work. She graduated from the London College of Fashion with an MA in Costume Design in 2012, having gained an appreciation for different body shapes and sizes, and the stories women can tell through their clothes.
The costume-based performance I Shape Beauty – which also became the name of a project she launched with Williams – was an examination of the ways that Western beauty ideals impacted her perception of beauty and her acceptance of her body shape and size.
The project took her to Ghana where she met family members, including her grandparents, who she spoke to about their attitudes towards their bodies as they were growing up. “It was really empowering to listen to them,” says Asare. “A significant finding that I really appreciated was that they all grew up having their clothes tailor-made to fit them. This made me wonder if that would lead you to feel more comfortable with yourself, if everything you wear automatically fits, as opposed to having to go to a store and squeezing into something that makes you feel terrible about yourself.”
In the show Asare wore a corseted dress she had designed that transforms to reveal an African head wrap and a gown that allowed her body “be”. It was through this process that she developed an understanding of the “self-reflective” space she seeks to create her personal projects and collaborations:
“It was a very intimate process, and very rewarding. People got in touch to say it really affected the way they thought about themselves,” admits Asare. “I also have a younger sister who really inspired the project. From 13 to 18, she was a really active cheerleader, but she was the only black girl on the team. As a family we are quite heavy set, and I think within the environment she was in, she always felt that she needed to lose weight. That really bothered me so I wanted to do something to inspire the younger generation.”
I Shape Beauty has developed into a collaboration between Asare and Williams with an online women’s lifestyle publication, and artist programmes and workshops “dedicated to encouraging women to reclaim, define and own their sense of self”.
Asare says she is keen to develop the use of portraiture to represent emotions and open up discussions and reflections among young women of colour: “It’s not about your artistic ability – I feel it can be done by anyone of any age, or ethnicity or background – but about using portraiture as a tool to explore internal narratives, representing through imagery the things we have kept inside; the things that we don’t express,” she adds.
As an artist, Asare has found social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook extremely useful when it comes to connecting with other artists and sharing resources. She also believes that in the last five years women of colour have created spaces that are part of a “powerful” international movement.
“There is such empowerment now online. If you look at YouTube and Tumblr and the sites like Media Diversified, there is a discussion which is really important because before then, we didn’t have a voice, or didn’t believe enough in our voices,” she explains. “Obviously my mum and my older cousins didn’t have this discussion, so there is a shift happening. As much as the internet can make us feel uncomfortable, there’s definitely a sense that people are also using it to say the things that are important.”
A Different Mirror is a three-day multidisciplinary art exhibition by nine Women of Colour artists in Brixton, London from 25 -27 April 2014.
Interview by Julie Tomlin, co-founder of Digital Women UK.
About the artist
Lesley Asare is a visual artist, performer and designer who also makes solo and collaborative work. Her work often explores identity, personal histories and the represenation of women in contemporary culture and aims to create the space for self reflection, empowerment and healing. Asare generates work through the creation of abstract self portraits, the exploration of narratives within everyday objects as well as through the design and construction of costumes that can be transformed by the body in space. A 2012 graduate of the London College of Fashion, with an MA in Costume design, she has worked with artists such as Mark Storor, Rene Baker, Amanda Monfroe and Phoebe Davies and has presented contemporary work within Artsadmin Toynbee Studios, Lost Theatre, Bush theatre, ]performance s p a c e[, Steakhouse Live and The Hat Factory.