Feminism bites back
It's the perfect badass feminist story: a young art student is told by her teacher to ‘dial back’ the feminism in her artwork after she proposes working on a project about the #MeToo movement. Instead of listening to him, she takes it upon herself to mock-up an image of a literal feminist dial, set to ‘raging feminist’. The image, of course, goes viral – her tweet about the incident has nearly 100k retweets.
Twenty-three-year-old Alex Bertulis-Fernandes is the artist in question, a student who initially studied English Literature before leaving after a semester following a severe bout of depression. She applied for art school as she thought it might help her mental health to get out of the house, which, she says, ended up changing her life.
She's currently on a free 12-week night course called, D&AD New Blood Shift London, a prestigious programme which takes on creative talent without university degrees, where she's focusing on artwork related to advertising, particularly in storytelling and copywriting. We chatted to find out more about her uncompromising feminist appeal:
So firstly – we loved your rebuttal to the teacher. Has he come back to you to apologise yet? What was his reaction to the piece when he saw it and what did you peers think?
Alex Bertulis-Fernandes: Thank you! He hasn’t come back to me to apologise, but I’m not expecting him to. Whilst I didn’t agree with his opinion, he’s very much entitled to it – just as I’m entitled to respond to it. When I showed him the piece he actually seemed to like it. He looked sheepish, but then laughed and said he was glad he’d helped inspire the piece. I had support from other classmates, both at the time and since the piece went viral. I think it helps that most of them are women.
Why do you think you questioned whether your art was too feminist after the teacher said it was, as you said in another interview? And how did you overcome that fear?
Alex Bertulis-Fernandes: I’m not a particularly confident person – it doesn’t take a lot to rattle me. As a creative, I spend a lot of time second-guessing my work, wondering if I’m communicating in the best way possible. I’m also, at heart, a massive people-pleaser – it’s something I’m slowly beginning to unlearn. So when my teacher suggested I ‘dial down the feminism’, my first thought was, ‘How can I make my work more palatable to others?’
In the days following, I realised that I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to be more palatable to others and that it’s not been a particularly rewarding experience. I also recognised that it would be spectacularly ironic if I chose not to create a feminist work because a man advised against it. So I decided to do it anyway.
“I recognised that it would be spectacularly ironic if I chose not to create a feminist work because a man advised against it. So I decided to do it anyway”
What advice would you give to other young art students who might be facing similar issues?
Alex Bertulis-Fernandes: I would advise them to create the sort of work they want to make, the sort of work they’re proud of. However, I’m very much aware that I’m talking from a position of privilege – I wasn’t concerned about being penalised for the work I create. I do think the best work you can create is the work that you’re afraid to create. And if you can’t express yourself through your art, when can you express yourself?
Do you think this type of critique could be common or does the British art world generally embrace feminist issues?
Alex Bertulis-Fernandes: I do think it’s a widespread issue, and numerous women have contacted me describing similar experiences. However, I don’t think it’s an issue confined to the art world or Britain.
How are you intending on developing your piece further?
Alex Bertulis-Fernandes: I want to push the concept of the dial further. It would be interesting if I could make an actual physical dial that people could interact with. I could record people’s responses to it, and experiment with an installation that changed in response to the dial reading at any given time. The piece that went viral is a mock-up, so I don’t know what form the final piece will take. I've had requests for prints, so I'm looking at how I might sell those in a way that benefits a feminist cause, perhaps through a partnership with a charity.
“I felt able to say no, and I was able to do it in a way that poked fun at what I was being asked to do. It’s a satisfying narrative”
Why do you think the reaction has been so overwhelming? Because people love to stick it to ‘the man’?
Alex Bertulis-Fernandes: I believe there are two reasons behind it. Firstly, I think the piece resonates with everyone, particularly women, who have at one point or another been told to ‘dial it down’. This might be their ambition, their outspokenness - anything.
I also think the context I gave the piece contributed to its popularity. Everybody can relate to being asked to do something they don’t want to do, particularly by someone in a position of power. It’s an incredible feeling when you’re able to say no, but people don’t always feel in a position to. I felt able to say no, and I was able to do it in a way that poked fun at what I was being asked to do. It’s a satisfying narrative.