Petra Collins isn’t interested in conforming to art world hierarchy. Hell-bent on pushing aside the mainstream, prescribed notions of what we have been told are ‘beautiful’ and ‘feminine’, she is focused on making room for realism i.e., ourselves, unfiltered. Operating amongst a commercialised media space that is often fuelled by click bait feminism, Collins and her creative collaborators continue to inaugurate the feminist consciousness of a new generation. By way of iconography, videography and art, her latest project which was co-curated alongside best friend and artist Madelyne Beckles this weekend, bore no exception.
Drawing inspiration from Lorraine O’Grady’s 1992 essay Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity, the pair staged a live performance at New York’s MoMA, titled In Search of Us, as part of the museum’s ongoing PopRally series. Speaking to Dazed, hours before the show, Collins encapsulates the concept: “We will be confronting traditional representations of the female form throughout the art historical canon – which notoriously excludes bodies of work by such historical “others” as women, gender nonconforming individuals, and persons of colour.”
There is no denying that diverse representation in high-art has been unbalanced, favouring white creatives, consumers and representations of, over all else. Both Beckles and Collins reference this head-on: “The world is still uncomfortably lacking in a range of faces, backgrounds, skin colours and body sizes.” When I asked how In Search of Us will counteract this message, Beckles explains: “The piece will live amongst the MoMA’s entire collection of work. It will amplify the voices of those who have been silenced.”
Purposefully steering away from “biological existentialism and nudity” in favour of iconography and symbolism, Beckles and Collins will use the show as an opportunity “to start undoing notions of all that we associate with women.” Together they continue, “we are not trying to talk about the female nude, we are trying to unpick femininity and representation by removing concentration on genitalia.”
Ahead of the show this weekend, we spoke to the artists, collaborators and best friends to find out more.
I love that the show statement reads like a manifesto. How did the conversation leading to In Search of Us begin?
Madelyne Beckles: It started off with a photograph of me taken a few years ago. The project that this was initially taken for actually fell through, but we continued to work towards similar ideas and concepts – all centring on the reinvention of art-history through contemporary imagination.
So yeah, when the MoMA thing came up we saw the opportunity to bring this to life on a much larger scale. MoMA offered up the ultimate opportunity to amplify a multitude of voices and bodies, that had previously been excluded in the canon of art history.
Petra Collins: The fact that we will were able to work with a big institution was a huge catalyst. I mean there are teams who we work with all the time, but because we had the privilege to host our piece in such a big institution that would generally exclude work from women and people of colour – well that direct contrast and that scale was a no-brainer for us.
MoMa’s entire collection is going to be open to the entire public to view. It puts our work in the context of that, so it’s cool that In Search of Us will be in direct conversation with the rest of the gallery.
Time was a central theme to this piece. How did you navigate between past, present and future gender ideals?
Madelyne Beckles: We weren’t ever directly referencing a specific piece of work as such. Instead, we were trying to play with the nuances of contemporary culture and traditions. We used iconography and symbolism that felt somewhat dystopian in tone to navigate between past, present and future. Like the ‘reclining pose’ and ‘still life’ etc… we tried to make these old-age signs of traditional, often spoon-fed feminine ideals feel nuanced.
Petra Collins: Yes, it was actually about creating something that could have literally lived in the past too. Like the show could have been a painting created in the past – only it isn’t, it’s contemporary. The audience will be encouraged to take pictures on their phones, which means that although the art show will live for one night only in a tangible sense, it transcends time via social media and digital platforms. The show moves from IRL to URL – literally.
“Because of where the world is at right now, we really need to start undoing notions of all that we associate with women. We will be taking away the concentration on female genitalia, nudity will play no part” – Petra Collins
The show will incorporate so many different forms and collaborations, was this another way of encouraging female collectives to work together?
Petra Collins: Absolutely, I guess the multifaceted nature came out of us wanting to amplify as many voices and talents as we could! I mean there are eight women working on this: our amazing set designer, Lauren Nikrooz. Zara Mirkin our stylist and fashion designer. And, our performers Monica Hernandez, Kalena Yiaueki and Samira Alfarius of Jungle Pussy. Plus, our killer DJ, Madeline Pool. These girls are so ahead of their game culturally, but often don’t get the recognition they deserve – so we wanted to push them into a high-art context as opposed to popular culture, fashion or music to give them their voice artistically. These girls are all artists.
Film and videography are key. Madelyne created a video that will live online as a digital salon on Instagram. Grace Miceli and Aleia Murawski created videos too, both will be on display in the museums, they will be playing on the screens in the lobby where the piece will live. It’s a fully thought-out performance, that will read as an art show.
Why do you think the female form is still facing objectification?
Petra Collins: Because of structures of supremacy. We’re always just objectifying women, so this piece is really meant to amplify women's subjectivity. We are trying to stay away from biological existentialism, so there’s not going to be much nudity in the show. We are not trying to talk about the female nude, rather we will be interrogating femininity and representation as an art.
I think because of where the world is at right now, we really need to start undoing notions of all that we associate with women. We will be taking away the concentration on female genitalia, nudity will play no part.
Madelyne Beckles: Petra is right, In Search of Us isn’t about nudity. We were actually interviewed by a man before and he kept imposing the female nude on us – instead of focussing on what the show is really about – women making art about women – nudity has nothing to do with it.
You will also be partnering with Instagram, who will post commentary on their flagship account. Do you think social media is helping the accessibility of art?
Petra Collins: As young artists we didn’t really have a place in the art institutionalisation, we didn’t have a platform to get our work out there. Instagram gave us a voice. It’s really cool that the MoMA have been posting the work we have curated ahead of the show, because you know, the thing about art is that it’s only for a small, privileged audience, not everyone has the time and can afford to buy tickets to a show. Having a digital platform like Instagram, is a way to reach the masses. It is a way for the girl to see something different, if she doesn’t have the time or the money to go to a museum.