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Serpil Mavi Üstün, Life is all about you, 2021.
Serpil Mavi Üstün, Life is all about you, 2021Courtesy the artist

Women artists share their provocative portrayals of fetishism

A new group show, presented by MAMA, celebrates women’s sexual agency by expanding the boundaries of fetish

The history of fetishism holds an intrinsically problematic relationship with women. Since Freud first theorised about the phenomena in the early 20th century, it has remained almost exclusively a behaviour observed in men. As such, women in art, film, and advertisement are projected in a way that appeals to the ideals of masculine heteronormative sexual desire.

Fetish, a new exhibition conceived by Sarah Emily Green and Asia Éléonore Feliks – the curatorial duo behind MAMA – attempts to reconcile this bond, presenting the work of 11 international and intergenerational women artists who unsnarl its history from the fetters of androcentrism. “For centuries, the notion of fetish has been broadly understood through the domains of transgression and masculine sexuality,” Feliks tells Dazed. “It neglects the potential it holds for more nuanced perspectives on pleasure and desire.”

The artists featured in the show scrutinise the social structure of fetishism; a structure that continues to incite objectification of womens’ bodies and undermine their sexual agency. Using striking imagery that both delights and disturbs, they visualise a narrative of protest that reclaims eroticism almost to the point of parody. “There is an inherent subversive power ingrained in the act of putting on the show itself,” says Green. “It is an exhibition initiated by women about women and including only women within the still male-dominated art industry.”

The show examines the principles of pleasure, portraying fetish as both personal and empirical. Artists conjure sensorial revelry through works that stimulate not only vision but touch, taste and even smell. “I can’t stop thinking that the world we continue to create suffers from severe aesthetic deprivation and flatness, often to the point where one forgets what it really is that makes them feel vibrant and passionate,” says Feliks. “The artists in the show not only reframe fetish from a woman’s perspective, but also open it up to a fuller experiential spectrum. What the show aims to portray is fetish as something fundamentally embodied, as a desire or a sensation that is triggered by external things, like fabric, food or skin.”

Green expands on this notion by describing how, in the exhibition, tactility is used as a tool to explore fetish beyond the purely sexual: “Historically the female body has largely been positioned within art as an object of sexual desire in and of itself. Through textured and soft forms that recall but do not represent the body, women artists have attempted to untangle these connections.”

This is perhaps best emphasised in Janet Currier’s unsettling doughy sculptures Chimera 1 and 2. Biomorphic cushions swell out of the rigid framework of wooden chairs where flesh and fabric become one and the same. Equally as rousing is Four Hair Pieces by Jane Hoodless, which is quite literally presented as a tactile ensemble of felted human hair. The piece invokes the Victorian age’s obsession with hair, where length, style and embellishments would have reflected a women’s changing role in society. Its ability to resist decay further preserves its status as a potent memento more, or fetishized keepsake.

Alongside Currier and Hoodless, the exhibition also features work by Basia Bieniek, Caroline Wong, Florence Reekie, Ingrid Berthon-Moine, Lorena Infantes Prada, Maayan Sophia Weisstub, Monika Chlebek, Serpil Mavi Üstün and Simone Haack.

Fetish is full of visual euphemisms that double as explicit declarations of sexual autonomy. A woman reclines in laddered tights cupping a half-eaten peach, jam squirts from a doughnut pasted over a vulva, figures suck at bottles in rapturous joy. Running throughout is this undercurrent of consumption that addresses commercial renderings of the female body. “Our focus on materiality in the show comes from the fact that pleasure and desire are both bodily sensations,” says Feliks. “The themes of consumption and food allude in some way to the well-known food fetish – more importantly, though, they aim to draw our attention to the inherent sensuality and pleasure one can find in food itself.”

In certain cultures, indulging in gluttony is often a taboo topic. Green describes a “narrative of transgression” that fosters a ‘guilty pleasure’ attitude around gustatory delight. “In Hungry Women 87,” she describes, “Caroline Wong’s woman sucks from a beer bottle which is exaggerated by the purple lipstick she wears. The bottle is obviously phallic, while the act of drinking directly from it may be perceived as ‘unladylike’. The colours Caroline uses heighten this sense of excess and frivolity, the saturation is almost ‘trashy’. However, it is also celebratory, revelling in a sexy sort of freedom and unabashedness.”

This important exhibition blows apart conceptions of fetish as a seedy perversion enjoyed by men, celebrating the multifarious expressions of sensation and desire that surface under the female gaze. 

“André Breton made this wonderful and equally terrifying remark about experience being locked in a cage, pacing back and forth, unable to emerge,” concludes Feliks. “I think a show like Fetish can unlock this cage, even if only temporarily, and let us immerse ourselves in our feelings and desires whatever they may be.”

Fetish is presented by the nomadic platform MAMA and will be hosted at 10 Greatorex Street, E1 5NF from 4-5 February 2023.