‘Playful, wild, sacred, iridescent, and unstoppable’: Year of the Dragon by photographer Alexandra Leese presents a series of nuanced portraits of women powerfully inhabiting their sexuality
Photographer and filmmaker Alexandra Leese has a love affair with erotica. “I’ve always been really into it,” she says. “I’ve tried to think about where that comes from. Something about it feels, to me, quite freeing.” Growing up between Hong Kong and London, Leese witnessed firsthand the shame that shrouds women’s sexuality. Now in her 30s, her work empowers it. Yumi and the Moon (2019) reimagined the Japanese folktale of Kaguya Hime, the Moon Princess, featuring friend and model Yumi Carter. Meanwhile, Me + Mine (2020) documented women at ease in their domestic spaces, photographed during lockdown by Leese over Zoom. It even featured a cheeky self-portrait. “Maybe [photographing nudes] is a way of working through that shame,” Leese contemplates as I flick through images from her latest project. It‘s her boldest interpretation of female sexuality yet – an erotic lunisolar calendar celebrating the Year of the Dragon.
As per the Chinese zodiac, the dragon will take over from the rabbit in February 2024, and Leese has approached the celebration head-on. She‘s cast 13 women, including singer Beabadoobee, model Kiko Mizuhara, artist John Yuyi, and photographer Erika Kamano, to embody the Eastern dragon – “playful, wild, sacred, iridescent, and unstoppable” – and the multitude of ways female sexuality manifests. “Even though [the dragon] is often more associated with the masculine yang energy, to me, they hold feminine energy as well,” explains Leese. “I love the contrast of power and softness. I feel like many women I love and know carry these traits, so it felt like perfect timing to do the calendar this year to celebrate the dragon and womanhood.”
The dragon and female sexuality are notably intertwined in the ‘dragon lady’, a stereotype invented by the West to demean Asian women seen as strong and sexual. With the antonym being ‘madame butterfly’, a woman who is timid and passive, it’s this notion of either-or that denies Asian women their plurality. “We’re often stuck in that binary between hypersexuality, fetishisation, and this docile, submissive stereotype,” says Leese. Year of the Dragon was a way to break open a middle ground that could hold the nuances, subjectivities, and contexts that women exist amongst. “The images are ambiguous,” explains creative director Nellie Eden, who collaborated with Leese. “Each contains opposing ideas of what female sexuality can look and feel like.” Whether that's taking a hit of a smoking bong, flashing fiery, spiky pubes, or reclining between silky, blue sheets, Leese’s dragon lady refuses categorisation.
In the calendar’s foreword, author Zing Tsjeng examines the distinctions between Western folklore, where dragons are creatures to be “feared and conquered”, and Eastern culture, which celebrates them as “sinuous and powerful”. Symbols of strength, luck, and transformation. Tsjeng notes that “the first dragon lady”, a goddess with a serpent’s tail named Nüwa, was, in fact, a saviour, not a femme-fatale. “With all stereotypes, I think it’s important to challenge them by complicating them and highlighting that nuance and complexity,” she tells me. “Hence, I wanted to write about the difference between Asian and Western dragons in this calendar and highlight the different personalities of the women who participated in the project. Asian women aren’t all one thing, and that’s beautiful.”
Year of the Dragon transcends the limitations of a typical 12-month cycle through an ingenious design by art director Jonny Lu. The calendar’s cardboard envelope unfolds into a frame so that the images, unbound as individual sheets, can be interchanged. Or, if you wish, all pinned up at once. As per Leese’s intentions, it’s a lot of fun, but there’s care in this gesture: a frame imbues the image it encases with value and protection. Thus enshrining the women with a timelessness. “We wanted it to be an object that people keep,” adds Leese.
Long a signifier of masculinity, hang an erotic calendar on the wall and it’s like a proverbial piss marking one’s territory. These objects have objectified us, have rarely been made by us, and haven't existed for us. Yet, Year of the Dragon not only reclaims the erotic calendar for women, and everyone, while making it contemporary and, crucially, playful. “It was important to make something fun and positive, like a celebration,” says Leese.
But Leese knows that the politics that encumber women’s bodies don’t ever really allow them to just be fun. “It’s tiring as a woman. Our bodies are policed and politicised all the time. It’s a lose-lose cycle,” she says. “Of course, there were discussions about the gaze. But I was at a point where I was quite exhausted by all of it.” Instead, Leese hopes the calendar ignites conversations about how women can celebrate their sexuality in whatever way feels good and for whichever audience they want. “What if we just trust that the women involved enjoyed the project and they felt good doing it?” she asks. “Even when women say this feels good, this is what we want to do, people say no, it’s too sexual. It’s too this, it’s too that. When can women just enjoy their sexuality in a way that feels good to them without people saying they’re doing it wrong?”
Leese pauses. “And if you don’t want to think about any of that and just buy the calendar to enjoy the pictures – go for it.”
I chime: “Or if you need a calendar.”
She laughs. “Exactly.”
Year of the Dragon is available here now.