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Text by Sarah Moroz

Les Branleuses

Photographer Frédérique Barraja presents her new, and slightly controversial, exhibition in Paris, putting masturbating women in the spotlight

Voyeurs, rejoice. Paola Bjaringer, owner of Slott Galerie in Paris' 10th arrondissement, and photographer Frédérique Barraja are now presenting the pleasure-performance exhibit Les Branleuses. Qu'est-ce que c'est, une branleuse? It roughly translates as "The Masturbators". Yeah, probably not the kind of vocabulary Madame Oudin drummed into your head during French class. The photographs showcase women in various states of ecstasy, but the inventiveness of the presentation prevents viewers from feeling like they're simply ogling naked ladies, pseudo-perv style. Instead the gallery created a context in which toys, literature, furniture, and graphic design interplay, bringing a real life dimension that softens what could easily be a fetishistic indulgence. The mise-en-scène is thoughtfully accompanied by the efforts of food creative (Rachel Khoo) and sound designer (Leon Milo) to create a complete experience. The photographs evoke contentious reactions, but unilaterally they prod discussion about controversial subjects that deserve to be discussed and analyzed and reconfigured: where the divide falls between public and private, sensuous and licentious, performance and naturalism, empowered and objectified.

Dazed Digital: How did you select the models?
Frédérique Barraja: Mostly through friends of friends.

DD: Why did you decide to do a documentary as well?
Frédérique Barraja: Because I spoke with my models, and I was really surprised by what they said to me, things I couldn’t manage to show in pictures. I decided to film and record them.

DD: What was the photo selection process like for the exhibit?
Paola Bjaringer: For me it was about which pictures would work best with objects. I’m not a connoisseur of photography; my experiences abroad have been much more interesting in terms of how photography is presented, how to display photography differently.
The selection is very subjective, but it was made in an ongoing discussion about the women. It was question of feeling.

DD: What is a branleuse?
Frédérique Barraja: A branleur is usually associated with a man, and I wanted to feminize it. It has two definitions: one is related to masturbating, otherwise it means someone who is lazy. You have to take the time, you have to be lazy and be alone to masturbate. It’s like a word game. It has both connotations.

DD: How did this come about?
Paola Bjaringer: We met five year ago; I was working on the sex toy industry, and in academia in gender studies, so this is a theme I’ve been worked on. We talked about doing this project for years. It’s the result of friendship between two women wanting to shed light on post feminist perspective. "What the hell is masturbation? Please show me". It’s not because it’s by a woman that I like it, but I do like her point of view, her mise en valeur of the woman.
DD: It’s a provocative title.
Frédérique Barraja: It’s not to provoke. It’s kind of slang. I want to provoke a woman to have a reaction about her body -- I want women who don’t masturbate to want to try. The girls who accepted to do these photos, they said it was a good thing to learn about their own bodies. We have the right to; we have to do it. So I did it for that. When you are in a couple, you can have sex and have kids and respectable families make love, it’s normal. Sexual freedom from the 60s was about having more sex, but never really meant having self-pleasure.
The idea was to do research about why we have all these sex toys, and we talk about sex a lot but we don’t talk about masturbating. It’s about self-discovery, like going to a psychiatrist.
Paola Bjaringer: A branleuse is a wanker, in the feminine sense. Les Valseuses [French film from 1974] is a reference too, about free sex. It’s plural; this expo is about the multiplicity of female perspectives, not only to wank, but to see the world. It’s the reason why I’ve done this exhibit and the documentary: it’s about a woman searching for answers about other woman, and in France it’s something that no one talks about. There is no word for gender, there is no such thing as "gender studies" here.
DD: What have been the reactions? Generational differences? Gender differences?
Frédérique Barraja: I can’t talk to my mom about it. She said to me “huh! Another exhibit where I can’t bring my friends”. She didn’t ask me any questions. I didn’t invite my dad, or my grandmother. Men love the idea. Women wait for men to make them have an orgasm, and a lot of men said women should do it more often just to know themselves. Women wait for pleasure, and it’s our pleasure, so we have to do it for ourselves.
DD: How are these photos different than the ones under the male gaze?
Frédérique Barraja: I’m a photographer and when they masturbated it was for me. It’s a sexual game. Some of them masturbate differently for a man than alone. When you have a camera, it’s not the same thing. I know it’s not the same thing; it’s the nearest thing to reality that I could get.
Paola Bjaringer: The big difference is that these women are not posing for a man; it’s women doing something in front of a women. Women need new models for our fantasy world, we need new imagery, none of this porno chic. This is a humble way, via experimental sensation, sound, taste: it’s an attempt to open up, it’s a new way of consuming female pleasure. We’re bombarded with sex, but when it comes to female sexuality it’s still problematic to show it and discuss it. I’ve been working with objects – this is my first photography exhibit. This is extremely aesthetic – no organs shown. Sexuality in France is a hidden thing, except for fashion. To show in the open things about female pleasure... if it’s not to excite male readers, then they say no.
DD: So what does feminism mean to you?
Frédérique Barraja: I think to do the work I’m doing now, it’s for women to have the same rights to pleasure, and to know themselves. Femininity is a strength; I don’t agree with feminism as equality, but giving oneself the right to be sexual in a feminine way. I think there is an urgent need to redefine or reinvent the word feminism, and we need a feminine perspective on life. Men and women are not equal, we’re different. And this exhibit is about that for me. That’s why we wanted to have objects too, and tell a story.
Paola Bjaringer: The feminism that will save us shows our beauty rather than the violence of hard feminism, I think we need to come back to sense of softness. It doesn’t have to be clinical. With female pornography there’s everything to invent. Neither crude, nor the idea that all pornography is violence against women: the softness of Frédérique's work is essential.

16 June-18 July. Galerie Slott, 12 rue du Château Landon, 75010 Paris