Ordalies des joueuses / Amélia B.

Exhibition of Amélia B. from 5 January to 6 March 2021.

Opening on Saturday, January 23, 2021 at 5:00 p.m.

Preview from 15 to 19 December 2020.

Dozens of young girls in red skirts and ankle socks play in a sort of endless farandole. They have strict hair does too. Their slender bodies already show the signs of burgeoning femininity. In some, emerging breasts start to highlight the waistline. Bodies are exposed, offered for us to see. Nothing scandalous except postures that reveal a nascent sexuality, allowing each girl the sudden and liberating joy to discover her body. Some are dancing. Their new emancipation is acted out in the form of round dances, minuets and gestures that fit graceful with the lavish nature around. The set consists of a few blades of grass and trees, hints of a jungle. Their candy-like colors imbue the picture with an atmosphere of quietness and deep softness. A few mountains on the horizon. However, a terrible shadow punctuates the scene through the tortured bodies of other young girls. There is something intolerably brutal. But all the girls seem to enjoy this savagery as if it was a game. Here and there, a few monsters cleverly hide in the crowd, along with giant skulls of antediluvian animals the girls use as a playground for their twisted punishments. We are looking at a theater of cruelty where the worst abuses are carried out. A theater of death, and of joy too. Eros and Thanatos all at once.

The art of Amelia B. is everything but innocent. It disturbs and confuses viewers, and painfully forces them to make up their minds. Are we looking at a brilliant repertoire of complex references to art history or at a radical questioning of the feminine psyche? A matter of sensitivity. Also a matter of opinion on what an artwork can convey.

For Amelia B., drawing is a form of constant battle. We can sense a revolt against a prevailing order, the invasion of images in our life. The work of this young artist who graduated from the Royal College of Arts of London in 2016 has little to do with the fantasized version of reality portrayed in today’s media and social networks. On the contrary, her work alludes to a vast and unbounded imagination. With Amelia, drawing is a claim: that of a slow-paced, solitary and refined practice. Her art seems to emerge from a performative strategy that allows her to put on paper a world that constantly questions identity from a female point of view. In that context, we should see in that crowd of young girls the manifestations of an almost psychoanalytical take on the conditions of identity building, and sexuality in particular. Let’s not be mistaken, Amelia’s protagonists, with similar profiles but different attitudes and gestures, are variations of the same type: the girl transitioning from childhood to adolescence, right before adulthood. They could all be sisters of one another, their alter egos, or Doppelgänder -the evil twin of Nordic traditions. Every girl takes the role of victim and executioner in an endless round dance where roles are constantly interchanged. Bliss and suffering go hand in hand. These protagonists draw the symbolic portrait of Amelia B. as much as they present a universal vision of the Western feminine unconsciousness.

The artist often talks about the intentions behind her work, presenting it as an exploration of mass psychogenic illness (MPI), a phenomenon that emerged with modern society and the rise of subjectivities. MPI is a specific form of hysteria. It can manifest in groups of young adolescents suddenly adopting violent, mystical and ecstatic behaviors, as was famously exemplified by groups of female fans at rock concerts in the 60s. Hysteria! We are now fully aware that the very concept of hysteria, as clinically defined by Charcot at the end of the 19th century, came from a desire to normalize women's social and sexual behaviors. We also know that it took part in a double-faceted phenomenon. For the “patients”, it was about claiming a repressed sexuality, but also about a form of compliance with the norms imposed by male patriarchy. Both a revolt and a surrender tangled in a complex play around the forms of physical and symbolic control over women’s bodies.

While Amelia B.’s work develops a reflection on the feminine collective as well as the ritualized forms of repressed sexuality, it also captures this crucial transitional moment when every girl grows into a woman, going from an asexual body into a desiring one, while at the same time subjected to social norms and fantasies. This spontaneous violence can take the form of extreme self-punishment (up to anorexia and self-mutilation) or symbolic brutality toward others, both rivals and friends. Here, the drawing takes on its full meaning, as it is not about objectively documenting what lies under teenage consciousness (as Charcot did with photography), but about capturing the many forms of sexual subjectivity through the means of drawing and imagination. In other words, this young artist knows that the communication technologies, the social media and the new ways of transforming our bodies are not tools to liberate us but norms that imprison us in a way all the more so pernicious as they are collectively accepted and solidified, including by women. In the face of the photographic image and fictionalized reality (play on genders) that we see on social and general media, Amelia waves drawing and the distance of imagination as a form of resistance.

But the power of Amelia’s work also has to do with her back and forth between the great History of art and its lesser-known chapters. For he who pays attention, Amelia’s drawings are filled, almost haunted, by the monstrous, possessed and repressed feminine figures that have populated Western imagination since Antiquity, such as the maenads, these women who used to celebrate the cult of Dionysus in violent screaming trances characterized by provocative postures. Amelia’s work also draws on the shamefully vast witch iconography, which, for centuries, constituted the standard mode of representation of the “crazy” woman dangerous for social order. There are many examples of such references: we could mention Charcot’s well-known photographs of hysteric women, the first pictures of criminal women taken by the police in various countries of the world, pictures of the first protests of the suffragettes presented as mental women. The long history of these kinds of depictions offers a wide panel of attitudes the artist likes to appropriate. More concretely, Amelia B. draws some of her inspiration from Hieronymus Bosch, from who she borrows openly fantastic imagery -manifest in her depiction of monsters- as well as the frieze format. Amelia’s work also bears traces of classical art, especially in the conscious elaboration of her compositions. But her practice also shows more contemporary and popular influences, like that of the Italian, Spanish and Mexican comics of the 70s filled with sadistic monsters and neo-Nazis raping and torturing innocent women with generous breasts, as well as the more recent Japanese comics with their sexy and rebellious heroines ready to kill any male getting in their way. 

All these references underly Amelia’s imaginary world, along with part of the recent cinematographic production finally featuring young warrior women that disrupt gender hierarchy. As for Henry Darger, the drawer Amelia is most often compared with, he remains a vague reference the artist parts from on many levels. While the works of this American artist who died in 1973 are filled with hundreds of preadolescent women subjected to the assault and torture of an army of despots, in a manner reminiscent of Amelia’s, Darger’s work contains a form of perversion and fetishism (especially visible in some of his postures that indulgently reveal the secret innocence of young female bodies), which is totally absent from Amelia’s work. The latter also owes a lot to the rich iconography of Catholic saints. From classical paintings to church sculptures (the ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini at Santa Maria Della Vittoria in Rome) to 19th-century chromolithographs representing saints in beatitude in the presence of God, such iconography offers Amelia a rich repertoire of attitudes, from the most obvious suffering to the most intimate bliss.

Amelia’s drawings crossbreed many references, which fusion participates in the representation of adolescent women as “desiring machines” (Deleuze and Guettari) and “technoliving platforms” (Donna Haraway). If the reconfiguration of the self requires extreme self-inflicted violence or symbolic violence toward others, so be it. But to reach maximum efficacy, this unleashing of a repressed unconsciousness had to take the drawing form, in a style and color palette that expresses the full delicacy of a fantastic and resolutely complex feminine inner world. Damien Sausset

 

Amelia B. (Amelie Barnathan) is born in 1991. She lives and works in London. She graduated from the London College of Communication in 2014 and the London Royal College of Arts in 2016. “Unsolemn Rituals” (her master thesis at the Royal College of Arts) was awarded by the Jeerwood Drawing Prize in the student category, in 2016. Her works also draws on the writing of karl Jung, Georges Didi-Huberman and Joseph Campbell, and their theories of the shadow and the alter ego. Amelia B. has exhibited in London, Paris, China and Mexico. Since 2018, she is has been represented by Galerie 8+4 in Paris and participated to several contemporary art fairs like Fiac, Art Paris and Luxembourg Art Week. Her work has entered several French and international collections.

 

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