The personal is resistance

“I write because I so deeply want to speak” wrote Clarice Lispector in the critically acclaimed Água Viva. Focusing on one’s instinctive, personal voice, the writer inevitably becomes a vessel for political resistance — and she is not alone.  Other artists such as Pina Bausch or Chantal Akerman paved the way for 26-year-old British photographer Natasha Mabille. Influenced by their confessional yet political pieces, Mabille has found her own language to resist through stillness.

It always starts with the small things

A term that has become fundamental for today’s many artistic expressions is “the personal is political”. Young artists expose their life stories in deeply autobiographical tales — whether through literature, film, or even television series – we watch new creators explore their intimate experiences, sometimes even placing themselves as actors in the preferred form of stage. The outcome of this movement is an inevitable form of political discourse – one that is not necessarily referring to any electoral process, but rather to the relations of power in contemporary culture.

To understand this maxim, we should go back to its origin. The connections between one’s personal experience and a general political structure were made famous through the 1969 publication of second-wave feminist Carol Hanisch’s essay with this title. The idea summarized that a woman’s experience in her household was relevant to the social structure of America, as the solutions to their problems concerned millions of other women in the country. It became clear that there was a big value in support groups and open dialogue on subjects such as abortion or the division of labor in the household.

When it all translates into art

Shedding light on what is domestic is a natural practice for many artists. This focus on the trivial can very often become, with its final dissonance, a political piece. Natasha Mabille is an artist that brings this combination into her work, focusing first on what she considers diaristic, records of everyday life. “In a way, it’s trying to capture life and memories, and having my pictures as objects that I can keep to remember everything.” The political aspects are only brought up as an intuitive, inevitable result of what she chooses as subjects; delicate, yet ferocious portraits of femininity. The ferocity in this equation is a force of its own — the artist addresses it as “the deliberate rejection of depicting desire and sexuality in a way that is not constructed from the male gaze”. This resistance to the norm of how one sees women is, of course, a political one. 

Amongst the artworks of other women, a common, unintentional discourse seems to echo through. Artists whose practices are focused on expressing what lives deep within their souls, seem to thrive by carrying a desperate scream for exposure. It is one that speaks about their own experience – a statement that only translates as legitimate because it’s very easily identifiable: artists like Pina Bausch, Chantal Akerman and Clarice Lispector present visceral, intimate stories that can only be read as the expression of their inner voice.

“This is not a message of ideas that I am transmitting to you,” Lispector writes in Água Viva, “but an instinctive ecstasy of whatever is hidden in nature and that I foretell.” The Brazilian writer, known for her intimate, intuitive narrative, explains her wish to only address what is deep within, rather than any type of discourse.  The same was expressed in different terms by Mabille: “[My work] is never something that can be whole because even though it is not really aiming to be a [political] resistance, it is one to the ways women are told to be.”, she explains. It is by being deeply personal that they manage to reach a greater structure.

When discussing the photographer’s work, we can’t help but constantly cite other artists whose work were commonly tied to a discourse of liberation. Once again, this is rarely addressed as much as it is represented through their art. The two main ones are Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman and German choreographer Pina Bausch. Mabille argues that what Akerman and Bausch do is trying to show us things that today are invisible, things we have forgotten, and how these embedded ways of moving ourselves and interacting with other people have actually been inscribed to us by society and by patriarchy.

Pina Bausch’s form of resistance to this patriarchal norm is another depiction of the personal — one that is more directed to an urban, social setting. Mabille cites the familiar ritual of seduction, performed every day by men in cafés depicted in 1978’s Kontakthof.

A fragment of the ballet “Kontakthof” Pina Bausch from the film Rainer Werner Fassbinder “Theater in Trance” (1981).

The exaggeration and repetition are a rather explicit way of saying, in Mabille’s interpretation, “this is an absurd thing that we do, and it’s patriarchy that has created this, yet we still do it every day”. Chantal Akerman’s films, in yet another depiction of the personal, seemed eager to reveal sides of women that weren’t otherwise shown in film. Whether it was through the mere choice of telling the story of a housewife who is also a sex worker (1976’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels), or the vision of a woman performing non-sensical acts when shutting herself in the kitchen (1968’s Saute ma ville).

‘Saute ma ville’ from1968 | Full film by Chantal Akerman

As individuals, it is not often that we see the impacts of our work reflected on the collective, on the structure of our society. Perhaps what these artists yearn for is not necessarily to perform this impact, but rather depict the absurdities of the norm that actually affects them privately. It is through this intimate look into one’s own reality that their art becomes honest and of importance to our social structure — or, in other words, political.

Natasha Mabille’s work can be found here.
Written by Amanda Cunha Batista

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