Updated: Nov 11, 2019
Jess De Wahls uses traditionally 'feminine' artforms to make feminist statements.
Can you tell us a bit about your new exhibition, Big Swinging Ovaries, and where the inspiration came from?
The original Big Swinging Ovaries title, came from my inaugural exhibition I crowdfunded and curated in London in 2014. At that time, my work was exclusively made up of Retex-Sculptures (3D relief portraits made of recycled clothing). When looking for a fitting title, I wanted something that conveys the subject of feminism with a humorous twist, keeping people wondering what’s going on, inspiring them to come into the gallery to ask questions about it. With the title, the logo was born, as I wanted something slick and memorable to go with it, and things just went spiralling from there. The logo has become an amazing way for me to communicate my feelings, thoughts and reactions to things like gender inequality, politics, illnesses, and even the odd ‘self-portrait’, like #Hungovaries. So, in short, my brand has somewhat grown into my most successful communication device artistically, especially since I discovered embroidery as one of my favourite mediums to work in.
You recently wrote a piece addressing the negativity directed towards feminism. Have these feelings influenced your work at all?
I’m sure they have. Everything does. I have come to a point in my career where I decided to not do custom work at all, which means, that all the work I do, is in one way or another, a reaction to thing happening around me, emotions the excite me or bolt me down.
Negative emotions towards feminism and feminists are nothing new, in fact, quite the opposite is true. But coming from a place and a time where being a Feminist is something that came very late to me in life (I was 27 when it dawned on me that I am, in fact, a big fat feminist), I would say that 50% of my time is preoccupied with trying to unlearn negative behaviours and emotions led by internalised misogyny. Turns out that East Germany is on a whole different level when it comes to feminism, because the ’women’s question’ had been somewhat side-lined or in fact absorbed by the socialist/communist idea of ‘everybody is equal. They weren’t, but they were a lot closer to it then in many other places as it turns out, so feminism is something that wasn’t part of my life until I moved to the UK. (there is a whole future exhibition in that…)
What really bugs me is those social justice warriors from within feminist movements, who sometimes criticize me for not being inclusive enough or accuse me downright of bigotry, simply because we don’t see eye to eye on every single subject. All I can say is I do the best I can to bring my thoughts across, trying not to upset people in the process. But if you create work that is making a loud statement, you are bound to rub some people the wrong way. That’s called art. That’s called communication.
With these attitudes in mind, are you concerned that your most recent message will change the way your existing fans feel about your work?
Not really, as I don’t create work for anybody but myself. Don’t get me wrong, I am so humbled and appreciative that so many people seem to love what I do, but I do what I can’t help doing, so if people change their mind about whether they like what I do or not, that’s okay too.
I have a little mantra that I keep saying to myself when too much stress is threatening to make my brain go on overdrive, it’s by Rupi Kaur and it goes like this:
“Let it go, let it leave, let it happen. Nothing in this world was promised or belonged to you anyway. – All you own is yourself.”
You take inspiration from issues that are important to you. Do you think waste culture and feminism interlink or relate to one another?
Actually, I’m not sure i ever actually thought about that. Those two things are super important to me individually, and both constantly make me realise that being human, is to be flawed, because with all the good intentions, I still feel that I can never truly do justice to either of those concerns. With feminism it’s the ‘unlearning bad behaviours and thoughts’ situation, with waste culture, it’s the fact that despite all the things I know, I still don’t lead a life that does true justice to those issues.
I do the best I can, and I reckon that is all that anybody can really do.
A lot of your pieces are very colourful, contain reference to iconic figures, and feel somewhat playful. How important are all of these factors in delivering your message?
super important actually. Colour is my life. It’s emotions visualised, and so to convey a message, using colours the right way is crucial and can be a super strong communicator.
The iconic figures are part of my experience and growth as an artist actually. I have read more autobiographies of artists and people that I admire than I can remember, and I feel that their life stories have inspired my view of the world massively. So me referencing them in my work should mostly be seen as an homage and a massive feeling of gratitude towards them.
Using puns and being playful with my work, is a reflection of how I see the world. Everything needs a bit of humour in my life. I find it much easier to communicate things that way. Of course, there are subjects that are simply too difficult to address light-heartedly, but I will still try.
So when I recently created a Big Swinging Ovaries piece about endometriosis, I used my logo and visual ideas to address something that impacts very heavy on so many people’s life, but the very fact that I brought it to the forefront of people’s consciousness with my piece, led to many, many grateful emails that I received, for making sufferers of this condition feel heard and seen.
What has been the overall response to the collection so far, and how do you anticipate Australia will receive it?
What started as a light-hearted creative and social exercise, has become a full-grown movement in its own right, and people have been overall responding incredibly positive to it. I think that happens when you find out what it is that you are here to do. People respond to clarity.
Big swinging Ovaries is not a statement on womanhood. It’s many a statement about people that have Ovaries, don’t have ovaries, had ovaries, or wish they did. It’s a highly politicised body part, one that impacts and sometimes even destroys lives. I am interested in them, and that’s what i currently explore. Having said that, the way that my creative career has evolved, has always been super organic, so this is what I do at this point. We’ll see where it’s heading.
I reckon Australia will love my ovaries. The mix of humour and serious issues, seems to strike a chord with many people.
What’s next for you?
So many things… I usually work on many projects at the same time. So right now, even before I am heading over to Australia, I am working on a banner for Processions together with Women for Refugee Women, as one of their 10 commissioned artists:
I want to teach more workshops all over the world, and share my love for embroidery, while communicating about the issues that worry me, and above all, I just want to keep creating whatever my mind comes up with next, and who knows what that may be.
Sarah Mackenzie is travel writer and marketing professional based in Edinburgh, Scotland. With 39 countries under her belt, her personal work focuses on vegan budget travel, alongside eco and women’s awareness topics. She also writes for online interview magazine 5minuteswith.