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Jessica Steytler

We talk to South African artist, Jessica Steytler, about her recent body of work, Stain Series, as well as her thoughts on the future of feminism.

Hi Jessica, can you begin by speaking about how you began making art?
From a young age I was naturally drawn to creating and expressing my ideas through art. Luckily I have very supportive parents and I always had a range of art supplies to use. Alongside painting and drawing I also picked up textile skills from my Mom and both my Grans. I learnt to sew, knit and embroider from about eight years old, I would always be making dolls and other small items. The making continued progressing and improving through the years, up to the point I’m at now. My time at University has played an extremely significant role in my work, pushing me to solidify my decision to take a creative path. I’ve had time to learn new skills and experiment but I’ve also been forced to contemplate the significance of my work and why I make it.

You use traditional crafts such as embroidery and porcelain, which were once tied to women's oppression, (it’s known that females would stay home sewing whilst the males went to art school) to convey themes of abuse, trauma and healing. In consideration of your Stain Series, how does the subversion of such traditional methods contribute to the power of these concepts?
The materiality and histories behind embroidery and porcelain certainly add to the exploration of these themes. Labour roles in ceramic production have always been divided by gender and this division still remained after production moved to factories during the Industrial Revolution. Women factory workers would mostly design and decorate wares, which was considered the more delicate part of the production process requiring the careful painting of designs. We know that, apart from the larger textile production done by women, embroidery was introduced by the church in Europe as a pastime for women to keep busy and prevent idleness. Both of these material histories are based on a sense of restraint, delicacy and quietness, and were not necessarily employed as a means of expressing personal experiences and feelings- embroidery in particular can be quite a private craft.
The themes present in my work are often considered taboo topics to be dealt with quietly and privately. In the Stain Series, by using embroidery to express personal experiences of trauma, abuse and healing the restrained is allowed to shout and the personal is made public. The viewer can get a glimpse of the otherwise private process of healing made visible through the process of embroidery. The connotations of femininity, quaintness and delicacy associated with embroidery lightly veil the messages in my work while also strongly conveying them.    

You mentioned that your work also explores binary oppositions such as art/craft, male/female, exterior/interior, public/domestic. Can you speak more about this?
The concept of binary oppositions has interested me since learning about them in a Classical Civilisation course. The Ancient Greeks believed that women were “lesser men” in a sense, and defined them as directly opposite to the positive values that men embodied. So while men represented culture, civilisation, law and the public sphere, women represented nature, wildness, anarchy and the hidden domestic sphere. My exploration seeks to understand what lies between these binary oppositions, what transgresses these boundaries and how two opposing concepts could be encapsulated as one.

In alignment with the theme of Edition I, (The Significance of Hair and the Subversion of Craft), I’d like to know what your views are on the continuous importance of body hair in feminist art and discourse. Why has the topic of body hair recently been revived?
Body hair and its presence and removal have always been contentious topics. In societies where hair removal is done without question the presence and displaying of body hair on women is a considered decision. While the decision is not always made as a statement I think that the fact that it does incite reactions ranging from curiosity to disgust does point to how body hair can be used as a potent tool in feminist art. Personally I feel that as long as women are questioned about the hair on their bodies it remains a topic worth discussing. I think that a few years ago popular feminism pushed the idea that women could be feminist and still be beautiful, sexy, hairless, etc. Recently there has been a turn to questioning conventional concepts of “beauty”, looking more to inclusive body positivity that strives to open the world to the many ways the human body can present. Body hair forms a significant part of this discussion.        

With ever-increasing rise of the power of social media, 2015 has seen more and more people expressing their feminism online. Where do you see feminism headed in 2016? What do you feel needs to shift in the current feminist landscape in order to achieve equality? 
2015 saw FGM (female genital mutilation) banned in the Gambia and Nigeria; Somalia has indicated intentions to do the same thing. I think social media has played an important role in opening up discussions of the practice and bringing it to people’s attention. The banning of FGM in the Gambia and Nigeria was considered an important step forward in gender equality in African countries and I see this as hopefully foreshadowing even greater strides to be taken in 2016.
I think that in order to achieve equality we need to adopt a more inclusive feminism that takes into account the many experiences women have, and  considers how these experiences are influenced by factors such as race and class. I feel that while inclusive feminism has moved closer to the forefront of feminist discourse there is still more focus on the idea of the white, cis, able-bodied woman’s experience. This needs to change in order for people to not feel alienated or feel that feminism is a movement that does not include them.  

Finally, what would equality look like to you?
When all people are able to feel equally entitled and safe to share in public spaces; when social attitudes and behaviour start demonstrating how equal we believe we’ve become… that’s what equality would look like to me. 

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