Rae Story reflects on how when male artists create works that dehumanise women it is taken to be a comment on society as a whole, while women’s resulting brutalisation, isolation and objectification is seen as little more than a sideshow. She compares this with the powerful art of Suzzan Blac who mines her own traumatic memories of abuse and prostitution to create a blistering commentary on pornographic, female objectification and paedophile culture.
Is Rene Magritte’s “The Rape” an admonishing of the way in which society sees women’s sex and their person as indivisible? The woman’s face that is also her naked body, that is also a representation of her pubic mound, that is also being entered by a phallic looking neck?
Or, as the image is created through surrealist automation (the process by which the artist just ‘gets the image down’ without prior planning), is this more accurately about a man’s need to dehumanize women – in order to enjoy them – directly projected on to a ‘sort of’ female body? A distorted, mosaic like body. The masculinist vision of female sexual functionality. Women’s bodies as a veritable jigsaw of sexual referentials, that can be wrenched apart and put together again in any number of different, delectable compositions. Breasts here, thighs there.
Perhaps, there is anxiety there – it is an anxious seeming image. The anxiety of men whose distorted projections have rendered alien large sections of the population. Women. Indeed, their own lovers, wives, mothers. (It is also meant to be an illustration of the corpse of Magritte’s drowned mother. Make of that what you will.) People, whose companionship men nonetheless, futilely, seek. Not in translation. Surreal, indeed. What pathoses!
But this knowledge – of his self imposed loneliness – is no medicine for women. For it is us who must cede to exile from our own full beings. Or struggle against it – in politics, literature, art – only to be batted down as stupid, difficult, or dangerous. At best, strange or niche. Men’s sexual neurosis is taken to be a fundamental comment on society as a whole, women’s resultant brutalisation, isolation and objectification? A little sideshow.
We cannot be allowed to unravel our actual thoughts and feelings in art because if our honesty was coolly permitted, our ‘enigma’ could not prevail. And it is this sense of woman’s ‘enigma’ that keeps the male artist in work. We are beaten down, in order that he might deliberate on us. Depictions of ‘feminine mystery’ are methods of control; by detaching some of the physical female characteristics and superimposing onto them dream like imageries, you take women from their reality – with all of their unpredictably and nuance and difference and ambivalence and humanity – and place them within the guarded corridors of male sophistry. Here, male genius after male genius can be reproduced, because this search for womanity is being wilfully carried out in the wrong places, in the wrong direction. Notably, in their own heads.
Sadly, of course, women artists have occasionally struggled to find themselves outside of the male genuis’s consciousness and have subordinated their self image to this fetishism. As art critic Germaine Greer argues, “Women of surrealism were endlessly arraying and portraying themselves, as often in carefully posed photographs as in any other medium […] even an artist as committed as Eileen Agar was prepared to drape herself in nipple-revealing georgette to be photographed dancing on a roof.”
Of course, some of these women artists, we are meant to believe, were ‘taking charge’ of their own sensualities. Nothing new under the sun, after all.
But in Suzzan Blac’s surrealist works we see no such fragmented femininity, no such flirtatious obscurantism. Like surrealists who have come before her, Blac has used automation techniques to conduct her works, and yet, the clarity of her dark arts permeates. There are dreams here too, elusive formulations and uncertainties, but the abstractness relates to more definitive fears and phantasmagoria, than atop the ego drenched canvases and photo ops of sensuality reclamations. Her paintings take us to much more aphotic places.
Suzzan Blac suffers with traumatic memories; the traumatic memories of abuse and prostitution. In making her art, she challenged herself to face these tribulations; she chipped into these rich layers of real macabre, doggedly pursuing her own hurt. She could’ve painted her suffering in coquettish sad glances from behind gentle locks of hair – as happens on the book covers of tragedy tales of child abuse. But why prettify it so?
One imagines that, despite society’s increased willingness to talk about sexual violence, there remains a thick residue of dissonant anger at those who expose the truth of it so viscerally. In our recent conversation, Blac describes some of the backlash she received when she first began exhibiting her work, “Some people were really angry at me. Called me hurtful names like ‘Witch,’ ‘Satanist.’ I have had people then apologise, saying that my imagery had triggered their own pain. Then there have been those who have led sheltered lives, who have been shocked and upset by my work, refusing to believe that humans are capable of such atrocities.”
Suzzan Blac was born in the English city of Birmingham in 1960, to a neglectful, dysfunctional mother, who hated her own children. She was sexually abused by one of her mother’s boyfriends, as well as by other paedophiles of their acquaintance. In her mid teens she was tricked into a brothel, raped repeatedly and often on film, to be sold later. After an unimaginable barrage of sexualized torture, Blac managed to escape, but was left with the remnants of post traumatic stress disorder, depression, narcotic dependency, and made regular attempts at suicide. She says, “I wanted to paint the story of my abuse, because I was hoping to aid my own recovery. I felt this constant pain, anger and ‘madness’ inside my head and I needed to transfer it into something real and tangible. Something that I could look at, analyse and process from a different perspective.”
We are meant to be cautious of art that has a therapeutic purpose in its genesis. And yet one feels this is a bizarre restriction – given that the results of such therapy, as in the case of Blac’s work, can be so blistering. The oil paintings are so methodically drawn that the work of the artist’s hands seems unapparent. The surrealism is configured with horror motifs and the result is something akin to cinema. It is exactly as though Blac has shuffled into the most subterranean fathoms of her own memory, nightmares, consciousness, took a few pictures, and come back to show us.
I asked her where her desire to paint came from? “I wanted to go to art college when I left school, but when I told the career officer this, he scoffed and told me to get my head out of the clouds. When I told my mother, she said ‘Who the fuck do you think you are? Get a cleaning job like me.’” How dare Blac imagine herself to be for anything other than servitude?
Indeed the theme of subjugation is rife within her work. In her painting “I’ve Killed Bitches Before” an expressionistic, but skinless, cadaver is holding Blac’s artistic doppelgänger against a wall, with a knife. The image references the first nights Blac spent locked in the brothel.
In our purportedly liberal discussions of prostitution, there is much talk of choice. But here Blac reminds us, in the world of prostitution, disenfranchised girls and young women, mostly from lower socio-economic backgrounds, are rendered sexual servants, considered, by those who use them for perverted pleasure and profit, to be forever teetering on the cusp of expendability. Be a sexual servant, be a cleaner? What choices are these. Indeed, Blac had none at all.
In “Shut Up And Take It”, one of her most powerful images, a masculine face, riven with risen nerves, a serpent tongue and a layer of aquatically predatory teeth, is ripping in to the girl, muscular hands pushing her into him. She is distinct from this creature – not a product of his imagination – and yet utterly encapsulated into his desire for dominion. Utterly unfree. She – to he – was an object for volatile sexual usage. Women’s sexed body as indivisible from her person? How different it all looks from the other side of glass.
Like Magritte’s faceful, faceless “Rape” the neck appears to be a jutting phallus; even the internals of the girl’s own head, penetrated. But, this is not a neurotic image, it is hellish. And yet, again, unlike Magritte’s, wherein the sense of female expression is distanced, oneiric if anything, the girl’s expression in Blac’s work is intensely knowable. Every woman who has suffered prostitution knows that face, even if we have never seen it.
Later, in Blac’s artistic career, she has committed to canvas commentary on pornographic, female objectification and paedophile culture. If her early work is raw, memorial, purgatorial – frames from inside her own head – her later work is her camera panning outwards, to the world large. Her most recent collection – Abasement of Dolls – is probably one of her most confronting. Here, once more in the surrealist style, she cross references the fetishized feminine form, with the infant form. The bodies are puppets, or mannequins, with removed limbs. Eyes so cosmetically lacquered that they seem to bleed. ‘Holes of entry’ spheres of muscle, mechanically framed. The female body cut into shape. Often only the body parts of interest and sexual use left. The initial biology sculptured to remove its messy corporeality. Here, the fact that modern imagery cuts women’s bodies into functional sexual service stations, is brutally brought to bare.
In a way, it reminds me of “The Chair” ‘sculptures’ by Allen Jones, mannequins, porno-fied and folded into furniture. We are taken to believe they are commentaries on women’s sexual objectification. Only, those images imply amusement, and are not distinct enough from the reality of the imagery they presume to critique. Made in the 1960s, the work hints at a middle fingering to women’s growing, political, emancipation. They seem to say,“Hay sisters, enjoy your liberation, but to us, you will always be fuck objects, all the same.” It is Blac’s work that is the real critique, and there is nothing here to laugh about.
Her painting “Baby Doll” is most potent in this regard. A dolled infant with silicon created breasts, garter and prematurely induced menstruation. Blac was poignantly sure of her reasons for this deliberately confrontational image. “We all know that one of the most popular genres of pornography is Teen. If pornographers could use children, they would. Just like the pimps who force and exploit young teen girls into prostitution and demand a higher price from the many punters who want them. But they can’t do that in (legal) pornography, so they use the next best thing. The pornographer Max Hardcore uses eighteen year olds and makes them appear younger by having them wear pigtails, braces on their teeth and actually buy (their outfits) from kids clothes stores. He then degrades, humiliates, sexually assaults and destroys them on film.”
In essence, hyper-unregulated capitalism makes no stipulations whatsoever on its capacity to make profits. The fact that the thwarting of the porn industry by child exploitation laws is so roundly circumnavigated by references to child abuse imagery and, indeed, a black market trade in child rape, is no mere coincidence. The buyers are out there. The fact that many men enjoy and derive pleasure from very young women, who could pass for young children, being sexually mauled, is the great, maleficent elephant in contemporary society’s room.
Indeed, whilst Blac was trapped in that brothel, there were ‘customers’ who helped make the fact manifest. Who are they? Where are they? We might be just getting around to some base political engagement in the culture of child rape and sexual exploitation, but we still don’t want to talk about what the implications of its existence mean. But Suzzan Blac does.
As she said to me, “They only made child pornography illegal in Japan in 2014. Yet there is still child abuse imagery available in video stores. There are vending machines for young girls’ ‘used’ underwear and child sex dolls openly for sale … So if paedophilia is accepted as it is in Japan, then we can see just how prevalent it would be in every country, if it were legal.”
So pornography is prostitution is rape. So women as artistic ‘concepts’ can be women as literal objects. And child rape, as crime, might as easily be merely child sex as a taboo. And when you look at the dollar signed eyes of Suzzan Blac “The Prostitutor” you see that the lines are all very blurred indeed.