Nemesis I, II, and III

3 Lambda photographic prints.

Exhibited on Through the Looking Glass.Representations of Self by South African Women Artists(2004), curated by Brenda Schmahmann, Albany History Museum, Grahamstown; King George VI Gallery, Port Elizabeth; Durban Art Gallery; South African National Gallery, Cape Town; Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg (book publication).

The Nemesis series represents an important shift in my art practice, as it marks the first time I work directly with my body and represent myself as/in an image. The series forms a precursor to the photographic prints on Dis-Location. In the images, I perform the part of both the seamstress and cosmetic surgeon, as I engage in a process of ‘self-fashioning’ my gendered identity.

Dressed in a Caucasian flesh-toned leather corset and white skirt, I am seated, deeply absorbed in my needlework. However, the focus of my attention is neither a sampler nor a tapestry; disturbingly, it is the flesh of my upper my arm, that, I first cut into with tailoring scissors; then stitch the cut flesh using needle and thread, and finally, fasten the ‘skin-fabric’ with hooks and eyes. Evidence of previous ‘work’ done on my body is evident in cuts, completed sections of stitching, scars and welts, while white markings and numbering resembling those found on dress-making pattern pieces indicate further work to be undertaken.

While these actions might be read as female submissiveness to, and compliancy with, dominant regimes, they also point to ways in which women in westernised societies feel compelled to submit their bodies to various forms of self-management in order to conform to fashion’s stringent requirements of thinness and youth. The means by which such skin crafting is exercised is through self-imposed practices of dieting, exercise regimes, eating disorders and biotechnology. The drive to fashion the body to conform to prescribed standards of ‘beauty’, ‘normality’ and ‘health’ points to tensions between women’s relative position of power and powerlessness within a patriarchal system. These positions shift between conceptions of women as victims of cultural exploitation that passively collude with, and reinforce patriarchal structures of power and authority, and as means by which women are empowered to negotiate their ‘feminine’ identity from within the constraints of a gendered social order.