Alexis Hunter is one of the best known artists of feminist art, a movement born in the years 1960/70, of which she is one of the most active representatives in England. In her photographic series which she often cuts up in narrative sequences, she questions the look in its sexist dimension by reversing codes specific to types: a tattoo on a woman’s shoulder, a manicured hand caressing engines full of sludge, etc. Her very latest photographic works are on the subject of demonstrators, Iranian women or “Stuckists” from the name of a group of artists. With emancipation always in the camera’s objective... Alexis Hunter was born in New Zealand in 1948. She lives and works in London since 1972.
interview with artist and Marie-Émilie Fourneaux
is your path to art and especially ‘feminist art’?
My parents emigrated from Australia and they settled in Titirangi, in the beautiful Waitakere Ranges near Auckland, New Zealand. Many artists from Europe had arrived there because of the impact of the last World War on their countries. My twin sister and I were holding painting exhibitions by the time we were eleven years old. At art school I studied painting and had an interest in subverting the History of Art with a series of male portraits, so I was already a politically engaged artist by the time I joined the British Artist’s Union in 1972. In the AU Women’s Workshop (a women’s work group within the Artist’s Union) there were debates on the ideas of feminist theory and we went on to organise exhibitions of Feminist Art throughout the 1970s.
What are the intentions of the photo series you did in the 70’s about? For example ‘Object series’?
The ‘Object series’ was an extension of the portraits of men I had made at art school, but by 1973 it became a photographic documentation inspired by the new Feminist theory on film. This project led to a very large painting in the photo-realist style, which is now in the Auckland City Museum, and lately shown at ‘WACK! Art and The Feminist Revolution’ (curated by Connie Butler) that was first shown at the Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles. I was interested in how we look at different mediums, together with the power of display. The ‘Object series’ is an investigation into the sexism of the gaze and both the gender and the viewer of the model. As far as the story behind the third photo series, it goes like this: When I was in New York, seeing the man I wanted to photograph lounging in the sun in West Broadway, I wondered how to approach him. That evening a friend asked if I would like to meet the SoHo jeweller Alex Streeter... and it was the same person! I posed Alex on the rooftops of New York, with the World Trade Centre displayed behind him, representing the phallic desires of American Capitalism.
The model is naked in the series ‘The Model’s Revenge’. Richard Saltoun, your gallery owner told me that, although these photographs are about revenge over the instrumentalisation of the woman as a model, they are no less attractive to men. He also said that you were conscious of this paradox. Could you elaborate on that?
I wanted the combination of glamour photography and the gritty reportage style I used to reveal the tensions between the exhibitionism of the model but also her anger at always being observed. The writer John Berger discusses women’s psychological internalisation of always being watched in his seminal essay of 1973 ‘Ways of Seeing’. To evoke arousal is intentional - first the gaze is attracted to the nudity - then the reading of the narrative of violence-- symbolised by the revolver--leads to the shame of looking, or the denial of consumption. So this frission of looking and feeling stimulates thinking, hopefully, of the way we consume images.
VALIE EXPORT, another Feminist artist who is Austrian comes to mind. I 1969 she did the performance piece “Genital Panic”: the artist walked among the audience in a porn theatre, her trousers were cut at the crotch and her genitals were exposed; in her hand, she held a machine gun. If I’m not mistaken, you discovered her very recently, which is very surprising. Why is that?
I have only recently seen the image from the performance you mention in the DONNA Sammlung Verbund (Vienna) Collection catalogue, although I was aware of her film work previous to that. At the ‘WACK!’ exhibition I was excited to see many works by European Feminists that parallel the British Movement in the 1970s, but we had no access to these images then. At that time only the films of French Feminists were shown at the London Film Co-operative. London Feminists had far more contact with American artists. I think this was because we shared the English language and also American artists were experienced at promoting themselves in the art market, so became more visible, such as the artist Judy Chicago. The Feminist Art Movement was truly international and more historical parallel art works will be uncovered by researchers, writers and curators. It is also very instructive for galleries such as Richard Saltoun to show this work at the international Art Fairs. People can see historical political art for the first time and wonder what other works there are in the archives of my generation.
What is the subject of the series ‘Approach to Fear’? It seems that you’ve created several small photographic series grouped under that title.
This series is a collection of narrative sequential photographs consisting of from five images to a hundred and twenty images in a sequence, altogether thirty art works, made between 1976 to 1981. They all track the fear of feminism, the change to society and individuals (both men and women) by the Feminist Revolution. The images are populist, the aesthetic taken from “glossy” magazines and television advertising. They are basically ritualistic performances that are documented, like a witch’s spell.
The photos you have taken recently seem to be in the style of a documentary, but they are in reality very composed. What are your current projects?
My most recent photographs have been of street demonstrations in London, Iranian women fighting fundamental patriarchy and the radical group of painters called the Stuckists protesting in front of the Tate Gallery. I have a good idea of the images I want, and can stand for hours in the freezing cold for the right combination of organic movement against formal structures to happen. I fit the protestors into the picture and tell them not to get into a pose. The wind blows, clouds come over the sun, it rains on the Stuckist protester dressed as a clown - and then I have my photograph. So you can see it is quite difficult, for me and the protestors. They are artists and know this unique image is important for me.
You also paint. Could you say a few words about your paintings as well?
In painting I tend to work through one main idea at a time, for instance in the series ‘Conflict of the Psyche’, I used medieval symbols of animal chimerae as metaphors for psychological conflict in the modern world. The subjects are war, climate change, and economics. Visualisations of these themes are great birds of prey over cities, chimerae, dragons in burning lakes and so on. I have recently started a series of French landscapes about the First World War. Influences for paintings are Artemisia Gentileschi, Courbet, Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, and Gauguin. I studied the Old Master techniques and value capturing emotion through technique. If there was a label for my painting it would be ‘Expressionist Symbolist’. The painting are still issue-based, but I know the medium must come first, so the intentions are more obscure that the photographic series.
Do you think the Feminist movement is as dynamic as it should be nowadays?
I did despair that Feminism was just a time in history that had passed but now there is a new generation of Feminists who have taken to street protests like the ‘Reclaim the Night’ movement (a feminist group that fights against sexual violence and for equality of the sexes). The Third Wave, as it is called, is even more international than before, helped by the internet. People are generally more educated and have learnt other languages and that helps us to work together globally.
Do women artists struggle more for a place in the art world?
The problem is that the trustees of museums are mainly men, and they collect art made by men. Even though many women work in the art market, they only provide the art that the male collectors want. It is a marketplace, like any other. But now, wealthy young women collectors are demanding art by women artists that they can identify with. Collectors are realising what a huge influence the Feminist Art Movement was on the last thirty years of contemporary art and the interest is suddenly very high. Many works were impermanent, or have been lost or destroyed, so it is quite rare too, which gives it value.
Do you think that women artists in countries where women’s rights are not recognized can follow in your footsteps from forty years ago? Can art help to change the world?
What is important is that artists lend their voice to expressions of freedom in their own unique way. Sometimes an artist’s complex reading of a situation, which then can be put in a simple pure image, can help a movement become more popular. Art is an expressive medium, and if it is used to portray the values of a retrogressive regime, the art will be stilted and lifeless. That is why fascistic regimes always kill the poets and writers, and ban contemporary artists from showing. Just by the making of it, real art becomes the voice of freedom.
Women artists have played a great role in Art in terms of performance, of portraying themselves… Do you agree with that and which artists do you consider the most interesting nowadays?
The reason why many Feminist artists used their own bodies for art works was because it was considered exploitive to use another woman as a model, after all the use of models in art history, advertising and pornography that had happened before the perception of sexism. So it did not matter who clicked the shutter - you had to get naked for your art if you wanted a nude model. Jo Spence's work is just being re-discovered and as she was a working-class commercial photographer, she tackled issues about observation using her own body with great passion and technical facility. I also respect the work of young photographer Alex Brew. In her series 'Asking For It’ she contracts the men she finds outside strip clubs to strip for her camera, which brings up the issues of sexual observation, the dangers of casual sexual encounter, and the voyeurism of the observer, whether as a strip-club customer, female photographer, or us, who are in a gallery looking at these embarrassed men taking off their vests and underpants. This work of Alex’s is a contemporary continuation of my ‘Rapport series: Yes, No, Maybe’; documentation of flirtatious encounters with strangers in the street started in 1973. In conclusion I think Feminist Art is the most powerful theoretical movement of Modern Art, but much has to yet to be discovered.