My art is not an escape, but an extension of myself. I don’t think in abstract ideals or terms, but frequently feel suffocated by reality. I am not wholly politically correct, nor do I heed “trigger warnings” – my work depicts, at it’s surface, sexual violence towards women. Like many women, I have been a victim of sexual violence in my past but this is not a statement towards that and I feel it is important, as Bill Cosby’s jury comes to a deadlock regarding his drugging and abusing of several women, to create a statement regrading my series.
I believe it’s important to frame the context of this work in my personal reality; I have identified as asexual since I was fourteen. It wasn’t a big deal to me, nor did I need Facebook to recognized my sexual identity; I was simply uninterested in sexuality as an experience. Unlike many people who identify as a sexual person, I am not quick to place sexuality on an object or action.
I’d like to quote Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, who sat in a congressional hearing with Tipper Gore, and fought against the removal of his and other’s heavy metal albums from record stores. Gore was sure she had figured out the motivation of Snider’s “Under the Blade” and described it as a song that promoted sexual violence towards women and sado-masochism. Snider replied that “Under the Blade” was an allegory for anxiety during preparation for surgery and only a viewer who is looking for sado-masochism would believe his song fit that theme. Essentially, since Tipper Gore was looking to be offended, she found a way to be offended.
I don’t blame someone for sexualizing these portraits – we are most often exposed to this imagery in a sexual concept. The above images in particular were some of the first I created for the series – “Soul Sucker” (top image) would be the “single” I released from this collection, if it were an album of music instead of a series of illustrations.
Through much of my life, despite my asexuality, I’ve found myself dealing closely with the male gender; whether it be romantic or not. My father controlled my early years; I wasn’t allowed to dye my hair, have piercings in my ears, wear makeup or tight clothes. I wasn’t allowed to listen to Eminem – because my father was a huge fan of Howard Stern who had a large conflict with Eminem in the early 00’s and it had convinced my father that Eminem was somehow worse than he really was.
As I got older and began dating, more rules and regulations to my behavior, the way I spoke, how I spoke, whom I spoke to, what I wore – they all began adding up. Each man I experienced had his own slew of reasons as to why I needed to act a certain way; they needed the person they felt associated with to live up to their standards, regardless if they matched my own.
#notallmen — because I was raised to be predisposed to listening to a male figure and obeying the authority I imagined they had through the fear my mother created I attracted certain types of men who took advantage of the weakness I had yet to understand as a weakness. I struggled as an individual; no one to answer to, no one creating “rules” for how to live; what was right?
Through social media I’ve allowed folks to have a piece of my life, and it would be very easy to assume the male figure in all of these illustrations is the same person, a single individual but it’s not. It’s many, it’s every man who has given me a positive interaction in the past nine months; every man who has treated me above sexual gratification.
Over time the tone of my illustrations changed; I no longer felt entirely suffocated by men in particular. As the men I encountered in my regular daily life gave me the respect I deserved, my anxiety softened. Now they reflect a mutual respect, a learned integrity – it’s not about a male figure imposed over a female, it varies; sometimes it’s a man holding a woman, sometimes it’s a woman holding a man.
No one is ever seemingly trapped; the people in the illustrations are instead enjoying a trusted intimacy. I was careful to choose references that were not overly sexual – unlike the suggestive tone of the beginning of the series. I had learned it was possible, through experience, through responsible members identifying of the male gender, to co-exist peacefully, intimately, in a trusting environment.
If I did not have the positive interactions I did, perhaps the series would’ve never changed. I’m reminded of Tony Robbins’ documentary on Netflix, “I Am Not Your Guru”. Tony meets a survivor of the Children of God cult, a cult well known for it’s sexual abuse and trauma of it’s youngest members. What I was witnessing was the absolute worst of sexual abuse, beginning from her childhood and only ending in her 20’s when she was able to escape the only family she had ever known.
Tony acknowledged the severe gap that had been missing in this woman’s life – she had been used for sex, love was given to her through sex and it is one and the same. She is only deserving of love in this scenario if she is capable of providing sexual favors. Tony told her he loved her – he didn’t want her, he just loved her. He asked several male members in the audience to volunteer to be her new uncles & fathers & brothers. She did not need sexual love – she needed proof that the male gender was capable of giving love without sex. Eventually five different men, varying ages and races, volunteered.
It was the power of action that changed her perspective, and it was the power of experience that changed mine.
Amber Victoria Lee is a Brampton-based visual artist and co-founder of Peel Arts Collective. You can reach her at avl (at) peelartscollective.com or on her personal website, www.ladyofthebones.com