Strength In Vulnerability
Emma Steele uses textiles to challenge preconceived notions of craft based practices, drawing from a place of strength to express a feminist directive. Her 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork, which explores sex from a woman’s point of view, roots the traditional medium firmly in a contemporary context.
“Experiences leave impressions. The impressions are the aftermath.” explains Emma of Aftermath, which marks the second time that the artist has exhibited in the Bermuda Biennial. Her 2018 artwork Just One Word: Consent fused knit textiles with prose, drawing from personal experience to explore the trauma of sexual assault.
We caught up with Emma, a former BNG student currently studying for an MFA in Textiles at the Royal College of Art in London, to discuss why textiles are both misunderstood and underestimated, how they have given her a platform from which she is able to make her voice heard and why the fourth wave of feminism has brought us to the cusp of change.
BNG: Could you please talk us through Aftermath?
ES: Aftermath looks at the experience of sex. We are born pure and innocent but over time, experiences leave imprints on the body. The body adapts and manipulates its form.
Each person you have been with leaves an imprint. You adapt and change to that person. Over time experiences leave impressions. The impressions are the aftermath.
The knit represents the body. Each piece has a different print, created using my body, which is cut out of the polyester knit, leaving an abstract form within it.
Broken. Reformed. Marks disappear but the experiences stays with-one forever. Forgotten. Lost. Undefined.
I like the similarity between the representation of knit and the representation of a woman. There is a raw openness in the way that the knit falls when it is cut. It creates its own new form.
Experience. Expectation. Colliding into one defined piece. The aftermath remains.
BNG: How do you tell a story through textiles?
ES: Photography captures one part of the story. It is then placed within the structured form of a textile through dye sublimation – a print technique that allows me to print photography onto my knit structures – which further opens up the story.
The knit, with its tactile nature, represents a woman; her naked form. The photography adds layers of imagery to the piece. These are printed on both sides of the knit so that the viewer is able to walk around and examine it from both sides, a metaphor for the woman being displayed in her most vulnerable state.
To touch something. To desire. To want. To crave.
BNG: Aftermath explores sex from a woman’s point of view. Why was it important to you to tell this story?
ES: Sex has been stripped down and twisted back and manipulated into a social form, creating conflict within the topic. We are constructed and deconstructed.
Sex. Reclaiming. Judgement. Imprint. To be wanted. To be desired. To be loved. To be touched.
How do we cope with the reality of sex?
The experience of sex. Defining and remembering the experience. Reclaiming sexuality. Defining sexuality.
I wanted to re-introduce the narrative. To reclaim it for women so that we don’t live in fear of judgement. For me, this meant reclaiming something that I had lost.
I was sexually assaulted when I was eighteen. After my trauma I did not know how I felt. I had no emotions. I did not want to be touched. I did not know if I could be loved again. I did not know if I could feel beautiful and comfortable in my own body.
To be seen naked is to allow someone to see you fully vulnerable. You are at your most vulnerable state when you are naked. You are allowing someone to become a part of you.
I wanted to open the topic up, look at the emotional aspect of sex and the experiences of it.
The simple motion of a touch. To see. To react. To notice.
BNG: Both your 2018 and 2020 Bermuda Biennial artworks use knitting – a traditionally feminine and passive pastime – to tell stories of female empowerment. How do the medium and the message interplay in your work?
ES: I did a BA in Textiles at the London College of Fashion before going on to the RCA, where we were taught the history of design and fashion. I became fascinated by the historical portrayal of women though the lens of fashion, particularly the portrayal of feminism through photography.
Throughout history, different stages of feminism have continued to evolve. This is the same for textiles, especially knit. In the second year of my BA, I began to interlink storytelling with the use of knitting. Textiles became a platform for my voice to be heard.
I use knit as a portrayal of femininity. Textiles are misunderstood and underestimated. Historically, women have been portrayed in a certain way, as has knitting, and I am trying to bring the two together to explore them both and to showcase it as more than just a craft or a simple pastime.
BNG: Your work is an expression of female strength in the face of male aggression. In what ways has this impacted your artistic practice?
ES: I was assaulted when I was eighteen, at the beginning of my artistic career. Over the past four years I have explored the topic by creating two individual pieces of work: Just One Word: Consent, which was exhibited in the 2018 Bermuda Biennial and a dissertation entitled Am I asking for sympathy? Do I need to be looked at differently? Will you listen to my story?
These two separate pieces of work allowed me to explore and understand two separate sexual assault cases that occurred to me. It was a way for me to allow myself to heal through an artistic platform and identify my feelings around the subject.
Being assaulted has impacted my life but it has also allowed me to re-think and re-design as an artist. There is a long healing process to being raped and there is not always help available when needed. These projects allowed me to open up the conversation and explore a new form of creating.
I use my traumas and how I am feeling as concepts for a project. It helps me to explore things and it is a way of self-healing though my creative practice. I allow my feelings and the events that have occurred to me to define and lead me within my practice.
BNG: The conversation surrounding sexual assault has been amplified in recent years with the growth of #MeToo. How has the movement affected people’s perspectives on consent and sexual intimidation?
ES: The Me Too movement was first started in 2006 but did not gather strength until 2017. I am sure we all remember this hashtag appearing on our screens with friends posting #MeToo. I posted my #MeToo post in 2017. I was hesitant at first. I wondered how I would feel typing those five letters on my keyboard. When I posted it, it verified that I had begun to accept what occurred to me. I had announced to the world that this had happened.
The Me Too movement has opened a new form of feminism. We are now in a new era and the internet rules the fourth wave of feminism. It has allowed women to take their voice back and it has given them a platform from which they can use their voices. We are at the starting point of change.
BNG: In the past year alone we have seen the conviction of both Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein for serial sexual assault. In what ways have these high profile cases helped to shift the conversation?
ES: These cases have opened people’s eyes up to the sheer volume of victims out there that have been silenced for years and are only now feeling comfortable enough to speak up. The Me Too movement has helped bring the fourth wave of feminism to life. Feminist power is growing and it is allowing the victim’s voice to be brought back to her.
Let’s begin to open up the conversation about rape. Let’s let the survivor know they are not alone: “I know it’s hard, but if we don’t figure out how to have tough conversations, we will sacrifice another generation of victims” (Anderson, 2019, Time, 15 January).
This is to help further educate people into a better understanding of what consent is and how important it is to give it. It is about helping the victim to become more empowered in herself and to allow her to begin to heal.
Education is the key to success. Educate people about what they are unaware of. The conversation needs to keep moving forward.
BNG: Do you have any advice for women who have suffered a trauma similar to your own?
ES: I am sorry to anyone who has suffered from a similar trauma. I would like to say that what occurred to you is awful. Remember that you are a strong person and that you will overcome this trauma. It will not define your life forever. It may feel that way at the moment but I am a survivor and you are a survivor too.
My advice to anyone who has had to deal with a similar trauma is to understand that it was not your fault. You are not to blame. No matter what you were wearing or what you were doing, it was not your fault. That is something that I have struggled to come to terms with over the years.
I am three years surviving my trauma and every day is a new beginning. Some days I feel pain and anger and other days I smile and giggle like nothing has ever occurred to me. Let the pain come in and then remember that you won and that you are a survivor. Use that anger and pain to let you feel like a woman again – the powerful woman that you are.
To deal with such a traumatic event will change you. There is no way around that. It is how you deal with that event that will shape your future. Remember that you are a survivor and that you will overcome any aftermath that occurs to you.
If you are dealing with the trauma of sexual assault and would like to speak to someone the hotline for Centre Against Abuse is available 24 hours a day and can be reached on 297 8278.