Artist Anonda Bell reflects in her mixed media installations on a range of complex notions—from exploring different ways women have been perceived throughout history to environmental concerns. The entry point to her projects include homages to historical figures like the American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman who protested in her book Yellow Wallpaper the oppression of women at the end of the 19th century, and the Australian Lindy Chamberlain who was falsely charged with murdering her baby; references to cultural trends in psychology related to women’s anxiety and Hysteria; or environmental concerns referencing Biophobia and extinction.
Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to art.
I am an Australian born, USA based artist, writer and curator. I cannot remember a time when art has not been part of my life. Some of my earliest childhood memories are concerned with the making of art or seeing things that were so exquisite they left an indelible impression on my mind. I have had the good fortune to be able to structure a lifestyle which incorporates art making and being in an environment with intelligent and creative people every day. Working during the day in the city of Newark has provided me with access to the vibrant art scene of the city – with many places to experience art – including artist run spaces and renown museum and a library, each with incredible collections. I was first enchanted by New York City at the age of 18 when I paused briefly here with an around the world airline ticket that Australians are so fond of. I was mesmerized being able to see first-hand artworks that I had studied in poor reproduction through slides and books. For example, seeing a Mondrian piece at MoMA changed my perspective on his practice with a new appreciation of the tactility of the surface, the fragility of the cracked paint, and the innovative treatment of the edges of the canvases. This was in stark contrast to the flat, two-dimensional representations I had been exposed to for so many years. As a teenager, I was consumed with a desire to know more about the work of indigenous Australian artists – who, at that time, were not taught as part of the mainstream curriculum. It is hard to articulate the exact sensation of standing in front of a work by Emily Kame Kngwarreye. I could only imagine how her hand had flown over the surface, making marks drawn from life experience (culture and intuition), with a deftness many artists can only dream of having.
It strikes me that language has been central in all your body of work since early on. In an earlier project like Neither Shall You Touch It from the series Reinstated there seems to be a strong sense of narrative. You describe it as a version of the Garden of Eden that might exist in a dream. What is the narrative here, what prompted it, and what is the role of narrative in your work overall?
As part of my undergraduate studies in Australia, I took classes in philosophy, feminism, English and psychology. My understanding is that language does not just describe, or serve to the world we live in. Instead, at the very least, language impacts on how we understand reality, and more potently, has the possibility to create versions of reality. Stories that we tell ourselves, some internalized on a subconscious level, can influence how we respond to experiences that we have in the world. In respect to my work, I believe that artfully chosen language can conjure up visions which (amongst other things) may inspire, seduce, or repulse. The version of the Garden of Eden that I have created plays on age-old, bifurcated notions about the idea of a “woman”. There are two protagonists in this story. One is very well known – the Eve character, whose actions precipitate the expulsion from the garden. The Eve that I have created is composed of exaggerated anatomical parts – a direct reference to Sigmund Freud’s statement that “Anatomy is destiny”.
The other figure in my tableau is Lilith, the lesser known first wife of Adam. I believe she is often overlooked, or deliberately obfuscated, from many Judeo-Christian origin stories as she challenged the status quo. She was autonomous and her actions were in service to herself rather than other people’s expectations based on her gender. In return (depending on which story about her you chose to believe) she is a demon, evil incarnate, associated with the death of infants and utterly obsessed with fornication in the relentless pursuit of pleasure without any reproductive potential. Narrative functions as a way to draw attention to interactions, situations, and accepted norms for behavior which may (or may not), make sense in the present moment. Ideally, through my work, I would like people to have a heightened sense of curiosity about the world we live in.
A bit later you keep reflecting on language, literally focusing on words. For instance, Ways to Refer to Her, is a series of gouache drawings depicting 100 words used to reference women, and Yellow Wallpaper, is a series of silkscreen alluding to a book by the American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. What is the genesis of these two projects and how do you see the relationship between them and your earlier, more narrative projects?
Ways to Refer to Her came out of my intention to encourage extended contemplation about the many labels that are applied to women. At first, some of the words may appear ‘complimentary’ (and therefore something women are supposed to appreciate), but, in fact, I would argue that while many are obviously insulting, there are many others which are subtler and indirectly derogatory. These words may be no less potent in their impact, and in fact their power may be amplified by their insidious nature. Some of the words may be humorous, their antiquated nature rendering them harmless, but this does not bely their potency and genesis in oft sublimated beliefs about the potential of any woman.
Yellow Wallpaper is a conflation of an interest in the domestic domain as a site for repeated iteration of frequently interrogated social roles, overlaid with an interest in the location of women within formal, Western medical traditions (and in this case, with a focus matter pertaining to states of mental health). These stories both center the experience of being a woman and explore how this label impacts on an individual’s experience of life.
In Biophobia, an ongoing series of mixed media on cut paper, you probe into nature-manmade entanglement. You started this series in 2011. How has it evolved thematically and formally?
This series originated from incidental conversations which occurred when I migrated from Australia to New York City. In Australia, there is an understanding of cohabitation with non-human beings. There is an expectation that everyone shares their environment with other creatures, and some of these have the potential to inflict fatal harm (certain spiders, snakes, jellyfish). However, the modus operandi of these creatures is not to displace or eliminate humans, but to tolerate them and only attack when threatened or hungry. In Manhattan, I was surprised at how many people expressed extreme displeasure, and indeed disproportionate anxiety, at the thought of being in a space over which they could not assert absolute dominion by ridding themselves of any creatures that were deemed offensive.
Biophobia is defined as a sense of dis-ease in nature, and a derisive regard for climates and environments which are not human made or at least modified significantly by people. It is thought to be an acquired urge to affiliate with technology, human artifacts, to the exclusion of experiencing the natural world outside a constructed environment. This condition is a seemingly inevitable consequence of growing up in an urban environment where our interactions with nature may be limited to incidental encounters, strictly mediated, and moderated by the perspective of urban planners, or those who generate media content (and sometimes benefit from propagating a fear of nature).
The most recent iteration in this series is Skin (flora & fauna) Refers to creatures which may exist on the surface of any human skin. Skin is the largest organ of the human body, approximately 69 square feet in total. The normal epidermis is also a complex ecosystem. It can be home to approximately 1 trillion bacteria (approximately 150 times earth’s human population). Amongst these creatures are around 500 bacteria species. They are in good company with all the other creatures that live on, eat, or gestate on human skin, such as fungi, insects, and diseases. These creatures may live there, or they may feed on skin, or they may use human skin to incubate their offspring. This includes fleas, lice, bugs, mites, crabs, and bacteria. These creatures may be so small as to be virtually undetectable to the human with whom they are cohabitating, but for the purposes of the exhibition I have exaggerated their scale so they can evoke a true sense of threat.
All the pieces in the series are deliberately time consuming in their construction. The process by which they are created mirrors one (behavioral and cognitive) therapeutic approaches to extreme fear. It is thought (by some) that to eliminate anxiety which stems from a particular thing a person should be exposed to the source of the fear over a period. Repeated contact without any negative consequences may alleviate the apprehension, and eventually neutralize any intuitive, instinctive response to perceptions of threat without basis in reality.
The Suburbs at 4a.m. is also an ongoing series, alluding to both automatic art making methods (Giacometti, and Surrealism), as well as the experience of women in post war era till today. Can you elaborate more on this series?
In 2001 I completed an internship in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. They were in the middle of organizing a major retrospective of the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). My role in this process was to research the work of the artist, and specifically, how his artistic legacy could be seen in the work of contemporary artists. I already had an enduring appreciation of the Surrealist movement, coming at it as a psychology student, and seeing how their aesthetics and practice was based in attempts to understand the workings of the human mind. I also appreciated that the Surrealists were a diverse group, and one of the first art movements to include many women, who were active alongside their male counterparts. Giacometti had a fleeting affiliation, before being excommunicated based on his commitment to the actual world, rather than the inwardly focused emphasis on the psyche, as a source of inspiration for art making. In 1932 Giacometti created a work titled The Palace at 4 a.m. This piece drew heavily on his personal experience (a brief, sex-laden encounter with a woman known only as Denise), and automatic art making techniques gleaned from association with the Surrealist movement. His work reads as a dream sequence – there is a stage like scene, with a suggestive narrative and clues indicating the presence of people with power and wealth engaging all kinds of behavior at a luxurious palace in the middle of the night.
My work responds to this piece, but it is not intended to be a linear, illustrated story. It is instead a deliberately ambiguous and rambling mess of complicated impressions that may come from the mind of a suburban insomniac at 4 a.m. My work references ideas about gender, the value of labor, witchcraft, and the current climate in the United States (where some women continue to be relegated to retrograde stereotypical roles). In the pandemic world, it has been said by some that women have been disproportionately impacted, attempting to balance even more sometimes competing needs for the family unit in a world which shifts each time new strains of the COVID virus appear. For the women depicted in my artwork, works there is a niggling sense of impending doom associated with the threat of diminished rights over their own bodies, the future is anything but bright and shiny.
What would you like to share on your Guttenberg Arts residency?
As a resident at Guttenberg Arts, I started a new series of ceramic works. I am particularly drawn to clay for its inherent haptic qualities by way of my response to prolonged pandemic-life conditions. This new series of work is exploring ideas about extinction. At first thought, anything becoming “extinct” sounds like an undesirable outcome – the magnitude of something ceasing to exist, for all eternity, is overwhelming. However, the approach I have taken is to consider the genesis and extinction of animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, and viruses, as part of the life cycle of this planet, with inevitable change over time. My work references an interest in the artificial differentiation of humans and other life forms. In this case and at this time, there is much to be said about humans and the impact of their life on the planet. We are, unequivocally, the dominant species, for now. But this has not always been the case, and therefore it is reasonable to consider future circumstances in which we must face our own, inevitable, demise. Humans are directly implicated in accidental and deliberate extinction of another species on the planet. We are not the only life form to have this ability.
I have created these ceramic works drawing on vast and varied types of life forms. My works are fragments only, impressions of things of which we can never have first-hand experience. We have limited material remains, upon which construct imaginary impressions about things we have not seen, smelt, tasted, touched, or heard. The work is not intended to be replicas, but deliberated abstracted forms, each with a point to make about how we can think about the concept of extinction.
Anonda Bell is an Australian born, USA based, artist, writer, and curator. She is currently the Director and Chief Curator of the Paul Robeson Galleries, at Rutgers University – Newark. She completed her formal education in Australia – a Bachelor of Arts (Psychology & English) at the University of Melbourne, A Bachelor of Fine Arts at RMIT University, a Post Graduate Diploma at The University of Melbourne and a Master of Fine Arts at Monash University. She has worked in the museum industry in Australia and the United States and specializes in working with contemporary artists. As an artist, she has been the recipient of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship and a Jerome Foundation Travel Grant. She is currently a resident artist at Guttenberg Arts and at Gallery Aferro in New Jersey. As a curator, she was awarded an Australia Council Grant to undertake a placement at the International Program at MoMA.
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: email@example.com