THE ART ISSUE
Phoebe Collings-James is an artist who explores stereotype, assumption and liberation in her multi-disciplinary works. Rising to success through unashamed provocation and discussion of themes like what it means to be a woman, a feminist and “flesh-coloured” in 2014, she inhabits a space in the art world that, at first glance, seems contradictory: often criticising the representation of women and people of colour whilst working within fashion as a model and collaborator for high-fashion magazines. We spoke to her about her work as a model, as an artist and how, in 2014, racism still pervades the media.
I met with Phoebe a few days after the US shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer and the subsequent protests, during a time when conversations of classism and racism were prevailing through social media. The political was being made personal through a hearty employment of hashtags on social media and the “what photo would they use” campaign was trending, calling out media prejudice by people of colour posting photos of themselves in ‘friendly’ poses alongside ‘aggressive’ ones. Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr were operating as democratic platforms for discussion around race, gender and class – in opposition to a mainstream media narrative that was depicting a ganglands criminal deserving of his (inevitable) fate. It seemed like a natural point of entry into Phoebe’s work, which challenges the assumptions we often make in our daily lives – assumptions that, often, we are instructed to maintain.
“Racism is something that is very true in our media,” said Phoebe. “With Michael Brown, the first image that they used in the papers was his graduation portrait and very quickly it turned to one of him doing gang signs. And I was thinking, as a woman – god forbid anything happened to me – what photo would they use? Depending on how they want to spin the story, would it be me looking really slutty? Really sexy, like ‘did she want it, was she sexually precocious, did she deserve it somehow’? Those depictions can work in a lot of ways depending on your class, race, gender…”
This sort of prejudice is not restricted to newsrooms but seamlessly extends into the domains of art and fashion. One of the myriad issues that comes alongside being a female artist, especially one of colour, is that you can easily get lumped into the very limiting categories of ‘female artist,’ ‘feminist artist,’ ‘black artist’. I asked Phoebe at what stage she acquiesced to acknowledging the themes thatdo intersperse her work as something connected to her daily experiences. “Gender, sexuality and race were always things that were bubbling up within my work. Sometimes at different points I wanted to not address them as much because I think I went through a phase of feeling like ‘I’m just an artist, I don’t have to talk about this or pigeon hole myself.’ It was only when I started having a public voice, starting to do interviews and things like that that I realised it was important for me to say publicly, ‘yes, I am a feminist’; even if at times it hasn’t had anything to do with the body of work I’m talking about. In that space, when I was talking about things, it was vital to admit to that because I think sometimes to shy away from your political views or agenda is a bit naïve and insincere. I don’t create my work with explicit agenda of discussing sexuality and gender but it’s what I’m interested in. Yet the more we codify ourselves, the more it represses us and puts us into boxes.”
Phoebe started modelling at 14, but when she came back from holiday one summer, “someone grabbed my thigh and said ‘that’s not bone!’ And I just thought, ‘fuck this’. There were only castings for black girls and I wasn’t very black and I wasn’t very white and I didn’t like those categories anyway. I’d begun to develop my own ideas of what feminism was so I thought, fuck you, fuck you guys, fuck all of this.” Then, a few years ago, Phoebe re-joined with agency Premier after signing on and working in stores: “I thought maybe I could make enough money from modelling to keep things going creatively.” Her modelling work has accelerated her creative freedoms; she has been able to afford a studio and to work almost every day in it over the past two years. But, does this take away from public perception of her as a legitimate artist? “It’s a bit of a Catch-22 because, if you look on Google, it’s pictures of me at events and stuff – which is such a tiny portion of my life but it has definitely caused a few comments from curators and collectors: ‘is she a proper artist?’ But fuck them, you earn your money through far more dubious means than me!”
Interestingly, the artist persona is something that has often been a significant part of the lives of celebrated masters… “Picasso or Boyce or Warhol or Koons or Hirst… but there hasn’t been a female role in that. Louise Bourgeois was the ugly little woman who was allowed to be an artist because she didn’t try and break that and because a lot of her stuff was about self-hatred almost, and with Tracey Emin, ‘that ugly bitch’ is her persona, Sarah Lucas was allowed to do it because she was being butch. There aren’t very many examples outside that.” And thus Phoebe is sitting in an interesting space, hovering outside of both what we often expect from our female artists (aggressive and self-deprecating) and our models (white, mute).
There is an interesting conflict within Phoebe’s work as a model: she is mixed-race, the lighter of her and her sister (who has “dark skin and completely black hair”) and yet is often vaunted as the face of ‘the other’ within an industry that is still deeply and endemically racist. As Phoebe explains, “I definitely don’t think my face is the acceptable face of progress: I have white features, pale skin, wavy hair… all these things that are palatable, that Joan Smalls has, that Jourdain has. But until I walk past a blackboard with a girl who has black skin and a round nose and full lips and I don’t look twice then I won’t be satisfied. Until that happens, I don’t think we can give ourselves a pat on the black.”
What industry attention to lighter-skin models reflects is an attitude of polarity; either a model is white or ‘other’ and whatever that ‘other’ is, it is good enough to tick a diversity box in a shoot or campaign. “I have significantly more privilege that my sister” explained Phoebe “and I grew up dealing with that dynamic. Lighter skinned people do have a huge advantage and it’s great that the ideal is breaking away from one thing – but it’s almost worse, because essentially we’re now presenting a diluted version of Asian, or black, south American, whatever it is, and that is really problematic.”
The nuances of negotiating privilege are something often dismissed within fashion; one of the frequent rebuttals to fashion’s race problem is that it somehow exists outside of politics. “People say this is how fashion works, it’s frivolous, it’s fast paced. But it’s people who are being appropriated. And if everything was equal then that would be fine but it’s not so these conversations have so much more significance. You can’t be like ‘African prints are so in!’ when Africa is fucked. Making ethnicity a trend is not okay. Jourdain Dunn hasn’t had a Vogue cover. It’s just not on – and everyone talks about what the reader wants but the reader wants what you give them. You made the housewife want Beyoncé. You can make them want Jourdain. It’s possible.
And it is a silenced issue within an industry that, surely, tacitly acknowledges the disparity between the women we represent to those in the world around us. The less that we talk about the issues surrounding race, class and gender within an industry that presents the norm of aspiration to the world, the further we fall behind a world that is (hopefully, and gradually) shifting to a culture of openness; if not within politics, then within discourse propagated by digital media. The problem is “if we’re all talking about stuff more, if we all have this information at our fingertips, why the fuck are people still getting shot when they’re unarmed? And people are still doing shows without any black models. What the fuck!” While we’re all increasingly aware of the racism, while platforms like Jezebel, Bust, Rookie – predominantly online magazines who can afford the literal cost of losing advertisers invested in prejudice – count and make pie-charts of the varying ethnicities (or lack thereof) on the runways, AW14’s runways in New York still had less than 10% black faces walking, less than 3% latina.
So, what is the solution to a problem that pervades not only magazines and the arenas where trends are formed, but the world? According to Phoebe, it’s the young. “When you’re younger you can be more militant – and you should be. It really annoys me when I see 19 year olds and they’re already sucked in to fashion parties – I’m like, you should be telling people to go fuck themselves. Because later on, you’ll be easier swayed. Wait to sell out, tell everyone they’re fucking cunts. I think it’s important to be radical and your priorities change as you get older; children can change it all! So, do it! Don’t tell me it but just be the change, do it!”
And maybe that’s it. Maybe conversations around racism are becoming spent, maybe increased awareness is continuing to fall flat in the face of actual progress. Maybe we all need to stop theorising, summarising and analysing and – as Phoebe instructs – just do the right thing in whatever industry or space we inhabit; because, in 2014, we all know what that is. And perhaps making art that challenges and provokes is the first way to learn how to do that.