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Alicia Framis and Postcolonialism

According to Liz Wells’ Photography: A Critical Introduction, “postcolonial commentators draw attention to the vast diasporic movement of peoples around the globe; examine the sets of appropriations and relations of hybridity between colonizer and colonized, and problematise questions of identity and subjectivity (Wells, 85).”  Today, work of this kind is created globally by a diverse range of artists and photographers, each expressing individual societies as disparate in terms of “its history, its indigenous forms of image making and its cultural practices (Wells, 86).”  Within this postcolonial space, one artist in particular, namely Alicia Framis, is especially striking. In order to fully grasp the work of Alicia Framis, we must first locate her culturally.

Born in 1967 Barcelona, Framis emerged from an extremely resistant society, which stems from European/Latin culture and rests on the tradition of male machismo, placing women in an incessant subservient role. Due to the constant refutation of women as significant players, Framis not only leaves Spain, but also defies her male chauvinist culture through explicit feminist work, which functions under the postcolonial umbrella and the separation of the Anglo and Spanish world. By leaving Spain and practicing elsewhere, Framis is able to celebrate and reclaim her national identity, severing strong ties with colonizers. However, through her artwork, we see how cognizant she is of her colonized, subordinate role, as she constantly confronts her supposed “inferior” society, skin, and gender. It is significant that Framis does not hide from her heritage, as she is aware that she is ultimately bound to it.

Alicia Framis struggles with her identity within a postcolonial space, as she is constantly defined by her nationality while practicing outside of her own country; so much so, she believes globalization, in which people of many different nationalities and cultures mold into a single society and function together, is purely idealistic and does not truly exist. For example, when Framis was living in Berlin, she was warned not to venture into certain parts of the city rife with racist right-wing extremists, who were notorious for using their dogs as a tool to attack immigrants, specifically those who were dark-skinned. This situation inspired and enabled Framis to produce “Anti_Dog,” a collection of twenty-three pieces of clothing made from Twaron, a material that is five times stronger than steel and is resistant to bullets, flames, and dog bites. To Framis, the strong garb would facilitate vulnerable, indigenous women to reside in these dangerous areas. Consequently, the “Anti_Dog” collection was incorporated in public performances and demonstrations in Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid, Helsingborg, Barcelona, and Birmingham, five cities with high instances of violence towards dark-skinned women. The “Anti_Dog” clothing line was launched at the Paris fashion week in 2002 and contained many allusions to classic designers such as Chanel, Courrèges and Dior. These allusions engage her collection in a dialogue with celebrated, renowned designers, quickly developing into clear associations.  As a constant target for stereotypes related to her culture and gender, Framis has asserted, “My work comes from the desire to create an ‘atopic’ city…  A place where we feel free from our political correctness and the manipulation of everyday life.” [1]

By creating the dresses, made in a range of designs, from a formal gown (to be discussed) to a hijab (Arabic, “to cover”), Framis “positions herself as a public administrator able to address social divisions between immigrants and neo-nationalists.”[2] Burka, 2002, one specific structure from the “Anti_Dog” collection, emphasizes the “atopic” city that Framis strives to generate. The term “burka,” as transliterated from “burqa,” is largely associated with Islamic traditions, in which women cover their entire bodies - and their day clothes - with an outer garment (the burqa). Although Framis is not Muslim, she utilizes the burqa as an exploratory means and as a central symbol for all issues concerning immigration. In Western Europe, where Framis mainly resides, many indigenous Muslim populations, clearly delineated by Islamic traditional garb, are members of immigrant communities, and are therefore, segregated from the larger population. To emphasize this problem, which further demonstrates the lack of globalization, Framis wears a burqa in Burka, illustrating a link between the issues of Islamic dress in Western Europe and all immigration issues, specifically encountered by women. By wearing a burqa, Framis alludes to the stereotypical role of women as subservient, and society’s desire to perpetuate this treatment. Interestingly, Framis wears a bikini bottom in Burka, which both shows resistance and recalcitrance towards stereotypical configurations of the “acquiescent” female, but also displays some vulnerability, as the woman is pants-less, inviting male domination, most likely through a sexual encounter. This conflict between welcoming and deflecting male domination is mollified due to the strength and impenetrability of the Twaron; therefore, possible male penetration is dismissed. In this work, Framis successfully confronts her colonized, subordinate role by embracing her “inferior” society, skin, and gender.

With that in mind, we cannot overlook how Alicia Framis follows in the tradition of Frida Kahlo. Not only has Framis emerged from the European/Latin heritage of Kahlo, both functioning under the separation between the Anglo and Spanish world, but she has also employed the issue of the “second skin” in her work, which is strongly reiterated in Kahlo’s paintings. The “second skin” is largely illustrated by wrapping or binding of the body, as seen in Framis’ Burka, in which Twaron is utilized as the wrapping material. This notion of the “second skin” helps to challenge the role of identity as a subset of gender and nationality, and not as its own entity. In discussion of Kahlo’s relationship to the “second skin,” it is significant to note that for the bulk of Frida’s career as a painter, Mexico, where Frida lived and practiced, was a hierarchical racist space, also resistant to the feminist movement. Frida’s The Broken Column 1944, locates her in a landscape inherent to the Mexican terrain, permanently linking her to her national and cultural roots. This connection is emphasized by the binding column, which tightly holds Frida to societal constraints. Although the wrapping of the column generates the negative issues associated with the “second skin,” if we employ a feminist critique to this work, the results are quite positive.  

In understanding the depicted column as an internal support system, reminiscent of an Ionic column, it can be inferred that if the Ionic column represents an erect phallus, then it is the phallus that keeps Frida’s spine in place, giving way to total male domination. However, as the title says and the painting supports, the column is broken, therefore, the phallus is broken. Thus, The Broke Column suggests that an androcentric society, represented by the now flaccid phallus, cannot support or define Frida’s female body, or any female body for that matter. In challenging the notion that the body is a male construction, Kahlo defies female stereotypes, which have lasted for centuries. By employing the metal binding as a “second skin,” Frida has critiqued the way in which the female body is perceived, and has rejected the continuously accepted notion that women are inherently vulnerable. In that, like the work of Alicia Framis, through Frida Kahlo’s acceptance of her “inferior” identity, emerges an influential feminist work, beyond the comprehension of any chauvinistic man.

The act of binding the body has a direct relationship to coloniality. Another artist who employs this act to her work is Rebecca Belmore, an aboriginal artist whose own subjectivity is located in her Anishinabekwe heritage. Like, Framis and Kahlo, Belmore does not hide her identity. Her work primarily involves looking at the space of women in society, specifically women of color and those who are economically disadvantaged. Belmore’s enduring concerns with colonial violence, methods of resistance, and their influences on the human body, enabled the production of Rising to the Occasion, 1987, a Victorian-style dress, supposedly resembling a beaver dam, which is decorated with broken china teacups, alluding to the classic British high tea as a symbol for occupation. The dress functions as a metaphor for the colonial engagement and as a political message confronting the wreckage of British colonialism. Rising to the Occasion is indeed a reactionary work, one, which embodies the notion of the “second skin” through the tightly constructed corset of the dress.  This original approach maintains the same function as Burka and The Broken Column, as all works are driven by the acceptance of an “inferior” gender with the intention of exploiting the negativity of a postcolonial space.

Alicia Framis’ work, like the work of the artists she is in dialogue with, signals subjugation and oppression have taken place, as seen through wrapping and binding of the body. It is important to note that Framis does not explicitly frame her indigenous culture within her work; however, she asserts and reclaims her female identity by employing feminine modernist objects, which are used to attack the unjust suppression created by men. For example, 8th June, Female Models Have A Day Off, 2006, directly confronts the hypocrisy of modern-day gender culture. In this work, Framis produced a collection of images based on a luxury designer handbag, with the intention of exhibiting the body of work as a fashion show in which seventeen naked male models would carry this particular handbag. Framis designed the exhibition of the male nudes to take place in a predominantly white space, to engage the work in a play with the traditional appearance of contemporary art, through the sterile and omnipresent white backdrop. In concordance with her usual conceptions of women within a postcolonial construct, Framis aspired to create an exaggerated manifestation of the exploitation and abuse of the female figure in contemporary advertising. However, after a few hours on exhibit, the piece was eradicated from the museum, the press office, and the programmed tour. Although the removal of her work was most likely not intentional, the circumstances of the elimination were in Framis’ favor, as the situation directly exposes the value discrepancy between female and male nudes. To emphasize this notion, Framis’ 1996 exhibition of eight nude thirteen-year-old girls was not censored; on the contrary, the 2006 fashion show of seventeen naked boys was instantaneously dismissed. Here, it is duly recognized that a woman can be treated as a commodity while strutting nude down a runway, while a man is unequivocally protected.

This unfortunate and imbalanced condition is an accurate testament to contemporary culture. Although feminist critiques are widespread and people are supposedly aware of equal rights and liberties, it is evident that we continue to defy the progress our society has made. Presently, society in general is unclear of the meaning and implications of the term “gender” and still does not value gender as a social construct. Today “gender” is not defined by biological sex; rather, it is defined as an individual’s self-conception as being man or woman. However many milestones women seem to have overcome, including the supposed eradication of gender discrimination- a ludicrous presumption-, it is clear that those accomplishments, those trophies, are only allotted to dispel and quiet the fighting, passionate women, and not to truly rectify our unequal culture.

In an attempt to fix this disparity, Framis constructed a work that would enable women to purge their difficult pasts, typically created by abusive men. Thus, in eliminating said oppression, Framis believed that their roles as women would be elevated and eventually glorified. The piece is called Copyrighting Unwanted Sentences 2003, part of Framis’ “Anti_Dog” collection, which confronts violence towards dark-skinned women. The formal gown is made of the Twaron material, which as discussed earlier, is five times as strong as steel and is bulletproof, fireproof, and dog bite proof.  Again, the conception for this project generated from the same origin as all other pieces within the “Anti_Dog” collection, including Burka.

Copyrighting Unwanted Sentences reaches out to women with a history of emotional and physical abuse as a result of the actions of racist or chauvinistic men. Framis asked these abused women to provide sentences that they never wanted to hear again - sentences, which were repeatedly uttered by an abuser, or abusers.  These sentences range from, “You are only good for a fuck,” “Can’t you speak English?” and “Foreigners are taking our money.” Framis copyrighted these foul assertions and adhered them to a gown as a statement to extinguish public use. The dress was presented in Birmingham’s Victoria Square, a public forum, and was worn by the women who had supplied the sentences.

Like the majority of Framis’ work, the subjects of Copyrighting Unwanted Sentences were all dark-skinned, an aspect that is a key component of her struggle in living within a postcolonial space. To state the obvious, Framis’ own skin has lead to her sensitivity, as the copyrighted sentences above encompass Framis’ experience as a dark-skinned female immigrant, subject to the cruelty of xenophobic, misogynistic citizens, all operating within a theoretically globalized world.

Above Essay was written by Alix Greenberg

[1] Section for Women and Gender Equality Bureau of Strategic Planning, UNESCO, Alicia Framis, p. 12

[2] Justina M Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto. Curated by Tejpal Singh Ajji, Curator-in-Residence

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