Transcending traditions through therapy.
Subverting traditional tropes of the male gaze, artist Miranda Forrester portrays queer womxn with an unveiling intimacy. Starting out with sexually-explicit paintings, she discusses how her approach has developed into a more delicate investigation into queer desire. Attending life art therapy sessions at ‘Our Naked Truths’ in London, the artist connects with a diverse community to celebrate universal beauty through craft and conversation. On her canvases, the many perspectives of these encounters coalesce: the honest sharings of the sitters, Forrester’s perception of them through her own identity and the relaxed nature of the setting. Exploring the refuge of domestic environments for LGBTIQA+ people, her paintings capture insular moments surrounded by comfort through lounging gestures, slouching plants and enticing spaciousness. Scattered references to films such as ‘The Watermelon Woman’ meet with translucent textures to convey subjectivities often ignored by conventional narratives such as interracial love, the female gaze and the visibility of people of colour. Rather than material likenesses, her paintings capture anonymous figures through the gravity of their skin. With her work encroaching from the surface of her canvases to the walls of the gallery, I met with the artist in her Brighton-based studio to learn more about the power of vulnerable relating in her work.
Moving from London, how did studying at the University of Brighton alter your awareness of being a queer, black womxn?
I didn’t think of myself as black until I studied at Brighton. It altered my awareness in terms of being directly confronted with the fact that I am part of a minority, and that Brighton wasn’t the diverse, inclusive bubble I thought it was.
Has your approach to arts education been shaped by the insights you gained and problems you recognised at university?
Absolutely. University was quite different to how I expected it to be, in both positive and negative ways. I am very passionate about diversifying arts education as I expected more of this in my BA, and wish I was aware of that before I started so my expectations weren’t so high. I want to change the situation. When working with young people, it is really important for me to make sure that they know the artists that I had to research myself, that were widely ignored in the curriculum.
During your degree, your paintings were rich with bold, crowded and sexual scenes. Following this perspective, they now appear calmer, creamier and more spacious. What changes in conditions, methods or perceptions caused this progression?
I think there was a shift in what I wanted to represent with my work and how I wanted to do that. Initially, I was more concerned with my figures being instantly recognisable as powerful and strong, while taking up space unapologetically. I also wanted my work to be unmistakably queer and black, something my younger self would have wanted to see in art. As I started to develop my colour palette and the techniques I was using, I became more concerned with representing bodies as they are, without forceful poses or a cramming-in of information. I gave them space to breathe and float on the canvas, exploring erotic and queer desire without explicitly sexual scenes – I am still trying to work out how I can make images that escape the male gaze.
Following your degree show, how did the BBZ Alternative Graduate Show differ with your university’s graduation exhibition in the representation of diverse artists and the sense of community?
The BBZ exhibition was really monumental for me. Everyone in the show had similar experiences of their work exploring black and queer subject matter not always being valued or fully recognised, having to do all the work themselves to learn about black artists, and understanding how it is to be one of few black people on their course. So, to invite these graduates who had been studying throughout the country and experiencing the same things, to all show work together was really special. There was a real sense of community and that we were creating something significant.
Whereas at PLOP residency you shared a space with a group of artists, you’ve spent the past year in residence at the Phoenix Art Space in Brighton with only one other person in the studio. Do you prefer the dynamics of working within a community of artists or are you more comfortable on your own?
I am very comfortable on my own! Although, at times, I definitely need that interaction and the push that you get working within a community of artists. At PLOP, it was really great to talk about art, make new connections and see more shows.
An air of anonymity surrounds the identities of your models, the recognition of their settings and the use of their initials in your titles. How important is this ambiguity in cultivating a universality in your paintings?
Yes, cultivating a universality is very important in my paintings. I want audiences to be able to recognise both themselves and people like them in my figures. I really want the figures to be relatable and authentic. Also, sometimes my sitters are those close to me who are not professional life models and are allowing me to draw them based on mutual trust. So, it is important for me to respect that by not framing the work as a portrait of this specific person, but an embodiment of a larger idea and identity.
Having attended ‘Creative Conversations: Black Women Making and Doing’ with Prof. Lubaina Himid CME RA, what did you take from these two days of sharing art, ideas and research?
That was an incredible two days for me. It is really amazing to feel like you are in a majority for a short time. Lubaina’s intention was to create a space in which black women creatives come together, talk and connect, and that is definitely what I got out of the two days. I learnt a lot about the history of black women artists, what it means to paint black bodies, how we have got things done in the past and how we can get them done in the future. When Lubaina Himid won the Turner prize in 2017 and said that she would use the funds to help out other artists, I couldn’t have imagined at that point that two years later I would be one of them as she funded bursaries for several artists to attend the conference. Sometimes it can feel like the ‘art world’ is very elitist and cut throat. It was inspiring to see someone I could relate to doing it differently.
Appearing in your paintings via image transfer, how do films exploring tensions around interracial relationships, racial subjectivity and identity politics inform your gestures? Which movies have shaped your paintings and thinking the most?
Films were incredibly important to me as a young person trying to find my place in the world. I think a lot of queer people can relate to watching any and every film and tv show exploring lesbian relationships, when you are so widely ignored in mainstream media and visual culture. ‘The Watermelon Woman’ was one that stood out, being the first film directed by a black lesbian, Cheryl Dunye, who also stars as the lead. It explored the tensions of interracial queer dating as well as the history of queer people in the public eye who were not ‘out’ but lived a queer life, for the first time I had seen. ‘Blue Is the Warmest Colour’, which came out later on, really affected me. I personally related to the experiences of the lead characters, especially with one of them being a painter. I was also drawn to the indulgent way in which it is recorded – the length of the film, the slowness and intimacy of the shots, and the way in which very subtle actions and lines manage to convey an abundance of feeling. This is something I am always striving for in my painting: being able to convey so much emotion, experience and sensitivity in one simple but confident line or brush stroke.
Despite working primarily on small-scale pieces, you were excited to begin some substantial works before lockdown commenced. In creating these works, what does your approach to painting look like?
I am only able to really focus on one painting at a time. I need to feel excited about the work and, if I have looked at it for too long, unfinished, I start to lose that momentum. After a drawing session, I usually select which pieces I’ll paint smaller and which I’ll translate into larger ones. I don’t usually make painted studies. Only a couple of times when I have developed something small, have I realised it would look better on a bigger scale. But, usually, it’s the direct translation of a drawing into a large painting. I think that because my priming process is so tedious (I go to a lot of effort for a very smooth surface), I won’t begin a sizeable canvas unless I feel that the drawing is really strong. So, if I don’t think I have any drawings that will work well as big paintings, then I will continue with smaller works until I do.
With Tschabalala Self, Lubaina Himid and Zanele Muholi on the walls of your studio, in what ways have these artists affected the colour, composition and context of your works?
I think these artists have inspired me in terms of the narratives on display in their works more than their colour or composition directly. All of these artists explore the richness and diversity of occupying black and/or queer identities. They all explore relationships between women, the subtleties and intimacies in everyday situations and particularly in Muholi’s work, tenderness, intimacy and love. Muholi was the first artist I had seen represent black lesbian relationships, and the sensitivity of her photographs really provoke me. I fell hard for Self’s work the first time I saw it at her solo show at Parasol Unit. The boldness and voluptuousness of her shapes and figures have definitely affected my own paintings.
Motivated by ‘Our Naked Truths’, you explore a conversational approach to figurative drawing. How do these art-therapy sessions differ from traditional tropes of life drawing such as the male gaze, the model’s role and the rigged backdrop?
‘Our Naked Truths’ was founded by Jocelyn Yeboah-Newton, an incredible mental health advocate, facilitator and host. These sessions are completely different from the traditional life drawing setup. The well-being of the speaker and muse is the biggest priority. They choose their poses and there is a sofa, materials, cushions and plants. It feels very homely, and because of the people that attend, it is very comfortable. I titled my series after it because many of the drawings came from these sessions. They are art therapy sessions in the sense that the muse shares an experience or trauma from their life that they have dealt with, and it becomes part of a wider discussion with the group. The muse is always a woman/non-binary person of colour and it is a space that emphasises the mental health of this community. It is in vast contrast to the established structure of life drawing where the model doesn’t usually speak, is not in control of their own poses and is often subjected to the male gaze. These sessions have really influenced how I conduct my own portrait routine.
Stimulated by these encounters, ‘Naked Truths’ delves into the intimacy of your connections with the speakers. Have the studies in this series deepened your self-understanding in any way?
The people I paint are often those I have close relationships with or have developed deeper connections with through drawing. It is important to me that there is that level of rapport, respect and trust. I think a lot about my position as a painter, making nude images of other women and non-binary people. I think the series developed my self-understanding in that I really respond to people who are willing to allow themselves to be vulnerable and speak honestly about difficult experiences they have lived through. The speakers at ‘Our Naked Truths’ really enthuse me in that they are comfortable enough with themselves to be exposed physically and emotionally to a room filled with mostly strangers. There is a real power in vulnerability and that is something I want to convey in my work.
Often displaying your work in grids, does this setup relate to an aesthetic preference, an allegiance to multiples of three or the format of Instagram pages?
It’s more of an aesthetic preference. I have played around with different formations but there is something about the uniformity of them in rows and grids, contrasted with the free, fluctuating figures that works for me.
During lockdown, many people have been forced to spend more time at home. Relating to queer relationships in domestic spaces, how did your ‘Closed Doors’ (2019) series explore the dynamics of comfort and discomfort, interior and exterior or private and public?
I think home is often of increased importance to queer people. When you don’t see any models of adult queer relationships, you can’t always envisage what it will look like. Existing in exterior spaces always comes with some, even if subconscious, level of trepidation for a lot of the queer community- of being misgendered, harassed or having false assumptions made etc. In this sense, households become a kind of sanctuary, where you pour your resources into your ‘safe space’. This series was exploring the feeling of getting home and fully relaxing, inhabiting the space where you do intimate things, where only some people have access to. It delved into the love, tenderness and warmth of spaces that you have made your own, free from judgement. This is where my models can be entirely themselves.
Considering the importance of collaborative interaction with your models, how have the past few months of social distancing affected your painting process?
I actually did plenty of sketches just before lockdown so I had plenty of new material to work with. It also gave me the time and space to go through older drawings that I either didn’t translate into paintings or the painting didn’t work, encouraging me to find ways to use them differently. I have been quite quick to discard a drawing if the entire image wasn’t working. Though, I have actually found that taking elements I like from these drawings and combining them with other pieces has been a new way to approach making new work.
Having been exclusively involved in group exhibitions, do you intend to have a solo show in the near future?
Yes, I have lots of ideas which I am yet to realise for a future solo show, so it’s a work in progress.
The Artist Support Pledge has offered you an opportunity to sell smaller drawings throughout lockdown. How has this initiative fed your practice, your network and your own collection? Do you intend to continue releasing works in this way?
I had never considered making my drawings available before, as I saw them more as prep work than works in their own right. Although, I do sometimes prefer the initial drawing to the finished painting. So, I was pleasantly surprised when there was interest in them. It also means that lots of people who have shown support by coming to my shows etc. but were unable to support me through collecting my work, now had the opportunity to do that. Also, for myself, being able to build my own collection is very exciting. I don’t know yet if I will continue to release works in this way, but I will be interested to see if the Artist Support Pledge becomes a larger initiative.
Words by Vanessa Murrell