BUTTERFLIES ARE A SIGN OF A GOOD THING
Brussels, Athens, Paris, Accra 2013 - 2018
“Sometimes I imagine
Asking my boyfriend:
Can you believe
Your girlfriend is one of them?”
A long-term artistic research on sex work and the position of the women in society seeking for a visual language that reveals personal and therefore subjective views on sex work, because it is based on the close relationships with the sex workers themselves.
It was grant-aided by the VG Bildkunst, Stiftung Kulturwerk (2017) and the Rudolf Augstein Stiftung (2018). Moreover, it is part of my research at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp.
Throughout my practical and theoretical based art, I work across mediums, with a focus on photography. I explore forms of the female body, ideas of beauty, desires, taboos and sexuality. Subsequently, I analyze the interdependencies of women on social norms. I am interested in how society shapes norms that influence the representation and perception of women and how the female body can be used as a tool of power.
Sex workers are sensitive observers of our society, especially about what we do not dare to see. Thus, I consider this work a reflection on society as a whole. Sex is at first place about pleasure, desire and lust, addiction and ecstasy. At the same time, it is about power, about hierarchies, about interrelationships of men and women. It appears that the female body becomes a political weapon. How we live and talk about sex says much about our taboos and fantasies and finally how society is created by a world that exists by judging the unknown instead of listening to each other.
I am grateful for every single conversation and the time I could spend with the women who became part of this work. I cannot express in words how much they taught me about life, about our society and finally about myself. I did not believe how much we have in common. I found my soulmates in these women who are not only crucial for the existence of this body of work, but close friends that I don ‘t want to miss anymore.
With this work I share some personal insights that truly are my own observations and therefor fully subjective on this topic. It is a collection of images and notes from women I admire and who I met in Brussels, Athens, Paris and Accra.
“I told him to draw a butterfly on my leg.
Similar like a tattoo.
So it’s a butterfly, that I have on my leg.
Because, I normally like butterflies.
Because, my grandmother always told me,
that a butterfly is a sign of a good thing.
So anytime you see butterflies around
you will always know that
it is a sign of a good thing coming on your way.
So I like butterflies.”
Sex workers are one of the most disadvantaged groups of people in the world. Many face stigmatization, often on a daily basis. This can lead them to hide their profession, even in front of relatives and friends.
Since 2013, I am involved in international artistic research on sex work, that is informed by the close long-term collaboration with my protagonists. This research has been based in Brussels, Athens and Paris. Through my experiences in exploring this field in Western Europe, I have met West-African women from places like Nigeria and Ghana. Over time, I became friends with some of them.
It was in 2017 that I finally expanded my research to Accra, Ghana in collaboration with filmmaker and artist Sam Kessie. I continued this project in 2018. Since then, am renting my own studio that I am sharing with my protagonist Elizabeth. Without her and my driver Samuel Amposah Antwi, this project would not have developed its intensity.
Accra not only proved to be enriching in terms of the exchange I had with the women and allowed me to discover the topic from another cultural perspective, but also gave me an opportunity to discuss with locals about social rules and the position of the women in their society.
While sex work is legal in many European countries (e.g. Germany, Belgium, Holland, Greece) or illegal but regulated by the punishment of the clients (Sweden, France), it is illegal but very wide spread in Ghana. Trafficking and street work is present in many areas. Here, in one of the most religious countries of the world and inside a patriarchal system, sex workers are part of a highly stigmatized peer group, they are dealing with prejudices and social exclusion, in addition to coping with the daily hardships of an impoverished existence.
As a result to the illegality, there is almost no social support or shelter for sex workers, what often forces them to stay in highly criminal communities with landlords or “madams” who keep the control about inflated rents that have to be payed daily for a room or cabin that usually doesn’t even provide any sanitary facilities.
Over the span of my research, the awareness of my position as a privileged white person is relevant. As the author of this work, I have considered my ethical responsibilities to my participants. Furthermore, I constantly question if revealing their identities could lead to harmful consequences. In addition, I provide alternative forms on the classic portrait. Symbolism and metaphors that appear in constructed images are my main elements. Audio and text pieces, as well as personal art works created by the sex workers complement this work.
Finally, my research addresses desires and fears and reflects social structures and norms in a constructed surrealistic world of imagery.
I seek to clarify, that although this research is based on a collection of various local observations and examinations, I create a universal statement addressing global issues on how women are perceived in today’s society.
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