Giulia Mangoni in discussion with Bethany Burgoyne
London-based artist Bethany Burgoyne explores the delicate theme of abortion and the way it relates to the body through her colourful, humorous and oddly disturbing digital paintings. The awkward is placed alongside the beautiful, the angular against the curvy. In her new series ‘Homage to My Sisters’, seductive lines swim alongside repellent forms to create images that at once intrigue and cause a reaction. Although sex in an undercurrent through the work, the body in her representations refuses to be sexualized and consumed as an object. Instead, a disturbance is felt. Hairs break on the picture plane, plants grow from belly buttons, a head is replaced by a deflated balloon, a body tries to stay balanced whilst holding two slippery weights, something is extracted, something is licked, a mouth opens and chicken wings are rendered like human skin. Sometimes slightly, other times more evidently in the garish colours and distortions of the female form, Burgoyne illustrates the spectrum of emotions that hide below the surface of decorum and prescribed ‘femininity’. The aim is to open a dialogue, to put ‘on screen’ what is even difficult to put into words. In this way, a discourse is opened about this act of termination and the varying experiences around the theme. The work takes on a digital presence, opening its own space for dialogue and exchange in the connected geography of the internet. Emerging from an autobiographical place and serving as first testimony, the driving force behind it is a willingness to connect and to encourage sharing with others who have been affected by the stigma around abortion, in order to dissolve and heal this thorny wound.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this project evolve and have taken the opportunity to ask her a few questions about it:
G.M: How did this project emerge in the first place?
At the beginning of the year I had an abortion. I was very confident with my decision, less so in sharing information with the people around me. I made a lot of artwork during this period as a way of understanding and healing from the experience. It took a couple of months for me to be able to openly tell people about my decision, using my drawings as an opening line. The more I spoke to women about this, the more frequent the response of ‘I’ve had an abortion too‘ occurred. I was amazed by the amount of close friends who had stayed silent, for years. It made me more confident knowing how many people could relate to the experience. But this also fuelled anger, frustration and a determination to open up the conversation, allow it to be a discussion so that in future no women has to go through this choice scared and alone. It isn’t right that during a time that can be the toughest period of your life, as a woman you feel the extra pressure of repression, and you are unsupported.
G.M: Did you envisage these as being part of a bigger series?
I envision the series being part of a bigger movement, a movement of change in attitude, law, stigma and accessibility for Abortion Rights. I think ‘Homage to My Sisters’ has been incredibly important work for me, dealing with the complexities of people’s reactions to the subject matter. I want to continue developing the series to encourage a change in the way people talk about abortions.
G.M: Who are your inspirations in terms of re-imagining a new idea of femininity? Or is the use of that word too narrow to describe what you are doing?
It’s funny, I would say that the re-imagining of femininity is what my artwork has always been about. ‘Homage to My Sisters’ is more sincere, focusing on the judgement that surrounds a choice, it has to do with female rights. The right to choose what to do with your own body as a woman without the attached negative stigma that comes with it. It’s not about the sexualisation of the female form either, which tends to be a focal point for me, but about the effect of science and society on women’s rights and women’s bodies. It’s about my gender and the physical consequences that come with it, having a womb, being able to become pregnant and the pressures women face because of this. There is a reason to shout out the statistic that ⅓ women by 2017 have had an abortion because it just shows how many of those women never tell anyone (link to statistic report below). And for that, the greatest inspiration has been the women and men that surround me, that have engaged in conversations and spent the time discussing their views with me. My peers, my family, my friends and colleagues presenting to me a huge spectrum of different opinions, sharing stories and inspiring a sense of confidence in challenging the effect abortion has on women’s sense of self.
G.M: What has been the response so far on the drawings and written work?
In all honesty, it hasn’t been the response I was anticipating. I have had an overwhelming amount of interest and support from the women and men within my circle of friends. They have shown encouragement, care and aided the progression and development of the work to highlight the topic of abortion. I can’t thank everyone enough for that. I’ve found that people, including the women who inspired the work, will talk with me face to face about the subject, but will shy away from sharing it online or through social media. This is not what I had prepared for. I thought that being the voice and face of the work would make it easier for others to share their stories anonymously, creating a degree of separation. It is the hope that by having an online presence the stories would reach a wider audience.
G.M: (In regards to the previous question) How has that affected you, do you see yourself adjusting your course or growing in a particular direction that you didn’t expect because of this?
What I’ve realised, and this has made me sad and distrusting of my own decisions, is that not everyone is ready to share. I never wanted ‘Homage to My Sisters’ to provoke feelings of unhappiness and unease. It’s emotionally driven, personal and has been made through a process of other women trusting me with their stories. Their openness and support aided my healing process and gave me the confidence to speak up. I have learnt to be more patient and respectful of their choice and needs to deal with their experiences in their own way, privately. On reflection I can recognise that the work has been more about me needing them. I think I am now confident to take part in bigger conversations with people who are already taking action in the same direction. Being guided and inspired by groups all on the same mission.
G.M: How does the ‘Sassy Stories’ part of your website work, could you tell us a bit more about it?
Sassy Stories was a space for me to expand this idea of sharing stories and encouraging conversations. The subject of abortion and my own feeling of repressed conversation made me realise how many unpleasant personal experiences women have related to womanhood and keep in silence, pushed beneath the surface and not openly discussed. It is imperative to be given support in these moments, a non judgmental space and people who can relate to your situation can be a god-send. To talk, discuss, be open and remind women that they are never alone.
G.M: Is the idea of the project one that is open for other artists to participate in as well?
A result of presenting work from ‘Homage to My Sisters’ both online and in exhibitions, has been the participation of conversations from artist working in all areas of creativity including music, writing and performance. The reason for Sassy Stories is to have a platform for that participation to be seen, to encourage involvement, collaboration and discussion between people in general, not just artists. Creativity is an essential tool for expressing oneself, working through feelings on a therapeutic level. So I guess I’m saying that it is open for all to participate in.
G.M: Does this project have physical manifestations, or will it live online only?
Online is a fascination of mine at the moment. I find it liberating that I can be inspired by other’s work, from people I’ve never met, an abundance of ideas and shared creation found all over the internet. This sense of sharing online is freeing and energetic but it’s also quite deflating. You tend to put the images out in the world only for them to get lost amongst the multitude of other imagery. For people to recognise the importance of work made and respect the atmosphere that it can create within a space , then a physical manifestation is perhaps more effective. So yes, I think it will exist in both ways, over time.
Giulia Mangoni is a Brazilian/Italian artist currently doing a low-residency MFA in Art Practice at the School of Visual Arts, New York. She lives and works in Italy at the moment, and exhibits internationally.
Burgoyne’s series ‘Homage to My Sisters‘ can be seen in full on her website bethanyburgoyne.com