BEAUTY IN SIGHT
An Interview with Lorna Brown
Lorna Brown is an artist focusing on identity politics, and the ways in race, gender, and culture intersect with our social world. Brown uses photography in her work, but to call her a photographer would limit her practice which could just as easily be categorised as art, collage, collection and curation; above all her work is about looking, and the power of who is looking and who is being looked at.
"Start by telling me a bit about you"
I travelled a lot when I was younger and during the earliest trips I began thinking more about the composition of a photo. But on these travels I also began to notice a silencing of the female voice that appeared to permeate so many cultures, all in different but nonetheless discernible ways. I became interested to learn more about life for women in other cultures and the varying matriarchal and patriarchal structures of these societies. I experimented with different genres of photography before studying, but was very influenced by photographers such as Claude Cahun and Cindy Sherman. When I began studying (as a mature student) my work naturally developed into a theory based practice that explores racial, cultural, female and social identity.
"I love that this series isn't a self-portrait but reflects your thoughts and feelings towards the world based on your own experiences."
I tend to create imagery that addresses theory or social issues, with the aim of eliciting a response and prompting debate. It’s interesting to see what people get from an image. Over time I have become particularly interested in the instability of self-identity; that vague place somewhere between personal intention and social dictation. Who am I? Who are you? Where am I placed? Where do I place myself? Where do I place you? Where do you place yourself? Boxes, categories, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, culture, subculture, age, labels…how important are they? How are they interpreted? How do we transcend categorisation? These kind of things fascinate me. I obtained my BA Photography Degree from Hereford College of Arts (which is a fantastic art college if you’re willing to forego the big city lights) and some time after graduating my ex tutor encouraged me to apply to New Art West Midlands for their exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. My ‘Oburoni Ashaki’ series was selected and things have progressed for me from there.
"What type of artist do you consider yourself to be?"
I’ve mixed feelings when it comes to artistic categorisation because I so enjoy exploration. Technically I am a Photographer, and I do work primarily with a camera. But I tend to think of it as a tool in the artist’s box, or the base coat. I often paint, pierce, embroider or embellish my images before re-photographing or scanning, so in that sense I frequently refer to myself as a mixed-media artist. Misc artist, is that a thing? Let’s make it a thing!
"It's great to cross categories and explore your practice without limits. Your work also references the past, the pieces in this article feel very traditional; could you elaborate more on the use of frames and the eye in this series? "
The eyes are made in that way to mimic the eye miniature/lover's eye, a peculiar item of jewellery popular in the Georgian period. I was commissioned by the National Trust, Berrington Hall to create an installation that responded to the life of a woman who lived there in the Georgian period. Whilst researching her life, I was particularly struck by thoughts of her life as a woman in the public eye, at a time when the modern cult of celebrity was really just beginning to take off. My thoughts kept returning to that John Berger quote “A woman must continually watch herself, She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman" .
I find that quote so powerful, and every woman I discussed it with also felt that it resonated strongly. So I worked with an aim to expressing this experience, the experience of growing up and living under the male gaze, and the way in which we as women, end up turning that gaze on ourselves and each other. In the installation itself I also aimed to somewhat subvert the western gaze.
"If you had to sum up your body of work in 3 words, what would they be and why choose those words?"
Haunting - A number of men have remarked that it has made them really think for the first time about how it feels to be a woman. I wonder if males of the younger generation are perhaps more easily able to identify with that experience, as we're all under increased social pressures to present in a certain way? But yes, haunting has been a common description.
Disconcerting - "Creepy", "disturbing" That's a popular reaction. And I agree that to be surrounded by quite so many eyes is somewhat disconcerting.
Tender - I really felt a tenderness towards my subject, and women of that time in general whilst working on this project. So I hope that it comes across.
Eye-Catching - Can I have a 4th word just to get a pun in?
"Your work is definitely all those things, especially Eye-Catching!"
"You're very active on social media, and with each post we see insightful poetic text, could you elaborate on why you do this?"
I love words as much as images. My mother had me reading before I began school and I can’t claim to be a connoisseur of poetry, critical theory or literature in general, but I'm an enthusiast.
"It's interesting that you are so fascinated by language while your work is devoid of words, how do words fit into your process of image making?"
My scrapbooks contain as many words as images, and it’s 50/50 whether a project will begin visually or with text. Often, if I have a thought that becomes frequent, it will become a collection of thoughts and feelings, usually illustrated with relevant quotes from poems and literature. Then I’ll begin trying to connect with the materiality of these thoughts, whilst researching my subject. Whilst I believe that an image should speak for itself, just occasionally I feel that the context is effectively constructed by text, such as with Oburoni Ashaki, where I used things that others had said to me to punctuate the image. Whilst I wouldn’t put them on my website or in an exhibition, I consider Instagram more playful. So the quotes that you see beneath each picture on Instagram, are those that directly relate to the subject of my image. Lines of poetry, theory, general quotes that have resonated when I’m working on a particular subject, or sometimes (where there are no quotation marks) just words of my own.