12 may to 5 August 2007
As the press release from Het Domein Sittard announces, Forget me not is the first solo exhibition in a Dutch museum for the American artist Clare E. Rojas. For the occasion of the exhibition Rojas published a children’s book The Blue Deer and the Red Fox, which appears in Dutch and English. In my interview with Clare E. Rojas, she gives away her views on art, the art world, and the power of representation.
Rojas (Ohio,1976) is a contemporary artist living and working in San Francisco. Her work has been exhibited in galleries such as Deitch Projects in New York. She is known for her folk inspired art and her oeuvre can be described as a collection of different types of media, such as film, print-making, installation, painting, quilting and graphics. In addition, Rojas sings and plays guitar and banjo under the name of Peggy Honeywell. She has produced several CDs with her own songs, such as “Faint Humms” (2005) and “Green Mountain” (2006).
Her art is used as a means to give voice to the issues the artist feels need to be addressed. Rojas depicts the interaction between men and women, while nature and landscape serve as a powerful and mysterious stage for these expressions. Her colorful and playful images are filled with fable imagery, adding depth and meaning. Looking at her work, leaves us with a sense of nostalgia and sometimes even a feeling of loss. One of the main characteristics of Rojas’ work is that she challenges the stereotypical representation of men and women. With humor and irony, she exposes and reverses gender roles/expectations while struggling for balance. Noteworthy is the fact that Rojas usually portrays the men naked, whereas the women are fully clothed. In for example, “Naked Man”, she depicts a man standing in a sexualized pose resembling the way women are often portrayed in certain fashion magazines, the media, or the art world. A male nude is considered to be very atypical, while the female nude almost has become status quo. By turning the table and placing a man in a pose that has become so readily accepted for women, Rojas shows the insanity of the way women’s bodies are objectified and portrayed. Rojas’ work does not only stand out because of its originality and humor, but it leaves us with the important message that we need to challenge the way we have come to accept the unrealistic ideals of beauty and negative representation of femininity and masculinity. The exhibition at Het Domein shows four walls with Rojas’ work carefully put together. In an additional room, Andrew J. Wright and Rojas’ animation film “Ich bin ein Manipulator” (2005) is showed. This short film depicts the turning of the pages of three contemporary fashion magazines ( e.g. Marie Claire, Jane) accompanied by fitting musical sounds. Every sexist image on the page is commented on, and scribbled over with a funny hand drawn image. This transformation takes place in order to expose and respond -in a humorous way- to the sexist mind-set of the magazines.
T-Time: Clare Rojas Performs as Peggy Honeywell at the Domein Sittard
On Sunday May 13 (Mother’s Day) Het Domein organized T-Time, which served as a stage for Clare Rojas’ musical expressions. As Peggy Honeywell, wearing a black curly wig and a flowery skirt, she performed seven of her songs from both her “Faint Humms” and the “Green Mountain” album. The supporting vocals were done by Matthew Williams, New York based writer. Especially for this event, Stijn Huijts (the director of the museum) joined in, playing the bass. As the tree were standing in front of one of Rojas’ visual pieces, the visual effect of the songs became even stronger. Her powerful words accompanied by the instruments came together in a soft way, leaving the audience in bliss, triggering their emotions. As it was mothers day, mother’s were allowed in for free. Resembling Rojas’ work, the audience was made up out of a colorful and mixed crowd of different ages. After the performance, the public was invited for tea or coffee in the foyer of the museum, where tables where set up decorated with little buckets of “Forget me Not” flowers. The audience could buy Clare Rojas’ children’s book and Peggy Honeywell’s albums and let them be signed by the artist herself if they pleased. All in all, the art exhibition was really good, the performance was genuinely touching, the audience was satisfied, and I was exited and ready to talk to the artist. Forget me not turned out to be show I won’t forget!
Meeting the artist: In dialogue with Clare E. Rojas
IH: How do you define your art and what does it mean to you?
Clare E. Rojas: Wow that’s a big question!!
IH: I know. There is so much I want to ask you! Let me be more specific: “Bower Bird” (one of my favorite songs) on your album “Green Mountain”, speaks of for example your search for an “inner truth”. Has your art aided you during your “pilgrimage” for this inner truth? And if so, how did it help you to express yourself and reveal your struggles with life, love and loss?
Clare E. Rojas: “I think that with my art I try to develop my own religion I guess, my own belief system, my own morals, and stand up for them, and create my own environment that I feel empowered by. I don’t feel like the world is very fair to women. I think it is very violent in its portrayal of who we are. I believe in honoring women, and I think women are amazing. For example, when [lyrics Bower Bird] I say “I meet you half way”, that means that I’ll meet you equally. I’m not going to compromise my life. If I’m going to be with someone, it’s going to be on equal terms.”
IH: To me it seems you try to find your own voice through your art. At what age did you come to realize that you could use your art as a useful tool and as a weapon to express your frustrations and your beliefs? Was it a specific event that triggered this? When did you become conscious of this power?
Clare E. Rojas: “I grew up in Ohio. My parents understood at a very young age that I was basically incapable of doing anything but drawing. I was terrible at school, terrible at math, terrible at history. And all I wanted to do was draw. I had these markers and I would sit in my room all day and all night, and I would draw with these markers. The fumes were just incredible and awful! I guess at that age my drawing was kind of therapeutic, like a form of escapism. It still is. The relationship with my father was very...I struggled with him. And I would paint what I felt about that. He got very upset and said I couldn’t paint that anymore. He said I had to paint beautiful things. At that point, I realized I would be censored from that point on. And as you grow older you learn about feminism, and what it really means to be a woman. You see the oppression and you understand the why it’s there. The more you understand … I personally couldn’t be a martyr to it, and I couldn’t be a victim. I had to empower myself and honor myself, and have hyper awareness of how powerful words and imagery can be. And try my best to not perpetuate. A lot of women artists feel like if they are going to talk about feminism they have to use their bodies. I felt like that just kind of perpetuates it, because our bodies have already been defined dramatically. It triggers the same definition, and so I couldn’t use that. I felt like a lot of times words degraded myself, so I couldn’t use that. I left it to metaphor, symbolism and coded language. As I got more confident I started writing lyrics and songs. Writing songs and writing the kid stuff [e.g. The Blue Deer and the Red Fox] is a huge challenge for me.
IH: In an interview for the art magazine “Mister Motley” – (for their DVD on art and music) you say that you communicate through various kinds of artistic expressions in order to reach as many people as possible, as different people respond to different kind of media. You say, “I want to talk to everybody and not miss anybody because I feel what I’m saying is really urgent and important”. This question relates to the atmosphere of Mother’s day: Has the fact of you being/becoming a mother effected the way you experience your art? Has it become more urgent for you to get your message across, knowing your daughter has to grow up in this -I would say- patriarchal world as well?
Clare E. Rojas: Absolutely, Yes! It is very much an emergency, as I feel things are getting worse. At the same time there are amazing women getting into the position where they can help empower women. But I think its going backwards real fast. For example, in the States they are taking our abortion rights away, our rights to our body. Things are moving backwards. You see that reflected in fashion, contemporary art and culture. You know, I feel like women, people in general, sometimes are afraid to do everything and put them selves out there. It is a very vulnerable place to be, but you have to use everything you got. And I don’t mean my sexuality, I don’t need to expose myself in that way. I think it is really scary to try and do everything too, because it is kind of a putt off for a lot of people, like “she sings, she paints, who does she think she is”. But I think people can do everything. I really believe that, that people can sing, can paint, its just a matter of doing it.”
IH: Your song “Squirrel Bridge” that appears on Faint Humms is one example, of the many, in which you use an animal as a source of inspiration. When I was living in Berkeley, I was excited about the amount of squirrels running around campus as we don’t have that in the Netherlands . My first day in Berkeley I spend taking pictures of squirrels rather than of campus buildings. What would you say is your favorite animal that you use in your work and why?
Clare E. Rojas: I paint my dogs a lot. I like lions, because I’m a Leo. It’s a very powerful image. I like all animals, I think they are spirits.
IH: I would like to focus on the way you use humor in your work. In your song “Hey Lady” from your album Green Mountain you sing, “Life is a joke/And full of cruelty/Laughing is my remedy”. I wonder, was it a process you had to go through before you were able to use humor as a instrument to express your ideas and frustrations - did you for example first have a stage of being angry?
Clare E. Rojas: Yeah, when things are that serious, and that harsh the only remedy is to laugh. We are powerful when we are angry, but we have to be above it. That anger can destroy you. It was a hard struggle for me and it still is, not to let the anger get to me. Because they will win. The problem is that when you get angry and you get emotional it shows them that you need their validation. And you don’t. Women need to be taught that they don’t need that validation, they don’t need their ok to be angry. Everyone has a right to be upset, to search, heal and honor themselves. And I’m learning that right now. Anger would do nothing, but just be a part of the big ball of rage. But if you can take laughter, beauty and awareness, it drops defenses, and people are much more open to hear what you have to say. The anger thing is a really difficult thing, and I think there have been very few instances in my life where someone said “You don’t need their validation”. I felt my whole life growing up that if I wasn’t angry, I was submitting, and I was accepting and participating in their definition of who I was. It is not true. I’m still upset and I’m still hurt, but I don’t think to be thàt angry is productive. We have this life, and how empowering is it, to be happy and not let those people hurt you. Save yourself with laughter and happiness, and they can’t touch you. Let them live their miserable unaware lives.
IH: Do u have a specific person that has been an inspiration for you?
Clare E. Rojas: My mom, she is amazing.
IH: How do you feel about the art world and the representation of the female nude?
Clare E. Rojas: The art world is awful, it’s worse than pornography. They pretend the female nude in art is this highly intellectual and unique thing to look at. You see this fraternity of boys club and male dominated network. They are looking at these naked women all over the place.. I just see low brow porn. The art scene is still very much run by men. And you have this whole movement of female artists who talk about feminism by getting naked. So, that’s a non threat. They are happy with that feminism, aren’t they. That is really important, because they don’t get. It serves men. The female body is the definition of male masculinity. Not femininity, and it is not respected. For me the definition of violence is misrepresentation of some truth. The way women have been defined is very violent and oppressive. And women fall for the trick over and over again. I laugh when I that see the female artists that get ahead always are naked and beautiful. And I think, “Isn’t that funny”. My mom has something way more profound to say, but because she is a middle-aged woman who had three kids, it wouldn’t be ok. What does the art world have to say for that? No one takes any kind of responsibility. It is really frustrating.
IH: I would like to ask you something about the way you represent penises in your work. For example, you have this one image of a penis portrayed as a butterfly fluttering towards a ‘flower’. In a way, to my mind it feels that you dismantle the traditional image of the penis by taking its power away. What can you say about the way you portray penises in your work?
Clare E. Rojas: What a joke our bodies have become, so I wanted to see what it felt like to turn a man’s part into that. At the same time, I draw penises like weapons and fighting each other, because men in history just kill each other and they still do. About the butterfly thing, I looked up butterfly on the internet because I wanted to see what kind of patterns I could use for that painting. The first thing I got was a pornographic woman butterfly image (butterfly tattoos). So, my 6 year old daughter will get that image when looking up something as innocent as a butterfly. But it proves my point even more. I toke note, a diary of every single day of my life that I was objected to seeing women being objectified or exploited in a very degrading way. And that effects men, and how they see women too. They are just as much a victim to it. It is just, it is more on the service for them, than it is for us. But that does not go for all men.
IH: Looking at your art, I was able to recognize some bits and pieces from different cultures, like Persian, Native American and Russian. For example, you have one image of a woman that really reminded me of a Russian Babushka doll. Where or from what kind of cultures do you draw your inspiration from?
Clare E. Rojas: Al lot of people say that my work reminds them of Russian or Native American, like some Indian miniatures. I saw my first Indian miniatures when I was in college, because one of my professors saw that imagery reflected in my work as well, and took me to a show. I thought it was amazing! I felt like maybe in my past live I was a Native American, hahaha J I would just look at books and didn’t really care where I was getting my input. But if I saw something that would work for my feelings, I would use it. The babushka woman, that actually looks like my mom. And my whole thing is, and the way I portray women -and that is probably why they look babushka-like, because to my mind their dresses are like shields- is that I didn’t want them to be sexualized in any way. To me there is so much more to women than their sexuality. And nothing wrong with femininity, I think that our bodies are beautiful, but I just didn’t want that to be the first element people see. We are women without our sexual part/core, we are women.
IH: I would like to round off the interview by just briefly telling you that your work means a lot to me, and I want to thank you for what you are doing. Looking at/experiencing your work (and listening to your music) makes me feel relieved, safe, freed and understood. I relate to your struggle and very much appreciate the way you defy stereotypical representation of the sexes.
Special Thanks to: Het Domein Sittard and Clare E. Rojas.
Irmelin Hanssen for Whitehot magazine of Contemporary Art, May 2007
Forget me Not…
Irmelin Hanssen holds a Master degree in American Studies from Radboud University Nijmegen, the . She studied a semester at UC Berkeley in the where she specialized in Chicana/o art, literature and culture. She wrote her Master's thesis on "Redefining Archetypes in Chicana Literature and Art- La Virgen de Guadalupe and La Malinche: ExtremeMake-Overs." She presented her research at two international conferences. She is currently active as a freelance art-writer in the Netherlands and looking into PhD programs in the United States. firstname.lastname@example.org
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