Interview with Elizabeth Prentis, now on Umbigo’s cover of the month

Imagine a world without any limitations, either in terms of gender or expression. A world where risky and provocative elements are invited to join the most banal actions. More than that, where they become the trigger for action, occurring through highly experimental processes, free from stereotypes and the predetermined and reductive binomial labelling of “men or women”, which consequently determines different capacities and privileges. This is the world that Elizabeth Prentis sails into, fighting against regulations and presets to break down notions of domination, power struggles and gender expectations; a rebellious act against the status quo and that which is repressed or normalised. By combining a builder’s outfit and hyper-masculine industrial equipment with red lipstick, bold nail polish and conventionally feminine belongings, this is her anti-patriarchal manifesto. This is the artist’s tongue-in-cheek take on the collective assumptions that either separate or suppress differences, feeding a cycle of behaviours and platitudes when it comes to sexism and inequality.

Prentis reveals on the October issue’s cover how her practice can simultaneously be a catharsis of personal experiences, a source for encounters with other people’s stories, an essential gauge for muted topics, and an inevitable act of solidarity with all those able to recognise themselves.

You express yourself across a multi-disciplinary practice. How did everything start? And how do different mediums find a common ground, a way to convey a unified message?

I really had to fight to go to art school, it was definitely not the path my family wanted me to take.

Working with a variety of materials and processes encourages play and experimentation, I work very intuitively and I get bored of things quickly so working in a multi-disciplinary way keeps me excited and curious. It’s definitely a studio-based practice rather than a traditionally academic research-led practice. The making process is very reactionary, so I’ll choose a medium that fits accordingly in that moment.  

There is a commonality in my work which is independent of its medium. The narrative of the pieces and the intent remains constant due to the themes explored.

Would you say your work embodies your personal history and experiences?

My experiences are absolutely embedded into the autobiographical work I make. It’s a hugely vulnerable process using your own life as fodder for making work. There’s a lot of humour attached to the work and this helps me to tackle challenging topics or lived experiences. Incorporating humour or absurdity also allows the audience to engage with difficult topics that are present in my practice.

A challenge is gauging how visible you want personal aspects to be and how much you want to share.

Within the work I actively push my comfortability of what I feel I can share and question my boundaries. This open approach acts as a catalyst for important conversations with others about their personal history and experiences. That’s a very precious thing and I feel proud.

Your artwork often represents the idea of dominance, power play, gender expectation and patriarchy. Do you perceive your practice as a mechanism to disseminate and compel social and political messages?

The beauty of making art, is it allows you to scream in people’s faces about what pisses you off. The biggest catalyst in my practice is things that piss me off. We are taught not to scream and shout, to have a calm and mediated conversation; god forbid we come across as unhinged.

An art context allows us to make noise about social and political issues without being silenced. As a woman, sexism and the repercussions of a patriarchal society makes me angry and I definitely communicate that in my work, not just for its cathartic qualities but as a way to educate and also to show solidarity with other women.

I was once asked about how being a female artist impacted the metal and concrete sculpture I had exhibited, a piece which was shown alongside a male sculptor with similar use of material. He wasn’t asked about his gender in relation to his work so why was I? This interaction really turbo-charged the exploration of gender expectation in my practice and I started to purposely perform overtly hyper masculine stereotypes.

My practice has always explored gender and power dynamics in a wider social context but has evolved to look specifically at issues surrounding power roles in sexual politics from a heterosexual woman’s perspective in this current moment. My own personal experiences have informed the shift in my practice to focus on dominance and power play in a sexual context.

Specifically in the context of your hyper masculine stereotypical performances, you wrote one dissertation on man’s multiples facets – the labourer and the metrosexual – by which you have raised important questions about how the society, the industry and the cultural paradigms are shaping our perceptions, and somehow prejudices, on man’s profile and masculinity. Can you shortly introduce the ideas you have explored and illustrate how your artistic practice breaks them? Curiously enough being you an heterosexual woman. 

I wouldn’t say my art aims to break the themes that were addressed in that paper but more how the impact of a patriarchal society not only impacts negatively on women but also men. It’s a cycle of behaviours and expectations that feed sexism and inequality. I think it is important when looking at gender and social expectations to be aware of the issues that different genders face. It is necessary to look to the roots of where these issues stem from and their complexity. It’s obviously not just women who are impacted from a patriarchal attitude towards gender; all genders are affected.

Considering that most likely the location affects one’s idea of gender expectation, therefore the establishment of gender stereotypes, how do you perceive Lisbon’s/Portuguese reception to these insights and, moreover, to your provocative work?

Moving to Lisbon definitely made my work more explicit and more aggressive. There’s a definite correlation to my experiences of gender dynamics in Lisbon and the bluntness of the work I’m making. I think prior to moving to Lisbon, the discussion of gender stereotypes and expectations in my work was delivered in a slightly more abstract fashion with the conversation of gender politics being found in the processes I used or the choice of material.

Since moving to Lisbon, I’ve observed that there’s absolutely no subtlety in the presentation of the traditional masculine desire to dominate, there is no subtlety in the sexism, this has very much been my experience when you present as a confident female in a very conservative country. I’ve experienced horror on the faces of men in Portugal when I challenge them. This is alarming to say the very least, so yes, these experiences will probably make my work seem provocative as I’m delivering my experiences in a loud and unfiltered way.

Lisbon finds my work provocative but I don’t think London does in the same way. It is perhaps more provocative here because I am holding up a mirror to universal issues but which are more prominent here. Some people absolutely won’t like that because it’s a bit too close to home, it’s a bit too revealing. My work has a polarising effect, some are thrilled these topics are being addressed openly, others feel attacked. It is my feeling that perhaps the ones who feel attacked are usually part of the problem.

Getting back to the fact that you address these topics throughout a sexual context (a subject commonly avoided from being discussed openly, even looked at), how do you see the role of the audience in the creation of meaning for your work?

Sex in my opinion is the most important area of conversation when looking at anything relating to gender expectation and the impact of the patriarchy. Earlier I mentioned that my work is autobiographical and is currently heavily informed by my own sexual encounters. Reflecting on behaviour in this intimate context speaks volumes on how a society can view gender. Sex education is crucial in negating abusive behaviour and sexual violence; without open conversations there will never be any progress. When a topic is considered taboo, the less discussion is had on the subject, the more intense the problem can become.

I’m not thinking about the audience when I’m making work, my practice is very self-indulgent in that respect. I absolutely want the work to be accessible to a wide audience and I believe exhibitions and the correlating texts should not be over-academicized. The audience’s role is to have a conversation with their peers about the themes I’m addressing. I want people to talk about sex. People are only uncomfortable talking about sex because they’re taught to feel uncomfortable about sex.

Regarding the future, any upcoming projects?

I have recently moved into a new studio, so at the moment I am focusing on getting settled into the making process within a new space. There are some exciting plans in progress for 2024 so stay tuned!

Master in Curatorial Studies from the University of Coimbra, and with a degree in Photography from the Portuguese Institute of Photography in Porto, and in Cultural Planning and Management, Mafalda develops her work in the areas of production, communication and activation, within the scope of Photography Festivals and Visual Arts - Encontros da Imagem, in Braga (Portugal) and Fotofestiwal, in Lodz (Poland). She also collaborated with Porto / Post / Doc: Film & Media Festival and Curtas Vila do Conde-Festival Internacional de Cinema. In 2020, and she was one of those responsible for the curatorial project of the exhibition “AEIOU: Os Espacialistas em Pro (ex)cess”, developed at Colégio das Artes, University of Coimbra. As a photographer, she was involved in laboratory projects of analogue photography and educational programs for Silverlab (Porto) and Passos Audiovisuais Associação Cultural (Braga), while dedicating herself to photography in a professional format or, spontaneously, in personal projects.

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