Following Grandmother’s footsteps in Africa

I have slowed down since going to Africa – Tanzania – and my inner compass has been reset. It is on a more peaceful course now that the barometer of importance shifted back down to Earth. I was humbled to spend time in a city, a town and a village where people live so much of their lives on the street, in the open, in community. They are in touch with the elements of their existence in a way that few are in the West, beyond the homeless or eco communities.

on Zanzibar

In some ways they are behind us, when it comes to women’s rights or LGBTQI rights, or state provision for health or welfare. Their life expectancy is lower (about 62), HIV is the biggest killer, and the majority of their population are young. Women are not allowed to defend themselves in court – they must be represented by a male relative, and homosexuality is punishable by lengthy prison sentence. In England women were in a comparable situation legally in the 16th century – if they were poor and tried for witchcraft (the two often going together), they were not allowed to defend themselves. Gay men in the UK however, faced imprisonment if outed until relatively recently; homosexual acts were decriminalised just 50 years ago. Part of the reason Tanzanian law is homophobic is a legacy of colonial law, so that while Britain was in power there until independence in 1961, the change in UK law in 1967 did not pass on.

off Zanzibar coast

I was in coastal areas of Tanzania – Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo and Zanzibar – where 85% of the population are Muslim. The women are very well covered up, even in intense heat wearing many layers. It was my first direct experience of the call to prayer which happens 5 times a day, and is often most noticeable at the quietest times like just before sunrise. In each location we stayed, these calls varied according to the caller. My favourite was in Dar es Salaam, which could only be heard early as the city is so noisy the rest of the time. It was a sonorous, melodic voice that carried a powerful reach to a higher source. It was a music that did inspire, and I appreciated that this part of Muslim practice is absolutely in touch with the Earth’s passage around the sun. It’s a regular call to nature, a reminder to retune to the essentials and spiritual side of life.

In 1947 my Father’s family moved from England, via Johannesburg where he was born, to Kongwa, central Tanzania (then Tanganyika). This was because my Grandfather, who was an agriculturalist, had been commissioned by the British government to work on the controversial Groundnut Scheme as head of the scientific department. They were trying to find ways to grow crops on less favourable land, in order to feed more people easily. Massive and monumental mistakes were made right at the start of the project and it was a complete disaster wasting untold resources. Because of a post war oil/fat scarcity, sample testing on small plots of land which would have been the intelligent thing to do, was bypassed at a political level in UK parliament. Instead, they planned from the outset to clear over 3 million acres of dense bush (about the size of US state Connecticut) using the most advanced machinery to tame the land, in order to create a peanut monoculture. My Grandfather was brought in after these decisions had already been made, and did his best within the framework. By Summer ’51  the Scheme had been abandoned and my Grandfather drove North alone to a place known at the time as Tozi, in Northern Sudan for his next contract. The rest of the family flew back to England to spend time with my Grandmother’s family in Lancashire, while the site in Sudan was being set up.

“Prison Island” near Zanzibar

For my 40th birthday my partner Steve offered to take me anywhere in the world. I immediately thought of Africa due to some interesting family history there, and never having been before. South Africa would have been the obvious choice (my Grandfather’s family having been there since the turn of the last century), but I was drawn to less well trodden soil, and the place where my Grandmother allegedly began to lose her marbles. In a shamanic sense I wanted to go and find them, and to reclaim her story. My Grandfather is well remembered professionally in an annual memorial lecture given at the University of Reading, where he held a long professorship, and even has a tree dedicated to him in Kew Gardens. Although the Groundnut Scheme was a failure, he had more success subsequently and was a renowned agricultural scientist throughout his career.

in the Slavery Museum at Stone Town, Zanzibar

My Grandmother’s life was more in the shadows, and not unusually for her time she endured her husband gallivanting with numerous other women. He was well known for that too. After his death it was even said by old family friends and fellow scientists, that not until a particularly open affair out in Tanganyika, did my Grandmother crack, as if catalysed by his behaviour. This seems an unusual observation for my Grandfather’s former colleagues and close friends to share (with my Father), about 50 years after the episode. It seemed that for them it was important to pass on information out of respect for my dear Grandmother. She had suffered a great deal following diagnosis of schizophrenia, with the typical procedures of the time – institutionalisation, EST (electro shock therapy) and medication – apart from the illness itself. This didn’t all happen at once mind, rather she had episodes of illness, yet managed to hold family, work (she was a teacher at the school in Kongwa) and home together very well the rest of the time, but under great strain I imagine. Following my Grandfather’s Sudan contract, the family relocated to England which was probably due to a few reasons. Sudan gained independence from ’56 and prior to that Westerners were increasingly unwelcome. Apart from that my Grandmother’s family doctor in Lancashire had warned that for the sake of her health she must return to England. That advice likely came in ’51 yet she continued on out to Tozi to support husband and children throughout their African spell.

At her funeral in 2005 (in Reading), her brother came down from Lancashire and spoke about his sister’s plight for the first time to her family. He pointedly called that episode in Tanganyika a turning point from which she was never the same again. He felt when seeing her after that time that he had lost his once extremely bright and sharp-witted sister – she was the first person from their town to get into Oxford University where she got a first class degree in English Literature. With her (and Grandfather) now dead, he was at last free to express this. I have long been aware of the connection between the onset of her illness, and her husband’s painful and blatant infidelity. Since researching this piece I have also wondered about a psychogeographic connection with the destructive and large scale rape of the African land, that was the Groundnut Scheme. Local African wisdom was completely ignored, the area to be farmed known as “the country of perpetual drought”, which tallied with available meteorological data. Moreover the land was not tameable as hoped, and only a tiny fraction of the original plan went ahead, but still a lot of land was damaged in this process. The Scheme was more a symbol of colonial power and agriculturalism, than what it actually yielded – more peanuts were flown in to start the growing than were ever harvested.

In Mangapwani, Zanzibar

My partner and I did not go to Kongwa, which is a very rural place in central Tanzania and not so easy to reach, especially in just the fortnight we had available. It is a large country that can take a long time to travel across, so we stayed in more accessible places. I was pleased they were not all touristy, and in some places we were the only white people. It was in Zanzibar, in Stone Town, which is very touristy, that we got hassled a lot and there were many other white people around. I generally felt safer there as I knew people would speak English more and there was infrastructure for westerners’ benefit, but I did not enjoy it so much! I knew that a lot of what we saw there was in place to cater for our needs, and try to tempt our purses. Indeed, for some locals I think we were basically purses on legs. On the occasions that someone spoke with us outside of that agenda, it felt such a warm privilege.

Fish market in Dar es Salaam

One such time was on my favourite day of the holiday, when we took the daladala (bus) from Stone Town on Zanzibar to a village called Mangapwani. We went there because it had some places of historical interest, including caves and a slave chamber, as well as a beach. In the event, the journey by bus was most rewarding for an authentic African experience. We were the only white people who crammed into this single level lorry/bus with a very low ceiling. Everyone except small children had to bend over and crouch to walk inside it when finding a seat. There were different types of bus, some with rows of seats, and this one with a bench all round the edge, everyone looking inwards and very close together, also a few people sitting in between the others’ feet.

the 102 daladala

This was the 102 daladala and we had a walk from the main road where we were dropped off, to Mangapwani. The caves were a really interesting discovery; not easy to navigate in the dark by torchlight, but it was surprisingly big down there, with large pools from which locals collected fresh water in buckets.

It was at the slave chamber that the guide himself made a very positive impression. We had already visited the slavery museums at Stone Town in Bagamoyo and Zanzibar – the first with a guide who shared much interesting information in particular relating to the present day experience of descendants of slaves. The second had a really well documented exhibition telling the whole history, and as well some slave chambers to go inside. So what we saw and learnt at this spot in Mangapwani was not so new for us, though it was different for only pertaining to the time after slavery had officially been abolished. These were secret chambers used by Arab slavers who continued their trade on the quiet for some years, away from British patrolling eyes. What really struck was the nature of the guide. We both came away with a strong feeling of his personal warmth, the care he took leading us down dusty steep steps in the dark, or along a rubbly pathway to the shoreline. He showed extra consideration beyond the call of duty. Also our guidebook had warned us that we would be forced to pay much more than the going rate for entrance. It was not the case – in fact it cost less than the (2015) guidebook suggested – so we’d been set up to expect dodginess when none was present, just a very decent sweet man. After being so much hassled in Stone Town, this day out in a village free from that, and this particular encounter, stood out. I think it’s normal that some descendants of slavery feel wary towards white people, even if it was in fact Arabs who did the slaving in these parts. The gentleman at this chamber, however, seemed quite neutral, and as with the museum guide in Bagamoyo, incredibly knowledgeable. The experience with him, although brief, left a resonance of human connection that I won’t forget. It was of the sort that heals where faith in our fellow humans has been eroded. Difficult to explain, but it was felt by both me and Steve. This was an unstated aspect – I mean our conversation with the guide stayed on topic, but it was something special and rare about him.

Inside Mangapwani slave chamber

We made another pleasant connection that day during the ride back to Stone Town. This time we took a daladala direct from the village and, being the first to get on, we were given seats next to the driver. I asked if he spoke English and he shook his head. Then I saw a Liverpool football club sticker on the window and asked if he liked them. Now it became apparent that he could speak some English… if it was about football! He first asked if we liked Liverpool (before in fact answering the question). Steve said he liked Tottenham Hotspur, who of course the guy knew. He then asked me and I said I didn’t care for football, which made him laugh. Then he told us he actually liked Manchester United and the sticker was not his. The football connection opened communication between us and although we couldn’t talk a lot, a few other exchanges happened after that.

 

 

Also in Mangapwani was a quiet beach, the chance to swim briefly in the warm, clear water, and discovering the most divine cafe/bar within a grove of monkey-laden trees and overlooking the Indian Ocean. We were the only visitors so it felt an extra treat to have escaped the tourist trail.

To remember Granny, I performed a ritual by myself whilst standing in the sea. I had originally planned to do this in Dar es Salaam as I have a photograph of her on the beach there in 1949, on holiday with her small boys including my Dad, so I know she went there. After checking out the beaches in Dar however, it became apparent that the quiet areas were not wholly safe for westerners. We found out why as well, since we walked that way and had a scary encounter with a man hassling us in a very disturbing and dramatic fashion. It seemed likely that he had mental health issues, as we say here – his eyes looked like he was on something. For a while he followed us in a place where no-one else was around, jabbering frantically in Swahili (I presume). He tried to put his arm round me a few times, and was attempting to hold on to Steve, but we shrugged him off. He expressed immense desperation in his gestures, madly trying to get our attention, but we could not understand him and I felt a bit scared. He intoned words rhythmically, repeatedly as if cursing us, but I thought he was a very broken, damaged person. He had a naked torso and many scars. I sensed that he was fearless, which is why I was scared, and also because I could not see potential help. He was relentless and I didn’t know what he might try to do. Luckily after quite a while walking a long stretch with him trailing us, we saw a stall where there was a guy in uniform. We headed towards him. I wasn’t sure who he was as the stall seemed to be sponsored by Pepsi, but just his presence felt favourable. As we got closer we saw the sign that he was a policeman, and he called our unfortunate companion over. We imagined it was not the first time that those two individuals had met… Later we found a passage in the guidebook (that somehow we had missed before) warning of that dangerous area.

Art market in former slave market at Bagamoyo

So, after a few days in Dar, we travelled North to Bagamoyo, a town known for arts and also its history as a centre where slaves were taken. The name means ‘Lay down your heart’, as it was seen as an end point to many slaves’ long journey from far away where their tribes resided in the centre of Africa. Those who were weak would not make it beyond Bagamoyo as they were not valued enough to be worth selling in the slave market. Many wouldn’t even make it that far, so gruelling the weary journey. Those that made it to Zanzibar were then often sold on to masters in the Middle East. We were told that the reason that slave descendants are not widespread in the Middle East despite so many Africans being taken there during that slave trade, is that unlike the slave masters in America and the West Indies, the Arabs castrated all their male slaves (and presumably didn’t raise children with female slaves). The slaves who remained in Bagamoyo were put to work in whatever ways they could be used.

We were staying at an eco lodge called Firefly, which was very friendly and comfortable. The woman running it also organised local beach cleaning to deal with the tide of plastic bottles washing up amongst other waste (the beach was the other side of the lodge garden). She had teams of Western teenagers on gap years dropping in to do their bit, which seemed highly enterprising! It was along this beach during the quiet of the day, when Tanzanian workers are still working and there were few tourists around, that on our last morning there I decided to do my ritual for Granny. The tide was a long way out so it was easy to get some distance from walkers, hawkers and men building boats at the top of the beach, by walking right up to the water’s edge. I was in my bikini as nudity might cause too much of a sensation in those parts and I didn’t want to attract undue attention, rather be left alone. Even a bikini was extremely unusual there, the local women always being covered up.

Bagamoyo beach

I had brought along a picture of my Grandmother, a portrait of her that was photographed when she was 17: young, bright, hopeful and quite innocent, I imagine. I had been looking at several images of her before we travelled to Tanzania, and that was the one I chose for this ritual as I wanted to focus on her at a time before she became ill; when her soul was perhaps most intact. That was the idea. To focus on restoring that sense of her healthy vibrant soul, and in so doing, restoring the connection between her and her lineage. Healing a damaged female line which should have passed on strength and power instead of trauma. To represent the female blood line, I had collected my most recent menstrual period that had begun on the first day of our trip to Tanzania so it was pretty fresh. After a meditation focusing on the image of Granny and her soul, I poured my blood onto each of my limbs, then washed it off in the sea. Finally I focused on the horizon while I was still in the zone, and then walked back to the sand where my bag and clothes were. I sat down and immediately recorded some feelings.

There was a lot more to this journey that I could share. I suppose what struck most strongly was the feeling I had in Dar es Salaam. Being in an utterly new place, where people make homes out of anything – often corrugated iron, and further out from the city, mud and sticks – and live close to the ground. It was a privilege to be among them. We were staying in Kariakoo, the African neighbourhood as the guidebook called it at the heart of the city, which bustled throughout from dawn till late. The people looked healthy and live tremendously physical existences. There is food but they work hard for it. There is poverty as we know it, yet I sensed some richness of spirit that many of us have lost through the acquisition of (and dependence on) too many material goods and processed foods. And we’ve become more separated – from ourselves and each other – because of our relative wealth. I mean almost all of us in the West, even if we don’t think of ourselves as rich. Compared to them we are, because the state is and the infrastructure is, but that doesn’t make the soul rich. Being all crowded together in the streets of an evening sharing a meal, that looked like a different world to me. Not yet tarmac streets either; but dusty, crumbly, bumpy, earthy roads with holes in. I know it’s not what their middle classes aspire to, you only had to watch the TV in the hotel to see that.

part of Kariakoo market

Technology is changing the world rapidly and while it takes longer to upgrade the outer infrastructure – buses, trains, roads etc, as I sat crammed on an old daladala in Zanzibar, some of my fellow passengers were using newer, more powerful smartphones than my own! We witnessed them at a juxtaposition of older and much newer ways of life. It seemed like an exciting combination and I hope they don’t lose too much of the old, though their women’s and LGBTQI rights need a complete overhaul.

Colobus monkey on Zanzibar

Watching boys play football impromptu on a promenade by the sea, from about 4 years old up to late teenagers, kicking the ball to each other, practising their footwork; I was reminded of my brother playing as a child with his friends, sometimes I would join in too. To see their control of the ball and physical confidence – and barefoot in Tanzania – I thought how that sight has become rarer back in England. I don’t mean in the proper designated places, but just in an empty street or car park; we used to enjoy playing in the streets. Not only are parents much more cautious now (and rules probably stricter), but also children are busier with little screens and tiny keyboards and I think it’s a shame. We used to get a lot of exercise making our own entertainment playing outside. It was a pleasure to watch the African boys, and it was a common occurrence in the different places we visited. Later towards sunset and beyond they were running and diving over the wall into the sea below, each trying to outdo the others’ prowess, inventing new styles, playing games in friendly competition.

red colobus monkey

The other side of this is that I couldn’t see the girls enjoying such physical fun. They were very covered up from an early age, from babes in arms in fact, with bonnets and long sleeves; only faces and hands revealed. They were not able to be wild and free, always supposed to behave in a coded, mannered way. I don’t think that’s healthy for girls and women; they cannot access the intelligence of the skin and the body this way, or the confidence that grows from sharing physical connections with others. They are limited instead and encouraged to view others’ dress critically instead of focusing on what really matters. I tried to adhere to local etiquette when it comes to dressing, but one of my long dresses has a slit up one side. I thought nothing of it, just that it is comfortable, but as I walked along the street local women stared at me, and the only thing they looked at was the slit. Maybe they were just curious but I thought I detected judgement. It reminded me how women end up enforcing the systems that oppress them.

more colobus!

I felt more strongly that I would never defend a woman’s right to cover up back home, though equally I would never tell her how to dress. It is for women to decide themselves, but if your culture has that norm it could feel daunting to break it. I personally think that if women’s modesty is valued too highly, it creates a culture of victim blaming. It is saying that if a woman doesn’t cover up, she may expect to be abused somehow. It is removing the responsibility from men for their own atrocious actions and putting it all on women. That is the Patriarchy and while I understand that hearing these words from outsiders may be less appealing than being told what to wear by your own people, I want to be open because too often we feel unable to speak from the heart. And it does affect my life in the UK (and the world) if there is a pervading culture of victim blaming within the population. I don’t think the West has all the answers; we have much to learn from each other. It ought to be a dialogue.

hippos at Sadaani National Park

In Tanzanian law marital rape does not exist; a woman is deemed her husband’s property by virtue of his having paid bride price – he may do what he likes with her providing he does not disturb the peace of others unduly. That means other people’s peace, not his wife’s. Many women there will suffer domestic violence in silence as there is little they can do to escape. I think that state of affairs is fairly common, particularly in parts of Asia and Africa; sometimes much harsher too. In the UK marital rape was only written into law in 1991.

I’m not totally down about Tanzanian dress code, however – they have amazing textiles and know how to cover up with style! The prints on women’s dresses were visual candy, kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, every-coloured, multi-patterned joy! And although I usually couldn’t understand them, there were some outspoken, authoritative women on TV, and vibrant front-women singing and dancing in bands in a local festival. Oppression is everywhere in the world, and it is relative to the state of the society. What I observed about women was just a part of my experience; the overriding feeling I had was about the whole way of life – the African way, it seemed. An outdoor way of life, where the kitchen may look dirty but the food tastes amazing. I am remembering the lunch we were treated to in the village of Sadaani which is in a National Park. From my diary;

stall where vegetables for the meal were bought

“The meal in the village was very fine, all vegetarian as I had requested. Coconut rice, okras with what our guide, Adam had called white tomatoes, though I had assumed them to be related to the aubergine; spinach prepared with carrot and garlic, and a dish with kidney beans. All very tasty, also with fresh water melon and cucumber. All together. No separation of courses, just eating, because the luxury of eating is appreciated. It looked and felt a feast. The room we ate in was a shack like the rest, semi open, ground floor as in earth floor, like outside. Dirty by western standards. Basic facilities, cooker if you would call it that black/burnt from use, looked old like many items, mixed together with newer plastic bowls etc. Small children wandering about outside, playing drafts, also small goats.”

We were driven around the park slowly – the roads are bumpy and you don’t want to scare the animals – and saw giraffes, baboons, waterbucks, warthogs and antelopes (also lots of elephant shit!) Then we travelled by boat on the Wami river to catch sight of hippos, crocodiles and many different birds – a fish eagle, storks, southern ground hornbills, yellow weaver birds and African spoonbills. It is a relatively new park and quite bushy so harder to spot animals than on the open plains in other regions. Also, animals like elephants that until 2005 were hunted in the same area, hold on to that memory and still are afraid of man. I think it was the river journey that inspired me most – the muddy banks and mangroves, families of hippos, and occasionally a croc dashing into the water! Another world.

I loved the market in Kariakoo too, like what Peckham or Deptford are suggestions of, but nowhere near as busy in my experience. The colourful dresses on sale, rummaging in piles of beautifully printed frocks, searching for some that weren’t ridiculously long as so many were. The women there were not so tall so I never understood this. Pairs of leggings modelled on mannequin legs with large bottoms! Absoluely anything and everything on sale on the ground or a table; old electrical items, cuddly toys, soap… books in english on how to get rich. A man with various rare doves in a cage on the back of his bicycle!

the old German Boma at Bagamoyo, Stone Town

There were quieter parts of Dar too, that looked more like streets in East London and had tarmac roads, plenty of mosques. Also the ‘colonial’ area of old, with more official and gated buildings, but much less character. The ruins in Bagamoyo’s Stone Town, with the old slave market now housing lots of artists’ work for sale. Enormously wide girthed trees with roots above ground, and red colobus monkeys in Jozani forest. I have so many wonderful memories of this trip, and a lot more in my diary but I will leave it here for now. It was such an educational – in the widest sense – trip, helping me to understand my family background better, and also cultural – colonial. I have finally travelled to Tanzania, to remember Granny, and gained a closer knowledge of my own connection to the past. With so much love and thanks to Steve for taking me there.

 

A useful article I found about the Groundnut Scheme.

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Old Fashioned Subtle Sexism and Implied Body Shaming

I’ve been a life model for a number of years now and fancied a change. I’d like to work with children but have no such qualification beyond babysitting as a teenager and modelling occasionally. One option is Teaching Assistant, so I looked it up and (a) the job description wreaks of “normal” job in a way I’m not sure I can handle any more. (b) The pay rate is low. I mean I often refuse that rate as a life model. I can earn a lot more as a life model, and to some extent being freelance can negotiate my own terms.
There is so much freedom and variety in my job and this mere cursory glance at another option made me appreciate that again. For a job looking after children, committing to regular hours for weeks on end, only minimum wage (or London Living Wage?) applies. Disgusting!

On the other hand I was thinking about what’s been bugging me as a life model recently. Certain jobs were making me uncomfortable. Even if I felt appreciated for my talent as a model, I also felt judged, subtly. These are jobs where I happen to fit into the artists’ idea of attractiveness in a body for them to draw. I am slim, a bit curvy, young(ish!), fit, reasonably flexible, not bad looking… and I know how to behave as life model in the way that is desired. I don’t just mean turning up on time and holding poses. I know how to engage with the artists and make suitable conversation. They want something reflected back to them which is how they see themselves as artists. They want to feel appreciated and to feel at ease with you.

What was bothering me was, these jobs while often better paid, do not always feel ethical. I know that they never book a fat model, an old model or a male model for example. They have asked me to recommend models and I’ve connected them with various. Not all have gone down too well. One was too old, too political and possibly opinionated. Another was an astrophysicist by day and they didn’t find her conversation stimulating in the way they wanted from their life model. Perhaps she hadn’t switched off yet from the day job!

At another such group I enquire what their other models are like. “Oh we don’t have any horrible bodies here,” I am told, and now I know I have completely strayed from the land of the politically correct. Which is partly a relief for the honesty, but in this case it smells of elitism, and I ask myself what is the appropriate response from me? At the time I say nothing as the conversation meanders on, and she speaks of their appreciation of fit bodies, with the strength to hold more ambitious poses. The woman I spoke to is not an organiser, just a regular punter. It’s true that when the model is really exerting their self, it can make for more compelling poses. But that wouldn’t rule out lots of older, male or larger models.

Is it for me to question who they want to draw? Is it a matter of aesthetics? And personalities? I am grateful to sometimes be among the chosen, but as someone who has run my own groups for all body types (to encourage body confidence) and gone to other groups to draw, I know of brilliant models outside of the obvious mainstream norms, and many of these would automatically be excluded from the jobs I described. Part of this it seems to me, is perpetuated by us models, picking up on the standard and only recommending similar types. After all, we want the work.

Posing one on one for an artist can be like a mini-relationship, an affair, a courtship. It might last days, span over weeks, months… Unless it’s for a commission or similar endgame, it’s very much about a connection of personalities. An exchange that is more than time and physical effort, rather an energetic connection. Sometimes it exists artistically alone, a musing inspiration, but other times I sense a girlfriend experience of sorts. Male artists with disposable income and space in their lives.

I used to be a hostess in Soho clip joints. Male clients paid excessively for time in my lingeried company, sipping expensive drinks. They likely entertained ideas of further/sexual developments. My job was to keep them there. Of course now “art” is occurring, so a higher purpose is implied, or at least perhaps a more acceptable relationship/activity. Several muses may be simultaneously on the go, alternating weeks, months, or exclusivity may be preferred for an intense period. Sharing an interest that the wife doesn’t (any longer), if she ever existed. Sometimes I am a cheap counsellor for their woes as well as indulging or reprimanding their neuroses, and providing conversation with my body to be looked at, submitted for inspection.

It can feel like that with a group of artists too. They fall in love with me a little, collectively, unanimously, and hopefully I with them. We bond for a while, over years at intervals. It is loose, casual, but they know me so well. I share brief intimacies in passing and they enjoy glimpses of my truth. Being able to be with artists in this way, to organically make this relationship work, is perhaps an unwritten skill, talent in the job description. It’s such a personal thing that is more than about looks; though I think often those talented in this context seem to share certain traits. A kind of physical beauty, and inner charm, genuine sharing without being too shy, or domineering. Exuding happy, contented, feel-good vibes. Being comfortable in this slightly old fashioned at times role.

I am sure more varied models could take on the position (and surely sometimes do) if they wanted it, but does the fit feel so natural? Do they feel accepted? Or is it just that I don’t know, and out there actually all variations coexist, with some artists choosing less typical muses, or even being less typical (and male) themselves? I hope so. I would love to hear about that. It would make me feel less like an anachronism!

I have modelled for female artists individually, but only a couple of long series which were both for committed projects where I had the desired form.

There are other groups and artists, not of this type, and fortunately now many so, who feel wholly ethical. They employ all good models and enjoy full diversity as much as is available. Every group has its own vibe to a certain extent attracting models and artists who fit in, though this is a broad spectrum. My feelings in this piece reflect my realisation that I felt more comfortable in these more I think ethical work situations. Yet there is also a place for more intimate encounters of the muse variety if not being outright physical or overtly sexual. These can be a healthy transaction, an exchange of ideas and growing friendships. It’s positive and it’s a privilege to explore connection outside of the romantic sphere (and be paid for it). It can run parallel to other relationships, offering other avenues to learn about ourselves. It’s the sort of job where you negotiate the boundaries, in terms of conversation as well as poses. What they are, for how long and when to take breaks. Do you also share meals, or go for a drink with them? Sometimes, but it usually stays professional. I mean it always does, but sometimes you become friends.

In Hammersmith, by Barry

In Muswell Hill

At Lauderdale House, in Sharon’s class

Above are some recent drawings of me from various classes. Posing with Goddess props at Cody Dock, in Tim’s class.

Day of the Girl – a feminist Love revolution

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Looking East as we rose on the London Eye, #DayoftheGirl October 11

In December 2011 the UN decided to create the International Day of the Girl, which is October 11 each year. The day is to raise awareness of the many inequalities faced by girls around the world, and to celebrate their achievements. Women of the World (WOW) at Southbank Centre, London, mark the occasion by a day filled with activities for girls, including speed mentoring early in the morning with successful women in a diverse range of fields, on the London Eye. I took part as a mentor on Tuesday and found it very rewarding. I remember how much I could have done with some good advice on real life matters when I was a young teenager. At that age the adults you mostly get to speak to may be family or teachers, and may not touch on all your areas of interest. I was very moved and this is what I wrote.

Caitlin Moran said, this country has been run by men who went to boarding schools for far too long. These schools are like businesses that people pay to send their children to. They are not like the real world where people care about each other.

She said, she’s met these men, and they are not more clever or special than many of us. They were just brought up to feel entitled to lead, but they do not understand most of us. She said, no one will ever just hand you power, you have to go and get it. Don’t worry that you don’t look like the others who have power, it’s ok to look different. She said it’s an exciting time because we have the possibility to change things in massive ways.

She had a message for the teenage girls, to be kind to themselves, and to learn how to accept compliments, because many find that very difficult and struggle with low self esteem. She advised them about their future – to follow their passion and make something of their own, a project or career. Because in the end the satisfaction you get from those achievements of what is within you to succeed, will be far more rewarding than what you get from a marriage or from having children. My heart sang. It is so important that girls are told this, that they (we) are reconditioned.

She said Love yourselves, and be nice. Be kind to each other and support other women.

This Day of the Girl had already moved me so much. It was afternoon now in the Royal Festival Hall, but breakfast had brought me to tears.

I had been so hard on myself the day before, so angry because I thought I had failed. I had performed Girl in Suitcase at the weekend and was looking back with unflinchingly self-critical eyes. I knew I must do much better, and told myself sternly what needed to change in future.

Still I went to bed early and though it took a while to quiet my mind for sleep, I was woken by the alarm when it played at 5:30am. Deliberately getting up at that hour is usually reserved for journeys to foreign lands. This, however was to take a different sort of flight. I showered, dressed, grabbed a bite and then cycled to Southbank Centre. I went in the building and was given a name badge and told I was in Capsule U. I got a cup of tea and waited; I was in good time. To my surprise when the voice on the tannoy announced the first groups to make their way to the London Eye, U was one of them. As we gathered, I recognised one of the women. I was unsure if she was facilitating, or mentoring like me, as I had seen her working at Southbank Centre before, as well as giving a talk at this year’s WOW. It was about her experience of the criminal justice system – serving time in prison and coming clean off drugs after many years’ addiction. I introduced myself and told her I had seen her powerful talk. She said it had been an important moment for her as since then she had gone on to give many talks in prisons and to the NHS for example. By telling her story she could destigmatise people with addictions to help health and legal professionals understand that treating them like patients is far more positive than as criminals. Her name was Nina, and she was also mentoring. It was her first time, my second. I had taken part in this 3 years ago, but had since doubted how helpful I could be to school girls. This year however I had regained confidence and felt that this would be a very good thing for me to do. Meeting Nina before we even started really reassured me. I was not alone with my dodgy past and unconventional pathway. I was in brilliant company! I settled into my group with ease, feeling absolutely certain that I had very valuable contributions to give to the girls we would be mentoring. Whatever they wanted to know, I had real life experience, and I had come a long way. I knew things they for sure were not taught in school. What a privilege and wonderful opportunity for me too.

We were on the Eye for an hour, in each capsule a group of 8 mentors and 8 mentees, and each mentor spoke with 3 different girls for 15 minutes each, answering their questions, having a dialogue. Two of the girls I connected with were considering futures in the arts, one with singing, the other in musical theatre, so I was at least partially in the right ballpark. I know how tough it can be in the arts as a performer, but also how important to follow your calling. I have been through drama school, a bit of university and chanced my way as a jobbing actor before deciding I preferred to create my own work and perform it. Mostly the girls’ questions and conditioned attitudes reminded me (remarkably after 25 years difference! – they were 14 years old) of how school and middle class norms taught me to think when I was their age. How little has changed! It’s not all bad, but it’s not necessarily realistic, or helpful. Mostly the prevailing attitude talks up the importance of financial security, so anyone considering a career in the arts is advised to have at least one back-up plan in case it doesn’t work. That’s all well and good, but starting out with that in mind is a bit like sabotaging your truest desires. Thinking you have failed before you begin. No one wants to prepare young people for the possibility of being out of work for a while, taking low level jobs so you have the headspace to be creative, and definitely not that you might end up doing a more dodgy job like I did. But it happens, quite a lot. My pathway is unique, but so many women try similar things to get by and maintain their independence. The reality is, for most of us if we want to make it as an artist, it will take a while to find our niche. There will be struggles, but that doesn’t mean the moment there isn’t a stable income (!) we should give up and become an accountant. Unless that works for you, and, some people are better at managing several jobs at once, so again you have to find how it is for you. How many of the older people I model for say they wanted to be an artist, but needed a proper income, so after going to art school decided to train in something else. They then got caught up in a mortgage and raising a family until much later in life when freed up, they decided to enrol in art classes. This generation might not have such options – perhaps it’s better to follow dreams in the present instead of deferring.

My other mentee wanted a career in games concept design. Not so much my area but I do model for quite a few animation studios and games design students at university, as well as having dated the odd geek, so I knew a wee bit.

After our Eye revolution, I caught up with Nina a bit more over a coffee, before the talks in the Clore Ballroom led by Jude Kelly. I filled her in more about my past; Soho and the drugs. She asked if I, like her, had told my story. I said I’d been inspired by Jude’s rape survivor talks at WOW, as I had largely buried some of my own experiences, or classified them as insignificant, not worthy of note. A misappropriation, since rape was being opened up for discussion now in the 21st century, and the definition considered more widely without fear of shame. I told Nina I have been writing about some of my experiences, and performing them. Some of it is quite recent. She has a few years on me, and she looked at me wisely and said, “You’ve just begun to tell your story”. I could tell she meant that I would need to tell it and tell it and keep telling it before I was properly healed, and empowered by it. I knew in my blood that this was true, I felt it. I shed tears, and welled up some more as Jude got started with some very stirring speakers.

There was Fatima Manji, the news reader who wore a hijab whilst reporting on the recent Nice attack, and was subsequently criticised for doing so by a Sun journalist. She had spoken up bravely to make it known that it is not ok to discredit someone because of what they choose to wear. There was Frances Morris who is the new artistic director of the Tate Modern – and the first woman to have the job. There was Chi-chi Nwanoku who founded Europe’s first BME classical orchestra, and Luisa Omielan, an award winning comedian. There was also an inspirational 6th form prefect. Two other teenage girls were given the mic too, later in the day on stage with Caitlin reading excerpts from her ‘Moranifesto’, and I think it was important to include them. To show we are not just listening to the mostly white “successful” women in our society, but are also aware of younger women of colour (as it happened) who may be lesser known now, but are already making their mark. One was a spoken word poet leading a collective of performers in her school, and the other, June Eric-Udorie. The very articulate June successfully campaigned a year ago to keep feminism on the Politics A Level syllabus (it was going to be removed), and as well have more female thinkers added, as there was only one (Mary Wolstencraft) out of 16, included. Whilst doing her A Levels, she also writes for the Guardian among other publications.

By the time we went upstairs to listen to Jo Brand and Jude chatting, I was beyond speaking during the networking periods before and after. Nina had gone to a meeting, and I had spoken all that I needed to for the morning. Something had moved inside me, in my heart something was healing but still tender. I was very happy to sit on the floor and just enjoy Jo Brand’s deadpan wit combined with reassuringly human nature. I am quite used to listening to Jude, so it is a more familiar pleasure watching her in conversation with many amazing women.

The strong warm glow and buzz that I left Day of the Girl with, was the same feeling I get at WOW, but I think it’s growing. I really felt that the intelligent women in this country and beyond who have achieved some power, have gotten together and decided that they want all girls and women to share that, to have the same and more. They want to change the world and they are inspiring all of us. They wanted to support us all, in a really loving way, to big us up and encourage all our aspirations. It is a political movement, but there is spirit in it too. It is full of heart and Matriarchal Love. I felt like I belong, and I never want to lose that feeling. I noticed afterwards that some of my usual default thought patterns of comparing myself with others negatively especially when tired, had evaporated. I could overide them now, I was on a higher level. There were more important things to connect with, and bigger aims were possible. I ceased to self criticise as well, as I felt in my heart that there was a reason my weekend performance hadn’t been polished. A superficial shine hadn’t been important for this show – it was all about the content. I was delivering some very personal lines for the first time, live. Revealing sensitive material about my past, to both friends and strangers in my own city. That was what counted, Nina had reminded me without realising. That was what I had to prioritise. Not the blood and glitter, nor interacting with the audience like a cliched hooker, nor allowing them to body paint me – albeit this created a beautiful connection. My focus must be the lines of truth concerning delicate intimate secrets of my past. That’s all. My performance, my therapy.

Caitlin said, we don’t yet know what the world looks like and feels like when women have equality, it hasn’t been created yet. It’s up to us to make it, to have a revolution. Everything could be different; we might invent new economic systems since capitalism doesn’t work. We might create new political systems as the current one is definitely corrupt. Family, social, religious and geo-political structures may completely change. If each of us chooses to live our lives as fully as possible, to make the world better for everyone.

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My view from the London Eye on the morning of October 11, 2016.

Free Bleeding Life Modelling

The following is about a recent experience I had when life modelling and menstruating aligned for me. I am sharing it here as want to raise awareness about this issue, particularly for the benefit of women thinking of trying life modelling, as well as for artists booking models. It is not necessarily talked about much, but I think we all gain from freeing ourselves of this taboo. Female models may feel more comfortable, and artists better understand the issues involved. There is a lot of shame around menstruating, which some women experience more than others, whereby it is felt necessary to hide this biological process; the blood, smell, bodily and emotional changes. All of this concealing can further add to the psychological anguish of not fully realising our natural cyclical power, however unaware we may be of this.

I arrived early in Sidcup on a Thursday morning after no sleep. Despite a stressful night, somehow I remained upbeat in the morning, and on removing my garments in the changing room (this college has an actual changing room for the life model!) was amazed to discover my knickers and thighs smeared with blood. How unexpected, and how early. I am generally fairly regular, and this was about ten days premature. It did explain my difficult tormented night however, to a further degree than the stress I was experiencing alone could. With the full moon approaching in a few days, my cycle was realigning to bring my emotional and physical being, in keeping with the celestial sphere. I now found myself in jolly temperament, typical for me of coming on.

I was caught out, without mooncup or pad. There seemed more blood than usual for the beginning of the flow, which is often minor dribbles, and I actually felt excited by the idea of posing while free bleeding. In my robe I entered the posing space and addressed the tutor Nick. I said, “My period has unexpectedly just begun, and I am unprepared. So I will pose, and there will be some blood between my legs you understand.” He did, no problem. I have known this class for a rather long time and feel so comfortable with them, so appreciated always.

I had presented the predicament audibly so that all the class could hear too, and they were all on the same page. This post-menopausal bunch were relaxed and comfortable, as long as I was. While they were not able to offer me a tampon, they helped me feel far greater comfort than usual. Typically my dynamic and movement poses are stretched to the limit here, and several of the class members are nudged out of their comfort zone. How they must have rejoiced in my menstruation to be able to proffer the sofa loaded with as many cushions as reasonably stacked there. I did a few quick stretchy poses, and then was ushered into warmth and comfort. My tiredness was intense and I felt no resistance, just gratitude for my friendly class, who in their turn were equally gracious.

Nick was considering which of the clean sheets to cover the cushions with, and seeing none were red, I said I thought lying on my own robe would be most suitable. I can imagine in other similar situations that a tutor or class member might offer to go and buy a tampon. That didn’t arise here, and I think it was because of the exuberant manner in which I presented my predicament, more elated than troubled by my bleeding. Finally the staining of my legs was not so dramatic. The combination of long reclining poses and a large absorbant bush meant that most of this sticky mess didn’t travel so far.

When it happens, it happens. Go with the flow. Here are two earlier posts I have made, at least partly on the subject, one from a few years ago, and the other a year ago.

I will host events where free bleeding is encouraged, or if not so overt, then it will simply be acceptable. To promote menstrual health, awareness, and not hiding this vital part of our life blood. Celebrating our cycles and all the (hidden) power contained there, until we open it up and declare it ours. We shift with the weeks (if not blocked too drastically with hormones or lack of food for example), accessing different parts of ourselves at each time. Renewing, growing, blooming and shedding. When the blood comes, we are letting go of the old, what we no longer need; dead waste, old blood. To make way for the new.

Here are some photographs from my Girl in Suitcase performance, from the scene about menstrual rites, performed with Lidia at Dandifest, May 2015, Norwich. Lidia is pouring a syropy fake blood liquid over my already blackened body. The audience have been handed a cup of red wine each, in time for our menses communion ceremony.

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Positive Behaviour, and reclaiming the Erotic

Topical at the moment in the London life drawing scene, is dealing with sleaze, namely, The London Life Drawing Society. This is run by Tony Picano/Picanto/Pianco – he has various guises not limited to these. For many years he has been known for behaviour that has upset and offended many women, with inappropriate advances in what was meant to be a professional context. This mainly affects female life models. It’s also true that he has run events that have been straight forward and unproblematic too.

One model, new to London, recently called Tony out on Facebook, and the response has been overwhelming, with many other women coming forward, and a police investigation launched. It is no surprise to many of us veteran models, who spotted him years ago and stayed well clear. This new development is however a very positive thing for women and the life drawing scene, as while Tony may have made himself obvious to us who are in the know, for a newcomer that may be unclear. ‘The London Life Drawing Society’ sounds quite proper, and could be mistaken for being representative of a recognised standard, which is not the case at all. Most life drawing groups here are utterly appropriate, so it is very misleading. We don’t know how many women have been affected or to what extent, but we do know that Tony made a lot of people feel very uncomfortable.

When I say that Tony made himself obvious, this was from his email messages and online notices looking for models. Without ever actually meeting him, he gave himself away to a lot of us. His messages often mixed up the role of the model, with someone offering more intimate services for example, or suggested that models might not need to be paid. Indeed he has also been known for refusing to pay models, even when it was agreed beforehand. His reputation has unsurprisingly been notorious for a good number of years. Please get in touch if you have been affected and would like the police detective’s contact details.

I have had my fair share of dodgy guys to deal with whilst running Spirited Bodies. For the most part they never made it beyond emailing me, but occasionally in the early days one slipped through the net and got into a session. This led to me not inviting new men to pose for Spirited Bodies more recently. I am slowly working out how I may incorporate new men again, after serious vetting of course, and in very controlled conditions.

Following posts I made on Facebook outing Tony, my Facebook account was suspended for 24 hours, apparantly because of nude pictures I had posted. Those pictures had been there for quite a while however, so I suspected a disgruntled man getting revenge.

When my account was reinstated, I took the opportunity to celebrate by sharing a beautiful image recently taken with my partner, which while totally nude, and sensual as well (considered soft porn by some!) shows none of the forbidden body parts. We had done an intimate photoshoot with a friend and this image felt timely and apt.

With Steve Ritter, photograph by Lidia, www.lidialidia.com

With Steve Ritter, photograph by Lidia, http://www.lidialidia.com

The Tony case sparked much positive discussion in the life model community, about safety, and also some about the morality of erotic life drawing. There were voices attacking this art form as an afront to our profession. I don’t see it that way however. It is a personal choice, and in the right conditions where boundaries are clearly understood, and the practice is consensual, can show another aspect of the human form, from life. Sex is a part of us, and to deny that and its relevence to artists is bizarre I feel. I wouldn’t pose with anyone else, the way I do with Steve,  but that is my preference, and others are more open.

Posing as a genuine couple offers a glimpse into our real life intimacy and affection for one another. The emotions we feel while we are connecting physically go way beyond arousal, and may entirely be of love and mutual appreciation. I think that is a very rare and beautiful opportunity for artists.

Because this is WordPress and not Facebook, here is another of Lidia’s photographs of us.

The joy of feeling comfortable with my partner and fellow life model, Steve

The joy of feeling comfortable with my partner and fellow life model, Steve

Steve will be sharing more images of us soon on his life model blog, and has created a page for us! https://charoigne.wordpress.com/esther-and-steve/

We look forward to posing together again, and to promoting healthy attitudes and behaviours within our community.

Circles of Women

Our recent women’s event was in a beautiful space at the Bargehouse (part of Oxo buildings, Southbank), well heated and well attended – with 5 models, and about 10 artists. Poses from 1 – 15 minutes, some with movement. We began dynamic and expansive, and perfected the art of very slowly opening up from an enclosed pose (3 and 5 minutes). In 3 minutes, they had moved so slowly, that when time was up, I found they had hardly opened at all! So I decided on a second round, longer to allow them to complete the movement.

All artwork from the women's session at the Bargehouse, 4/11/15

All artwork from the women’s session at the Bargehouse, 4/11/15

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The artists sat in a circle, some drawing in sketch pads, others leaning a board on a chair in front, one or two with their own mini easels set up. Within this circle, the models had a sheeted and cushioned area in which they created their own circles from time to time as they posed.

In daylight before we began

In daylight before we began

We created 5 minute poses for each element – Fire, Air, Water and Earth. Beautiful ensembles with flames, blowing in the wind, waves, and the solidity of Earth.

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Hands reached up in a blaze of flames

There was a mix of experienced models including Ursula (a full time model and performance poet), and Claire (professional model, writer and feminist artist from the 80s, returning now with mastectomy), and Paula (relatively new). New models included an opera singer, who sang with Ursula in a sonorous pose; also another totally new model.

operatic notes on a page

operatic notes on a page

That was an impromtu inspiration as the singing model was clearly keen, and we have done that sort of thing before at A Human Orchestration a couple years back, so it felt enjoyable to revisit musical models. Really adds to their presence, and in this case, her voice was so powerful that the room shook. I’m not joking, and I wasn’t even next to her, touching her, so I can only imagine the vibrations in the inner circle. At least one artist was moved to tears, and several said they drew differently as touched by her tones.

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Artists familiar, as well as some from the drawing symposium (we were a part of the Southbank Festival of Creativity) made their marks.

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A real pleasure to return to my perhaps most passionate area of Spirited Bodies – the sacred women’s space! Though I don’t make much of any spiritual angle, keeping the session within life art/performance narrative, there is an extra element of care and consideration that is about feeling safe, to be all that we are. We are aware, as women together, some of us nude, that we could have body hang-ups, and maybe sometimes we do. But in that space, we are supporting each other to move past that, and enjoy the bodies we are in. We create solidarity, without judgement for ourselves or each other, embracing difference. And that is all that is needed, together with listening to each other, to make a very special warm, shared healing experience.

bending in the wind

bending in the wind

We don’t have to have been especially hung-up to benefit immensely; we all gain from the shared liberation, and witnessing each other being and blossoming. Creating a helpful, proactive, responsive community as well, as we connect more, building friendships. In the end, it is the love between us that grows our collective power, beauty, resonance and connection.

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There is space within poses for individuals to practise their own spirituality possibly. Over years of modelling, I believe I have learnt how to very quickly access a meditative state, it is second nature. I smile automatically when discomfort prevails, as doing this alters my mind state to strengthen me, minimising pain. What is more tricky is the muscles reminding me subsequently, that it was not such an easy pose I had fooled myself so well of!

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I also talk some of the time, during the session to point out how poses do or don’t work, to guide the models as well as instructing artists, in a different sort of life class! I played a bit of music too, but at the start, I instinctively wanted to let the silence take hold, bringing peace to all of us who had braced ourselves through the city to get there that evening.

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I love circles of women. Last night I danced to the full moon with sisters in a church in Vauxhall. I vary in how much I am feeling it each month, but yesterday was very serene. The DJ, Sarah Davies, gave a little talk on body language which felt very pertinent, it spoke to me. How we hold ourselves affects the way we feel, and vice versa. So we can use this to make ourselves feel stronger, even when we are not necessarily there yet emotionally, or mentally. Create bold, confident shapes with our bodies to empower ourselves.

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I have noticed over the years, that I had to let go of jobs where the artists were too proscriptive about poses, as if I am not in control of them, it can more likely damage my well-being emotionally (as well as physically).

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I love how the full moon women’s dance is run by a bunch of women, tending to be about 10 – 12 years my senior I reckon. They and many of the dancers, are yoga, dance, alternative healing practitioners and artists, so a lot of strong energy in the space, and quite a few run their own women’s spaces. The chairs are cleared from the space and I set to hoovering crumbs, leaves and dust off the massive carpet. It takes a goodly amount of time, especially as I am enjoying being inspired by my moves with the vacuum cleaner! About two thirds of the way through the task, the sound system has been erected, and music begins to fill the church. Housework gets me into my first dance.

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A pair of artists unravel and place items on an altar, immediately in front of the church’s own, which is behind decorated gates. After I have stocked up the toilets with paper, and put the moon pictures up, Sara hands me her palo santo to be burnt, and wafted about to cleanse or smudge the space.

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Low-lit by highly hung chandeliers, the whole church resonates to the ska, hiphop, dance, world, ambient and darkly gothic music. We are moving through waves, rhythms of our feminine expression, of lyrical, flowing, chaotic, staccato and still bodies. I get a lot from this group. I take my friends there, and gradually get to know some of the women I meet there. It is a source of shared knowledge and deeper friendships.

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For me, the instructions through the mic from the DJ about how to move (just suggestions), and what we may be feeling, are often jarring with my own inner journey. I am well habituated to getting into my groove. I discovered at 18 I think, on the dance floor at Slimelight among other venues, how to reach ecstacy through dance, and I wasn’t always on drugs believe it or not! It was a passion, and I knew movement (beyond the everyday) would always be part of my life. I trained in physical theatre at Rose Bruford drama school, in South East London in the early noughties. I wasn’t a great student, but I did appreciate the variety and intensity of some of the outlandish practitioners we immersed ourselves in.

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Still, I do appreciate how having an MC helps to bind the group at times, as well as nurturing some of those who may be newer to dance or being part of such a group. It’s lovely to be in a group that is run by women, repurposing the church of a monthly evening, a church which in fact lends itself to a number of new age groups. At one particular phase of the evening, all the women start howling into the air, for a long long time. So happy to hear their voices, and to be taking up space as Sarah wanted.

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Another women’s space I would like to bring your attention to, is run by Calu Lema, as part of her Naked Movement project. She describes her philosophy, background and intentions very well, and – Details of her next women’s (naked) space, are here.

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I have naturally often thought, how good it would be if the full moon dance was also naked! I wasn’t thinking that yesterday though. The heating was blasting, and we were moving fast some of the time, but it is a big space, so didn’t feel cosy for nudity. Not that that’s really an option here… even in Summer. I also appreciate how it would be highly unlikely that you would get that many women at a naked dance, sadly at the moment. It is very cool to be with so many women dancing though.

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My own next women’s event is on Sunday 13th December, at Tanner Street, close to Tower Bridge, from 11am – 1pm. For trying life modelling and/or drawing, with some gentle exercises to get comfortable with posing, as well as explore how the poses we choose may enhance ourselves and others. Nudity is optional. Naked, we may open up more to each other, face more of ourselves beneath the layers, and appreciate our natural beauty and body shapes. But it’s not for everyone. Artists are usually clothed, and sometimes, after a few years or so of coming to Spirited Bodies, artists pluck up the courage to bare all themselves!

a sea of bodies

a sea of bodies

 

Taking the Men out of Menstruation; Return to Women Only at WOW

When I bleed the artists Love me more.

They sense my edge more clearly and it pleases them in their aim to capture me, define me. Even if the power of the Mystery is actually stronger, their overall grasp of my Being is deeper, more profound at that time, because I radiate so vibrantly.

Other times perhaps I’m a bit blurry, but day 1 of my cycle, I’m as crisp as an iceberg, as hot as a volcano, and I melt and pour all over their page. During Menstruation, the artists compliment me more, rebook me more, and generally become more fascinated with me. I have observed this over 8 years of primarily making a living from being a life model.

Sometimes I can smell myself, maybe a little blood has rubbed onto my thigh. Can they smell me too? I’ve heard of artists taking offence at male models getting hard or just dribbling! But female models bleeding; I think they are simply grateful I turn up at all. Lots of female models won’t pose at that time, but I do and I know I excel then. I don’t care if my mooncup overflows and artists get a sight of my rich blood flowing down my leg. In fact I like that they see the whole deal uncovered. It doesn’t happen often as to pose without mooncup or tampon would be extreme, blood necessarily instantly gushing. Only a very feminist life drawing group might go for that, but I haven’t found such yet. To be honest, I haven’t asked. This post my first overt foray into the grit of menstrual posing.

I love my periods and decided to celebrate them with my girlfriends in a red tent group every new moon. The female body and our connection to the natural world and the universe is incredible. I hardly get PMT; at worst it tells me what I need to remove from my life. At best it makes me a lot more badass. Sometimes I want a lot more Me time. I’m less malleable.

I used to experience it more painfully when I was younger, in my early 20s, but I think becoming a life model improved my relationship with my body. I can use the poses like yoga to stretch parts of me that need releasing, sending endorphins on a regular route round my nervous system keeping me in check.

Every day I go to work is a celebration of my body.

Also over the years I have attracted partners who respond more positvely on all levels to my form; less jealousy, greater acceptance and gratitude. Naturally this is a mirror of myself.

PMT may be very individual, but I think many of us can work through it, unblocking its potentially negative hold on us. I believe that it is a cultural construct (and very powerful at that), but it can be undone. That involves unlocking the burdens that have been placed on us by others and ourselves, and figuring out what we actually want for ourselves. In some cultures and in some cases, that may be nigh impossible, but here in the post-Industrial West where the traditional family unit long disintegrated for many of us, reconsidering the life of womankind must assume prominence. We are ripe for it.

Men & Spirited Bodies

Some men are sneaky fuckers. They know how to behave in front of me so I’ll think they are kosher. Then they act like a dick with the female models. They don’t realise some of the women are my friends, so I know all about their idiot tricks.

I’m left with a choice.

a) Don’t bother with men any more.

b) Only invite men to model who I really know and trust. (Male artists very rarely a problem).

c) Get funding as dealing with idiot men is very consuming and one ought to be paid to bother. It would be a great shame to miss all the lovely men out there who may benefit and not cause any problems. But dealing with men in this game involves many idiots.

d) Make the issue clearer at events with announcements at the start outlining the rules.

What can happen when the wrong men pose at Spirited Bodies

Staying still in close proximity to several nude (desirable) women – they get carried away in male fantasy of what this long awaited opportunity means. They have been conditioned to think that because these women are happily naked with them, they may be sexually available. Perhaps they have never been naked with a woman before, never had sex or a girlfriend. There’s a lot of potential issues rumbling around the studio. Not just about the body, not just about sex, but concerning the entire Patriarchal corruption of the male/female relationship.

One more thing about the Blood

That bit at the end of the period or the beginning or even somewhere in the middle on an unpredictable one – where there’s not enough blood to warrant an insertion (tampon/mooncup). Fuck it. I’m just going to bleed a little, smell a tad, because that for me is going with the flow.

Spirited Bodies at Southbank

On Saturday 7th March we return to the Women of the World festival at Southbank Centre. We will be in the Blue Room on the Spirit (ground) Level, from 5 – 7pm. This is a Women only event, for women wanting to model, draw or witness. Interviews with some of the women modelling will be played while they pose (sound recording). Get in touch (info.spiritedbodies@gmail.com) if you would like to book a place to model, draw, or even be interviewed. Limited places. If you get a day pass or a weekend ticket to the festival you can also come. There will be guidance on how to pose if you are new, and this is a very supportive environment if you are nervous. If I have time I will schedule a smaller workshop for women a week or so before the event to warm up for it.

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These pictures are of myself and Hope Deeney posing at Toynbee Art Club, December 2014