Pussy power to survive grief – Annie Nicholson

Annie Nicholson is an artist who makes large-scale narrative works, smaller prints, art, film, jewelry and unisex clothes.

The Demented Goddess: Annie, you have used explosively vibrant graphics to partly respond to the trauma of losing all of your family in 2011. Your sister and mother died in an accident and your father, shortly afterwards, of cancer. How can ‘celebrating your pussy power’, to quote one of your prints, help release female suffering in general?

‘Celebrate your pussy power’ is an ode to the strong women I come from but also a kind of note to self that I’ve made it this far and survived the life changing traumatic loss of those bold women with whom I had such a strong life bond. I’m at a point in my life where as a female artist in the world, I want to celebrate who I am, how far I’ve come. I no longer feel that I’m not thin enough, no longer feel ashamed of my body, I’m no longer trying to be something I’m not or giving in to all these pressures from the beauty industry, which are damaging (and which gripped me for years and years) and quite frankly are bullshit!

I’ve worked with young vulnerable (and often traumatised) teenagers for years, and a lot of what I make now follows on from that experience. I want to use my body and my experience of trauma and loss, which has been very visceral, to show that yes, I’ve experienced something that has nearly killed me and I’ve pulled myself up from the ground, dragged myself up in some periods of raw grief, and it’s weathered but hasn’t killed me.

In surviving and pushing through this period of immense pain and change, there has been some kind of physical release, alongside a cerebral and emotional release. If I can do it and push through it, anyone can. I am only the sum of the people who love me and the kindness I’ve been shown in these years of recovery. I don’t feel that ‘celebrating your pussy power’ is something that is applicable to every woman, but for me, owning my body and its inextricable links to my pain and trauma have been very healing—facing myself and all of the loss in a very visceral way has been a real force for pushing through to where I am now.

DG: In one visual narrative you’ve created with your own body (in collaboration with artist Kirsty Whiten) over your abdomen and womb, you’ve painted: “respect to the woman that made me/Release/Making space for the present.” Can you tell us a little about how the women in your family have made you feel about your body? What do you feel you are doing by physically creating this statement?

Again, it’s about using your body, the one your mother gave you and cooked up in the womb, to turn the pain of the inside outwards, to own your story with all its complexities and difficulties and rawness and embrace it proudly. I feel that in embodying my pain and vulnerability, my grief can live alongside the rest of my life and unfold as organically as it likes (it will do this anyway, the tides of grief and trauma have their own rhythm so trying to stop them is useless, I’ve found!) so actually just making friends with the pain has been the most empowering move for me.

A lot of the trauma I have experienced has been very physical. I remember feeling my heart shatter when my sister died, followed soon after by her partner Helen, and then my mother.

“My practice allows me to keep pushing forward through my trauma.”

I remember watching Helen, my sister’s partner of 16 years die, having been invited by her Maori family to come into the hospital room and sit with her sisters and Helen, as part of a farewell ceremony as her soul left her body. This is an experience that will stay with me forever and it has informed so much of my practice. It was harrowing to be in the room at this time but it was also incredible—watching this great woman’s majestic presence shift and change and seeing a soul leave the body. I had held her on a pedestal (I still do), I loved her like a blood sister (I still do) – the experience changed my life. So my work is very much about the physical processing of your story and your pain, and the way in which this aligns with your mental and emotional processing of the experience. During periods in which they are aligned, great beauty, depth of understanding and real strength emerges. My practice enables me to delve deep and consequently keep pushing forward through my trauma.

DG: Do you prefer working with city walls or nude humans?

This makes me laugh! I like both in equal measure. There is great catharsis in both. The only nude body I really like working with is mine, to be honest. It’s the one I know, the one I understand the most and the one I’ve battled with the most. The drawback of working with your own body is that there are restrictions in terms of what you can do—you have to rely on someone else to paint/project/use your body to create a concept that you have envisaged. This is a great act of trust and my collaborative project for the Brooklyn Sketchbook Project with artist Kirsty Whiten was something that grew over months and months of talking and spending time and cultivating a bond. It did not come overnight. Few collaborative acts of substance do.

Painting city walls is very much involved with legacy for me and wanting to use narrative to perpetuate the experience of survival, being one of the only remaining survivors of my family and what I come from.

For a long time my most natural response was to want to have children to create new life amidst so much loss. My feeling now is much more dominated by creating art as a means of perpetuating a legacy, a more broadly accessible one that hopefully impacts and helps fellow sufferers of traumatic loss. I’m very adamant to not be prescriptive in my work: I communicate my own experience. I don’t want to assume anything about anyone else’s.

“I’m very adamant to not be prescriptive in my work: I communicate my own experience.”

As time has gone on and my practice has been led by public response, I have learnt what people can access and what is helpful and what are more raw and inaccessible expressions of very personal periods of grief. As an artist, in my view, the raw periods of expression need to come out first before you can even think of a common universality. The walls are not entirely dissimilar from bodies! When you work day in day out on a particular wall, you get to know the texture and the imperfections inside out, and how to work with them. There is something incredibly meditative and cathartic about both media and this need for release have always steered my practice.

DG: Your short film ‘Into the Light’ will be screen at Manhattan Bridge, New York this June and Tate Modern, in August. What are your personal ways of turning dancing and movement into “a ritual for survival”, as proposed by the film?

Well, much of this is revealed in the film, made with director and dear friend Tara Darby: it follows my own experience of movement as a force for survival, but particularly dancing—this being the bond between my beloved sister Sonia and I. When she died, I felt what I can only describe as a ‘heart wallop’—every last part of my heart shattered and I’ve been patching it up ever since. It looks and feels different now, it will never be what it was. But during this time of immense pain, I started to long for the micro pleasures amidst a macro degree of physical and mental pain (I suppose this might be the definition of trauma?). I observed in my dad, when I followed him around for a few weeks prior to filming with him, that he too would find small daily pleasures that he clearly used as coping mechanisms. His would be a daily oyster and a chat in the market in the fishing village in Portugal where he lived. Mine was, and still is, dancing.

“My own experience of movement (is) as a force for survival, particularly dancing—this being the bond between my beloved sister Sonia & I.”

Those years of making mix tapes, shining up our trainers (often Adidas Gazelles), my sister lighting a Malboro red, spraying some knock off perfume (thanks, Dad) and getting in the car and driving all over the place. I heard songs that have changed my life in this time. My ritual of dancing is a way of keeping my bond with Sonia alive, it brings me straight back to those years and for a split second every morning, she is with me, her booming laugh reverberating through the solar system like it always did. No one loved me like she loved me, and when Soni loved you, the whole world was conquerable. The dancing helps me to channel that energy and fearlessness even when she’s no longer physically with me. It’s an act of survival.

All images courtesy of Annie Nicholson, wearing her own designs.

Follow Annie on Instagram @fandangoekid & Twitter @fandangoekid.

‘Into The Light’ screens as part of ‘Southwark Untold’, between 13-18th August, at the Terrace Bar, Tate Modern,  London.

 

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