Molly Hankinson on Social Media, Femininity and Taking Up Space

Glasgow-based artist Molly Hankinson creates characterful and colourful portraits of creative womxn comfortably and confidently taking up space. A selection of sixteen of her pieces have recently been put up around Glasgow, as part of Jack Arts UK-wide project Your Space or Mine which has seen city street’s becoming galleries. Artists and designers are spreading messages of positivity, in the hope of uniting and inspiring communities during this crisis. Molly’s practice concentrates on the honest and unapologetic representation of womxn and non-binary people through painting, printmaking, and hand-drawn and digital illustration. She explores themes surrounding (self)representation, reclamation and celebration within the wider realm of contemporary femininity.

As last week’s Mary Wollstonecroft statue controversy illustrated, the depiction of womxn and their bodies in public spaces can be contentious. I was eager to talk to Molly about how as artist’s we might reconfigure the way that womxn appear in public art.

What does femininity mean to you?

I suppose that becoming more aware of and feeling safe enough to be able to be my own authentic self –  that feels like my own way of expressing my femininity. There aren’t as many obstacles as there once were, but I do think that age has something to do with this too. The pressure that young women and gils feel to behave in a certain way, and to project society’s ideas of what ‘femininity’ might look like is so huge. I’m only really starting to come out of trying to fit into those ideals myself. So, femininity can and should mean whatever you need it to be to feel real. It’s not always easy, but it’s getting easier.

How do you decide your subjects?

There is really no rhyme or reason to be honest. I take a lot of inspiration from the wide range of womxn and bodies that are championed on social media; sometimes photographs of friends. It could literally just be a pose or a setting that I like and I’ll save it into my source material gallery. When I have a particular idea in mind I usually use myself for reference, which means a lot of weird photos of myself taken on timer. I do try to be as inclusive as possible, so I always have this in mind too when deciding on what I am going to draw. I want people to be able to look at my work and not feel excluded. I’m still constantly learning, and I understand that in order to do this there comes a responsibility to advocate and share and uplift the communities that I am representing. I am constantly working on what real diversity looks like and how to portray it, truthfully, in my work.

How has lockdown and the pandemic affected your process and your creativity?

At the start it definitely took a bit of a hit. I began having trouble with the fact that 50% of my time working was spent on the computer. I really started to get a hankering for painting again, which was annoying as I wasn’t able to go to the studio and get it all out! Instead I ended up decorating my kitchen which was perfect because it had all the cathartic qualities of painting but I didn’t have to actually ‘paint anything’, it was just about making decisions about colour and balance on a really big but simple scale and that did wonders for my mental health at the time. I basically started painting anything that wasn’t bolted down in the flat. I painted a lampshade for my partner’s birthday which shows the both of us naked in poses from well-known classical paintings (why not?) along with stuff that we love and things that represent each of us: basically what I do for people with my private commissions except completely hand-painted and bespoke. That was so so fun and I’d love the opportunity to do this for someone again.

We are accustomed to seeing female bodies in the public space, especially used as adornments in advertisements. How does your art illustrate, rather than exploit, the feminine form?

In this western, capitalist society, primarily designed for white, cishet men, generations upon generations of womxn’s bodies have been used to sell things – it makes sense that we are desensitised to how weird and degrading this often is. These projections are hardly ever about the female or femme experience. Feminism has now become so mainstream that people are actually calling it out. So when someone puts out new and more honest portrayals of what it means to be and feel feminine, with all of the ‘undesirable’ bits – like having body hair or fat, or just being comfortable with yourself – some people can’t handle it. It feels intimidating. I hope that my work shows honest representation of real womxn and people who experience misogyny. I think that some people have trouble processing this because of the way that society has continuously appropriated the female form to suit its own ends, but for me sparking conversation and creating work that people can relate to is what I want to achieve. So I’m so happy that the response has been as such, and that people are talking and taking something from it.

What are you hoping to achieve with each portrait?

I think I want people to look at a piece of work and really believe that each subject has full and unparalleled ownership of the space that they’re in. I suppose it’s this idea of taking up space the space that we so often feel we don’t deserve. There’s also a self-assurance that everyone lacks from time to time that I hope people can take from each portrait. Also context is so important and it’s been so amazing to see these works ‘taking ownership’ of these large public sites too.

During this most strange and unprecedented of years, social media has become one of the only platforms available to creatives for exhibiting their work. It is really nice that someone has had the opportunity to put their work out into the ‘real world’! What, do you think, are some of the differences in how we interact with art on our phones and social media, as opposed to art in the public space?

Social media is such a double-edged sword for me. On the one hand, it’s an amazing tool for artists to be able to get their work out there and to actually sell work without gallery representation or lots of money for funding yourself to success. So for the first time people are able to transcend this weirdly archaic hierarchical system that the art world seems to be stuck in, and that’s really positive! On the other hand, it can be really detrimental to mental health – I often find it hard to separate my work from my own self-worth, which can be perpetuated by the way that people respond to my work online. So I have to be careful when putting out new work, asking myself ‘who I am doing this for?’ It is a brilliant visual platform to take advantage of though, and I don’t think I’d be able to properly make a living out of what I do without it. I do think it’s important to be able to see and experience art in real life where possible, because there isn’t that detachment that comes with seeing art on your phone. You need time and space to be able to fully absorb something, I think. I’m so glad that I’ve had this opportunity to exhibit my work in these open and public spaces because I think that the power of experiencing and interacting with art in situ, especially at the moment, can be so great for people, and I feel really honoured to have been given the opportunity to contribute to this during these weird and uncertain times.

You can learn more about Molly and support her work at her website here.

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    I would have liked some discussion on the Mary Wollstonecroft statue, particularly in light of how her reputation seemed to have been trashed in her lifetime. I have read her most famous works, and there are a lot of good ideas although her writing is somewhat verbose and repetitive, something she accuses Edmund Burke of (with much justification, it has to be said).

    I find the article above either confusing or perhaps confused. The British royal pageantry which shapes so much of London and the wider imperial terrorities is hardly an outflowering of heterosexuality. Indeed, the depiction of Lord Mountbatten as vain self-promoter, royal wedding planner and bisexual in Channel 5’s recent documentary Lord Mountbatten: Hero or Villain? raises some very much greater concerns. It is in the royalist institutions, not the democratic ones, that sexual deviancy as legally defined flourished: the Armed Forces, the Diplomatic Corps, the established Church, the Secret Services, and so on. There is a critical discussion to be had about to what extent homosexuality has fuelled militarism from Sparta to Fascism. This may have been largely down to repression and other negative social effects, rather than anything specific to sexual orientation, and with openness and equality these associations may disappear. The Patriarchy owes as much to Plato as any artistic objectification of women.

    Personally I think the Wollstonecraft sculptor was right not to create yet another piece of idolatry propping up the tediously persistent Great Man (Occasionally Woman) Theory of History. Her argument about physically representing an everywoman necessarily rejecting clothing as partisan and time-located makes sense to me, although I expect more abstract approaches could have been attempted. As a commenter pointed out, the BBC news item on the statue received many (more than a million?) hits and Mary Wollstonecraft is now possibly better known than ever. Hopefully her ideas will get better known, and connected up with other revolutionary writers like Olympe de Gouges, and female abolitionist activists like the pamphleteer and boycott-organizer Elizabeth Heyrick, in the wider social struggles for human rights.

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      Some discussion on ‘the Mary Wollstonecraft statue’:

      One of the great things about public art is that it arouses public controversy. That’s a good thing. Sensibilities are offended, values clash. All art is unsettling, and this is just as it should be. It’s just a shame that so much of it is hidden away in museums, where our responses to it can be curated and policed.

      Maggi Hambling’s sculptures cause so much offence – are so powerful – that they’re often physically attacked. Her memorial to Benjamin Britten has been daubed with graffiti on numerous occasions. Her Conversation with Oscar Wilde has had bits sawn off it. The public is undeniably moved by her work; that’s what makes it so good.

      So far, responses to the power of Maggi’s Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft haven’t been expressed through any such direct action, though I expect it’s only a matter of time until it is. So far, it’s only aroused invective.

      But while everywoman and her dog seem to hate it, neither has been able to coherently articulate just wherein its virtue – its hatefulness – lies. Some locate it in its generality; it isn’t Wollstonecrafty enough. Others find it too sexy to the male gaze and, therefore, politically incorrect as a memorial to a feminist icon. Still others find it too ugly, arising as it does from a malproportioned mass of abstraction with its gruesome prominence of pubic hair.

      All this reveals a lot about the public’s deep confusion about public art.

      Many of Maggi’s critics wanted a traditional statue. They still struggle to accept anything other than literal representations of humans on plinths. For example, Gillian Wearing’s 2018 bronze of Millicent Fawcett, in Parliament Square, stands plaintively in long skirts, holding up what looks like a tea towel, while in the City of London stands a copy of Kristen Visbal’s ‘Fearless Girl’, a 2017 piece of corporate art installed by asset managers, State Street. While the latter might carry a crude and superficial message of female assertion, it’s hard to imagine anything less threatening to the passing male giants of capitalism than a metre-high angry child.

      Yet both these statues met with general approval. So did a rival design for the Wollstonecraft memorial by Martin Jennings, who imagined Wollstonecraft as a matronly figure, full-skirted, bonneted, and leaning on a stack of books.

      These are inoffensive works in which the radicalism of their subjects is erased. What they say to the world is that we want our radicalism costumed firmly in the past, infantilised and unthreatening.

      I haven’t yet seen Maggi’s sculpture; just the photos of it. According to a colleague who has experienced its presence, it’s more subtle and complex than those frozen images of it suggest.

      When I do get the chance to see it, I might like it or I might hate it; it might not move me at all. But what is it about Maggi’s work that elicits such strong feelings of anger and disgust in many of those who have experienced it?

      Perhaps they feel threatened by the artist herself, by her iconoclasm and lack of regard for popular opinion. She doesn’t conform, and that’s unsettling.

      Perhaps there’s too much of the Wollstonecraft about her.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Anndrais mac Chaluim, that makes sense. Although it also reminds us, I guess, of the limitations of sculpture in conveying complex ideas it can only hint at and reference.

        1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

          It’s not the job of sculpture to convey ideas; it’s not a discursive artform (‘prose’). Its work is that of poiesis, rather; to bring into being something that didn’t exist before and evoke in those whom that creation addresses a [cognitive or visceral] response.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, sculpture (like architecture) is capable of representing some simple ideas. One of which is not so much related to the object but the power of those who called it into being and place, and objections to statues and buildings often sound like the howls of the powerless protesting (more or less reasonably) against their condition. The Greeks apparently had a word for the art of describing artworks: ekphrasis. However, on reading essayist and art critic William Hazlitt’s florid and verbose prose, I wonder if the author tends to project excessively upon their subject.

            Anyway, I have found a passage (section 3 in chapter 13 of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) where Mary Wollestonecraft criticises dress and adornment as typically sexualised and a common source of extravagance, rivalry and vanity. She goes on to describe how confinement might be used to prevent iron entering women’s souls. It is not clear from the passage, but it may be that Wollestonecraft thought women’s contemporary clothing would be more sexualised than nakedness, and a woman made of metal may have resonance with her work and ideas.

            Her two Vindications and excerpts from her review of the French Revolution might be worth considering in the light of how she pitches the conflict of ideas at the time, and what vices she decries in the royalist, militarist aristocracy and their cheerleaders.

          2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Yes, well, classical ekphrasis was descriptive; nowadays, it’s usually one artist’s response to another’s work and, as such, more expressive than descriptive.

            Aye, Mary wrote of an ‘immoderate fondness for dress, for pleasure and for sway’ as an instance of the ‘folly which the ignorance of women generates’, which is the matter of the thirteenth chapter of her ‘vindication’ of the rights of women (or proof that the doctrine that women should endeavour to be more masculine and respectable and less feminine and contemptible is right), and concluded that chapter with some ‘reflections on the moral improvement that a revolution in female manners might naturally be expected to produce’.

            This ‘immoderate fondness of dress’, according to Mary, is a characteristic of ‘black savages’, with whom she insists that women ‘from their education and the present state of civilised life, are in the same condition’.

            I think Maggi was stretching things a bit to use Mary’s attitude towards the refined dress-sense of ‘spaniels’ and ‘toys’ to justify the nudity she incorporated into her memorial sculpture.

          3. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Another wee word on ekphrasis, which was originally the art of describing artworks.

            How this art is practised will depend on what the ekphrasist takes an artwork to consist in. If s/he take it to consist in the made object, then work of ekphrasis will be to describe the made object. If, on the other hand, s/he takes it to be the response the made object evokes in the beholder, then the work will be that of expressing the response that the made object evokes in the ekphrasist him/herself. See, for example, John Keat’s ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ or Wynstan Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’.

            For expressivists from the Romantic period onward, all art is ekphrasis insofar as the expressive artist seeks to express the responses that found objects (figures, landscapes, etc.), as well as made objects (pictures, sculptures, sound compositions, letters, etc.), evoke in them.

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