A reflection on womanhood

Depending on which circles one moves in, one might know of Viviane Sassen as a fashion photographer who shoots covers for Dazed and Confused magazine and spreads for Vogue and Viktor & Rolf, or as an artist whose formidable body of works has hung on the walls of museums and institutions around the world.

She straddles fine art, fashion and editorial photography, producing work that is striking and evocative, unique yet familiar.

In her first solo exhibition in Johannesburg, Of Mud and Lotus at Stevenson Gallery, the Dutch photographer, who spent her formative years in Kenya, points her photographic gaze at the female body in various stages of life and in various forms. The hallmarks of Sassen’s unmistakable visual language are present in

Of Mud and Lotus: strong shadows, intense, saturated colours, abstract geometric shapes seemingly out of context and the intertwining of human bodies into seamless, intimate forms.

Consisting of 36 pieces, the collection is a veritable cornucopia of images that vary in size, shape, colour and media. But the theme remains consistent.

“She felt she wanted to make sense of the various elements of femininity, fertility and fecundity as a woman in her mid-40s. And so she started with this exploration,” says Federica Angelucci, one of Stevenson’s directors and curator of photography.

Angelucci gave me a tour of the exhibition, explaining some of the thinking behind Sassen’s current and previous works. “Viviane has always used photography as a means of exploring her own life … I call her the photographer of states of mind.

“She’s very far from factual recording of events or situations. Her photographs are almost always staged, or photographed in such a way that it almost loses touch with the specifics of the scene to become more of a symbol or a metaphor for something else.”

The symbolism is there in abundance. Mushrooms, eggs, milk, lips, breasts, nipples and udders are just some of the recurrent motifs throughout the exhibition, bringing with  them a sense of proliferation, productivity and nourishment.

The female form, sometimes veiled or seamlessly interwoven with the swaddling of a child and other times unabashedly bare and defiant, helps bring some of the more abstract metaphors back into context.

With so many allusions to reproduction, nurturing and fertility in the collection, it seems natural that Sassen’s own journey into motherhood must have informed the process.

“It’s a reflection, a posteriori, on that aspect of her — of being a woman and being a mother,” Angelucci says.

“In a studio visit, I saw a scrapbook she had made to test ideas. There was a lot of material that came into that, from her own drawings to a collection of articles and photographs on fertility rituals in rural cultures in which there are celebrations for pregnant women or when a child is born.”

As though her trademark surrealist photography was not abstract enough, Sassen has gone beyond that in the postproduction of her images. Some have been digitally altered to include shapes and colours not present in the photographs; others have been physically altered with marker pens and even collage techniques with images pasted on to the original photographs.

“What is interesting for me in this series,” adds Angelucci, “she’s always intervened quite a lot in her images, but mostly, so far, in the setting. She would use a filter, she would ask whoever collaborates with her in the photograph to assume a certain pose. She would highlight certain colours … but in this case, the postproduction is equally important. So there are some unique pieces where she’s actually painted on the photograph, erasing part of the image and highlighting other aspects. ”

The evocative title, Of Mud and Lotus, visceral and elegant, is an apt metaphor for the exhibition. Some pieces are refined, with a classic sense of style that alludes to Sassen’s work in the fashion industry: a pelican with its wings folded around itself like a ballet dancer, and two veiled figures with their backs to the camera, leaning on each other in a merger of hair and linen.

Others are simply messy: milk splashed over abstract, incomplete human bodies or the intervention of the marker pen disturbing the flow of what seems to be an otherwise ordinary image.

Even the physical exhibition of the images themselves varies in elegance and execution. Certain pieces are mounted and framed, printed on archival lustre paper, and others hang loosely on the gallery walls, moving with the slightest breeze and enticing the viewer into closer inspection.

And, on such closer inspection, layers in the images themselves appear, challenging the viewer’s initial perceptions.

With such a collection of finely crafted images, it’s usually difficult to pick just one that stands out. But there is one for me. It makes its own statement because it is so distinct from the rest of the exhibition. In what appears to be a direct scan of a film negative, a naked child, facing away from the camera and water droplets cascading down the back, leaps with arms up from the banks of a river into the waters below. It’s a moment of pure jubilance and celebration.

And that, more than anything else, seems to be the conclusion of Sassen’s visual exploration of motherhood: a celebration of femininity, the female form and the various symbols of abundance and plenitude that the female form alludes to.

Of Mud and Lotus is a bold and deeply intimate representation of Sassen’s own journey. It’s an investigation of — but also a reconciliation with — the female body and a sense of marvel at its ability to nurture and nourish life. It is Sassen’s own visual chronicle of the messiness and grace that she sees as inextricable from the female experience of life and life-giving.

Of Mud and Lotus is open for viewing at the Stevenson Gallery until May 12. On a recent visit to South Africa, Sassen photographed performance artists and musicians Desire Marea and Fela Gucci. The photographs appear in Bubblegumclub magazine

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Daylin Paul
Daylin Paul is the visual editor at New Frame. A photographer, writer and educator based in Johannesburg, he is the winner of the Ernest Cole Award for photography and a trainer at the Market Photo Workshop.

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