Home Discomforts (1996) is a series of 35mm colour transparency photographs I took in the rented flat where I grew up in North West London. This was home. It is also the place where I was sexually abused when I was a child by my stepfather (now deceased) who took the black and white portrait of me. I confronted him in 1990.
In 1996, I made an intervention. With just one roll of film and limited time, I let myself back into the now empty flat after being evicted and transposed verses from a poem I had written when I was 25, Don’t Touch Me Like That (1990). I then performed a ritual for which I cleaned the space using sage, marked the walls with a felt pen, and then documented the interiors.
I wanted to reclaim the space of home or at least to give voice to the abuse that had been kept behind closed doors. Today, more people (particularly women) are speaking about sexual abuse publicly but often it is of abuse by strangers, at work, or in state institutions, whereas the abuse that takes place daily—often in the context of a family home—is still a whisper.
This text accompanied my work when it was shown in the exhibition Occupy the Void, curated by writer, collector, and gallerist Laura Noble, as part of Photo50 at the London Art Fair from 22-26 January 2020. Through the work of ten contemporary female artists working in the UK and internationally, the exhibition interrogated the physical, psychological and ephemeral nature of space and our experience of existing within it, both during our lives and after death.
In presenting the complete series of Home Discomforts online for the first time here, I’d like to share some insights into the processes involved in its creation and the questions I had to consider before making such personal work public. The extent and nature of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is hard to measure and is still underreported, remaining hidden from view. It is also a subject that triggers many people.
Nowadays it not such a taboo to talk openly about childhood sexual abuse in the context of the family, however, it still lags behind discussions of other social issues in the media where the focus is usually on ‘stranger danger’. It also creates feelings of discomfort, especially if it has occurred in the home, hence the use of this word in the title and its counterpoint to the phrase ‘home comforts’.
While I was studying photography in the mid-1980s, I had no idea that one of the images I made for my final-year project in 1989 would be the catalyst for the subsequent disclosure of the sexual abuse I experienced as a child. At the time, I was silent, but my subconscious was not; it was pushing up through the images I constructed. Fractured Self (1989) depicts a mannequin covered in black plastic bags which are held in place by the kind of string that is used to bind joints of meat. The breast and genital areas have been ripped open to expose the flesh beneath while the square frame is layered by fissures or fractures emanating from the torso.
In making this image, shot with a Hasselblad 6×6 camera on colour transparency film in a studio, I made an intervention—it was an act of rebellion and anger. I took the glass that is meant to protect the film and smashed it, then replaced it. Through using transgressive gestures such as these, I’ve regained agency, and this has helped me process the trauma I experienced in domestic contexts.
Time has also been a key factor in making work. Home Discomforts emerged very slowly, in fits and starts: first the black-bagged woman (1989), then the poem (1990), six years later the home intervention (1996), and decades later I made the work available for public consumption in an art fair (2020). This is at odds with that of commercial galleries or art schools where the turnaround to create new bodies of work seems to run on a faster repeat cycle.
In 2014, I printed twenty copies of Fractured Self to create a fly-poster campaign, which I wheat pasted in specific locations around the southeast coast of England. This was part of ‘the temps’ guerrilla street art show focusing on women and mental health. “A group of artists, writers, and mental health professionals creating a live project reflecting issues surrounding mental health/disorders [sic] and how art and creativity can be harnessed as a transformative medium for healing. Creating impermanent artworks, installations and happenings around town on streets/pathways, using drawing, photography, performance art, installations, etc.”
Since leaving college, I have hidden my work under my bed and in cupboards, reviving it occasionally but only in specific situations. I am now aware of how important it is to give context to such highly personal work and to choose carefully when, how, where, and with whom I show it—ambiguity in its presentation can cause distress to those I love and care about. This is especially the case when members of one’s family know of the work and are still alive.
If handled without sensitivity or space for dialogue, this exposure can result in hurt that persists long after the general public has moved on to consume someone else’s work. I have learnt to question my motives and the long-term effects on those who I hope will still support me. I’ve been fortunate, others are not—many have to sever every connection that ties them to the dysfunction embedded in their family histories.
It’s one thing to go public at a distance, it’s another when you also want to use the opportunity to create a dialogue with those who are most affected by the work and are not impartial observers, as well as to raise awareness and push for social and political change. The subject of childhood sexual abuse is still a difficult one to talk about and ever since I first disclosed it, I have experienced reactions of silence, deflection and have been ignored.
Given the subject matter, I’ve found that people viewing it often feel uncomfortable, sad, and often don’t know what to say or do. I’m learning to observe these reactions, but it takes practise and exposure. The more I do it, the easier it gets. As part of my creative and healing process, I collect responses to trauma-focused work—some of which may be used for future projects.
I was unsure how visitors at a commercial art fair would react to Home Discomforts, but judging from audience reactions, it has been worth it. The ones included here are those gathered after a panel talk at the art fair where I had left index cards and postcards on a table for people to fill in. Art schools and universities do not teach students about the possible ramifications of showing work on anyone except potential clients. It’s a consideration these educational institutions often miss, especially at a time when more students are exhibiting personal work dealing with sensitive and traumatic experiences.
In 1983, artist-photographer, therapist, and writer Rosy Martin developed a fascinating and relevant new photographic practice with the late Jo Spence, a photographer, photo-therapist, activist and writer. This pioneering work is known as re-enactment photography. In The performative body: phototherapy and re-enactment (Afterimage 2001 Nov-Dec), Martin writes: “Phototherapy refers broadly to the use of photographic representations within a context in which the intention is therapeutic: to promote self-awareness and healing.”
To say I am on a journey of self-discovery or healing through creating work sounds like a personal development plan. It fails to address the complexity and spontaneity of the strategies involved and suggests that I had a goal or direction when I made it. I didn’t. Now that I’ve learnt the language of art and therapy, up to a point, I can wrap it up in discourses that make what I create sound considered and directed. Often it isn’t—I’m just good at backtracking and finding connections.
Home Discomforts is not commercial, nor did I ever intend it to be ‘made for sale’. It erupted, it became, and is an extension of my lived experience and an interrogation of my being. I did it because I felt compelled to. However, I did make one photograph available as a limited edition at the London Art Fair and it’s the same one that I used for the front of the postcard. I called it HOPE.
This is probably why I prefer to describe my work as raw and DIY; it is also why I am drawn to Outsider, Activist, and Therapeutic Art practices. I always have been, even before I knew there were labels or definitions for what I did. In trying to open up dialogue around social issues my creative process is often premised on using materials that are readily available and easily acquired framed within everyday backdrops and the architecture of the street.
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