Conversations on the Art of Resistance (2): Aesthetics and Protest

by | June 26, 2024

Victoria Gugenheim was drawing before she could talk and was beginning with makeup by age 6, then focusing on face and bodypainting by age 9. She enjoys the process of de-othering as means of humanizing people. Her artistic forms vary widely from bodypainting, clothing design, digital art, and drawing, to installations, makeup, painting, and photography. Her clients have included Alice Cooper’s Halloween Night of Fear, Charlotte Church, Sony, London Fashion Week, Models of Diversity, Nokia, Marvel, and The World Bodypainting Festival. Here we continue on aesthetics and protest. 

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Hello, and good morning, I think! And welcome to this British hour has 28 Canadian minutes with Derren Brown and Victoria Gugenheim. Unfortunately, Derren Brown was murdered in a freak Monty Python killer rabbit out-of-the-hat accident last night. I’m Scott Jacobsen, a stray lass from Canada, here as his replacement. Our condolences to the Brown family at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. 

I should add: Conatus News, discussed in the last session, became Uncommon Ground Media Ltd. with much, if not all, of the original content kept, and then the original Editor-in-Chief founded Topical Magazine, which slowed and, as far as I know, ground to a halt. I wrote for both of those a tiny bit, too. 

I wanted some more chit-chat because you’re, apparently, a glutton for punishment. So, to quote Andrew Copson after being called “debauched” on national television by a well-dressed Christian gentleman (?), Taiwo Adewuyi, “If you’re going to go to wantonness and debauchery, you might as well travel first class.” This time, we will be discussing art as a medium of both expression – so the right to freedom of expression – and protest. These are fundamental issues in contexts around the world. More poignant in societies where these rights can be freely expressed with organized permission by the government, law enforcement, and the public, typically without violence ensuing. In other countries, it is the reverse. Our commentary will focus on the former. Your specialization is truly body art, which is enormously time consuming. In Copenhagen, at the World Congress and General Assembly of Humanists International, the one body took hours and hours each day – pretty fast at the end. Large-scale public protests can take – I can only imagine – much longer. Obvious question first, how do you do it?

Victoria Gugenheim: There is a big difference between aesthetic paints, competition paints and protest paints. Protest paints are designed to be done much faster, and I will usually enlist the help of other volunteers, and deskill a little to make it easier. We employ the use of quick base coats, large specialist basecoat brushes, stencils, more simple ways of utilising colour such as less blending and gradients, and this keeps the timing down. My record is about 50 people in 2 hours when it’s just background colour, bodypaint sprays and stencils with volunteers manning all stations! The first pride I had 2 assistant painters, and everyone else mucked in where they could.

Fine art paints are an altogether different beast, but the first protest definitely was more fine art. I would like to return to that as the execution was more beautiful, but it’s whether everyone turns up on time and can hold still! 

Jacobsen: Second question, why do you do it?

Gugenheim: Who else will? I get bomb threats for this. 

Other bodypainters who are entrenched in TV or film land wouldn’t dare. If they did, they would likely get at minimum a teardown from their agent and at worst, killed. There is no monetary incentive for them, no industry prestige, nothing. There’s no reason for other pro bodypainters to care. They might use the raw material as subject matter in a competition, but it would be aesthetic and not as confrontational, and it would have to fit into the theme given by the competition, in order for them to be awarded points. And if that is all they did it for, for social attention while leaving the real activists to clean up the threats that followed, to be honest, I’d be pretty disgusted. A number of bodypainters in the industry act deplorably; I’d rather do something worthwhile with my time. 

Also being an outsider myself, someone who has never fitted in and had my own shunning, violence put upon me and death threats just for being myself, I have a great deal of respect and affinity for Ex Muslims who have been through just abhorrent levels of hardship and abuses. 

The main reason is I just can’t turn my back on this whole set of issues, it would be unconscionable. I want to make the situation better however I can.  I can give my skillset and ability to think to the cause, so I do. I value bodily autonomy, freedom of thought, conscience, expression, secular values, the ability to stand up when something is wrong, even if your voice or your paintbrush shakes. I’m acting at the very least, as an accessory to bodily freedom. For people who have had no bodily autonomy before, especially the women, that really matters. It gives hope.

Jacobsen: Your work within the ex-Muslim community is as a support role and as a leader ally of sorts. In that, one of your main colleagues, Maryam Namazie, has been enormously influential within the ex-Muslim circles as a leader and guide. How do you organize for the artistic end of protests, marches, and awareness-raising, about rights abuses in Britain and outside?

Gugenheim: My role is evolving. She approaches me with official days such as Apostasy Day,  and protests etc, or we hold group meetings and I come up with the artistic side of that which needs to be done. There is purchasing, pre work, preparation on my side of things for the art to be properly launched. I have also done nearly all the design work etc for conferences in the past.  I also look at protests I also want to be initiating, and also initiate a lot of my own projects. It takes collaboration and honesty. 

Jacobsen: One thing we joked about in Copenhagen: If we take even simply Namazie’s topless body with breasts bared and painted, without the paint, the images would, probably, offend the same people, because it’s about the free expression and the words, and the images portrayed on bodies, but, at the same time, it’s really about whose bodies: often, women’s. It’s not a secret and not hard to catch. Women’s bodies are many times, varying by country, viewed as public aesthetic property, as if the aesthetic – whatever the culture holds dear – of a woman’s body is a collective ethical reflection of the community of which she happens to be a part. It’s wrongthinking, from a humanist, rationalist perspective, which leans more towards individualism while keeping social responsibility in accounting. How are the critics of the artwork viewing the nude bodies of women and the art on them

Gugenheim: They see them as property, unclean, or of course immodest, especially if a woman’s body doesn’t conform to a regressive stereotypical beauty standard. The visceral reaction is they want women covered up at best or out of sight/stoned to death at worst. There are usually jibes, accusations of having some kind of disorder, the usual form of gaslighting. But despite all the criticism, there is very strong support.

Most of the time the art acts as a conduit for the body. It states what the person painted wants to say or express with their body, and changes how they move and act, emboldening them.   To me they work in tandem, they always will as a body artist. I’m sure detractors just focus on boobs though, so who knows if those detractors can reason? One bizarre reply was to paraphrase, “we are rewarded with old women’s bodies for supporting Women Life Freedom?” This was from a man after we did topless activism for WLF/No Hijab Day, and you could clearly see how he thought about women just from that reply under an action. The idea that there should be some female bodily reward for supporting freedom, was akin to seeing women as sexual bargaining chips. Transactional. What people need to realise is that the anger is exactly there we are actually refusing to be objectified. We emote, shout, raise our voices, move. We are entirely present.

What that criticism does so perfectly though, is show EXACTLY the type of bias we are interpersonally and culturally working with, brings it out to the surface and sparks immediate action. People tell on themselves readily. When any prejudice is exposed like that, it paints a target on its front. It makes it so much easier to hone in on and deal with. It can also then start conversation (usually under photos of the act on social media) and spark change. 

Jacobsen: Are they making a separation between the two of them, the art and the bodies?

Gugenheim: Sometimes. Some just focus on the skin but if it was about skin only then why would I spend time covering some up with protest art? It’s a simple question they tend to not be able to ask themselves.

Regressive people, usually men with a certain set of ideological values, be it MRAs, Islamists, hard right Conservatives who are deep on the misogyny train, perceive it as women acting out of turn. They object to their autonomy the most. 

Jacobsen: How do women feel who see other women like Maryam, and others, who shirk the social notions of shame and guilt around self-identity and self-esteem connected to whatever form a woman’s body takes – when they simply go topless with art and protest?

Gugenheim: A lot of them feel emboldened, the one’s I’ve spoken to. Others then join in protests later on as a result of it, and together that action then becomes very hopeful. Women who are self conscious then start working with their bodies in an autonomous and political way, and that is a beautiful thing to watch their courage unfold. It is the antithesis of objectification when you are the one driving political change through your own body. I think it can do a lot of good. 

Jacobsen: Are there any bodyart campaigns to keep an eye out for at the moment?

Gugenheim: 16th Sept is the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death and Sing for Freedom. I plan to do Bodyart at the protest. Another large, ongoing project that I am looking for apostates for is Blood on Their Lands, about their survival stories of coming from Islamic countries to the west. I want to paint as many apostates as possible. I’ve also another large one I am working on which will be wild, so apostates who are part of large organizations, get in touch!

Jacobsen: How many Canadians are part of this? More should!

Gugenheim: I know of Armin Navabi (Atheist Republic) but more should make themselves known. Join us! Get painted! 

Jacobsen: Thank you, once again, for the opportunity and your time, Victoria, and as a Latino fellow said to me after 2 hours of dancing, with me, at a Model United Nations afterparty, “I’ll never forget this”. 

Gugenheim: Always a pleasure.

Photo credit: Photo by Daniel Apodaca on Unsplash

Category: People

About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

One thought on “Conversations on the Art of Resistance (2): Aesthetics and Protest

  1. X23imist

    Hey people!!!!!
    Good mood and good luck to everyone!!!!!


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