So, I took a few people to see an exhibition at The Royal West Academy of England (RWA) this weekend. There is nothing unusual about that, except for the fact that the exhibition was Sanctae – A Portrait of Secular Saints, the latest and most ambitious body of work to date by mixed-media artist Ione Rucquoi. I have been following Ione Rucquoi for quite a while now and have even worked with her on a few occasions. To me (and to many others who have experienced her work), she is one of the most visionary contemporary artists around. After yesterday, where I witnessed at least half a dozen people being brought close to tears by her installation, it became clear to me that she may well be one of the most important British visual artists of her generation.
Consisting of twenty one 8ft by 3ft photographed gold-haloed full-frontal female nudes, Sanctae explores the physiological and psychological metamorphoses women undergo as they lose, rediscover and redefine themselves throughout their life through natural processes such as menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, but also through cultural processes of subjugation and objectification which demand women conceal and preserve themselves, and (maybe now more so than ever before) expect them to defy gravity and time.
Ione Rucquoi has clearly recognised that, in a sense, her larger than life portraits of naked women of all ages, shapes and sizes, almost speak for themselves in telling their universal stories, as she seems to have minimised her trademark use of objects, props and enhancement. As a result, Sanctae, though full of symbols, is less staged and theatrical than any of her previous work and truly offers a place of reflection where both its subjects and spectators are able to let down their guard and be themselves.
Though her art is as raw, fierce and fearless as any you are ever likely to encounter, Ione Rucquoi’s sense for the aesthetic and her genuine commitment to her cause ensures that her work is never sensationalist. Women from all walks of life queued up to participate in Sanctae, knowing full well what was going to be expected of them and that there would be no pay beyond a print. One of them was a dancer and trainee breastfeeding counsellor, who died from cancer two weeks after she completed her photograph with the artist. For obvious reasons her bruised body, maimed by the removal of her breasts and ovaries, is one of the most profoundly moving images of the installation.
Still, this was not the most haunting aspect of the exhibition. Like most other men and women I talked to there, I considered myself quite enlightened about the false portrayal of women in the media and assumed I was therefore largely above its effect. As it turned out, none of us could deny sensing a degree of aversion at the sight of the naked bodies, flesh and sexual parts of twenty one ordinary women, and nothing about Sanctae shocked and stirred us more than this realisation. As a feminist Professor of Catholic studies at a leading British university, who has been working on the cult of the Virgin Mary and Eve for many years, noted after her visit, Sanctae “has added a new dimension of engagement which [we] need more time to absorb and reflect upon”.
It may well be a while before the world is ready for Ione Rucquoi. This is not in the least because the media have so far ignored her, probably unable to place, handle and monetise her confrontational celebration of woman in all her guts and glory amid its common perception and depiction of woman as a puffed, plucked and sucked commodity. The fact that even the RWA, brave enough to be the first gallery to host Sanctae, felt obliged to censor its own publicity for the show by merely displaying a haloed head in the printed and online publications it produced to promote the exhibition, speaks volumes. No other gallery has committed to take Sanctae on at the time of print.
Sanctae – A Portrait of Secular Saints funded by the Arts Council England forms the centerpiece of the exhibition Oneself as Another showing at The Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, from 4th February – 28th March 2014. It also features works by Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Sarah Ball (2012 Welsh Artist of the Year), and BP Portrait Prize winner Johan Andersson.
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