Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh
Ilona Szalay (b.1975, Beirut) looks to female sexuality and female lust in order to redefine womanhood. Her work that is restrained and poetic carried out in the vocabulary of gendered performance and its theatricality. By placing it at the very heart of erotic consciousness she challenges the viewer to reconsider womanhood in an era that is marked by #metoo, #timesup, Weinstein, #notallmen.
How are we, by which is meant the loosely defined collective, to rise to the task of redefining womanhood in perhaps the most reformative years in a century? What is to be understood by the term, leaden as it is with connotation and, oftentimes sadly, derogation, when those for whom it is indexical test the very walls of its definition? And what, if anything, are we now to think when the history not just of that word, but of those marked by and defined by it, are presented to us in retrograde, atavistic, fossilised form? That shoe flung from a dainty foot, say, in the wildest excess of Rococo painting? The sex-worker torn apart by the bullets of a Scorcesian leading-man? The pantheon of ‘sluts’, ‘bitches’, ‘hoes’ and ‘tricks’ who demand now to be reckoned with?
Striking for its unapologetic symbolism, Coven shows female figures dancing in ecstasy under a vivid orange orb. The women’s unabashed celebration, anchored by the slim shadows they cast on the ground, and the energetic communion of the group is conveyed by heads tilted back and hands joined.
In the largest work of the collection, Ghost Octopus (2018), the rolling eyes of the heroine exude mock flirtation. Here the coquette is not threatened but profoundly bored, while the titular octopus, a monstrous symbol of feminine lust, hovers over the reclining figure. This is the woman in the absence of Sontag and Berger’s male gaze. Indeed, this is woman in a new art historical void, as azure with possibility as the sheet on which Szalay’s Venus is painted — or, perhaps, as the tweeting logo of feminism’s latest arena.
Through mesmerising depictions of dominance and submission, power and vulnerability, Szalay articulates a theory of womanhood that functions ultimately both as symbol and life.