"Curiosity, excitement and humour" are three words that spring to Stephanie Sarley's mind when describing her own work. And yet her most recent series of works have elicited far more complex emotions, from abject fear and repulsion to unbridled fetishistic desire. The work we're referring to here is Fruit Fingering, a series of moving images depicting fleshy, overripe fruit being gently rubbed, prodded and eventually "fingered" until their oozing innards are laid totally bare. No sooner had she posted her work on Instagram - a video of a blood orange - her number of followers skyrocketed to well over 100,000, however it wasn't long before her work began to be appropriated and turned into mindless, smutty memes. And yet, when she reported this to Instagram, it was Stephanie's account that was disabled, and her work forcibly removed. Why? Because of its supposed "sexually suggestive content", despite the fact that all that was being shown was a series of fruit, the kind we consume every single day. Aside from issues concerning censorship, Stephanie also finds herself defending her work against those who deny whether what she is doing is actually art. "I don't see why I find myself continuously defending what I do as art just because maybe it's modern or sexual in nature," laments the 27 year old artist and illustrator, "When has art not been sexual in nature?"
Combined, these issues speak volumes on the latent sexism that underpins our image-obsessed society, particularly when it comes to the expression of female sexuality. Because, of course, this is what is being represented in Sarley's Fruit Fingering series: female sexuality being empowered as opposed to suppressed. Which is something that runs throughout all Sarley's work, whether it's her surreal Crotch Monsters, anthropomorphic drawings of the female sexual organ, or Orcunts, whimsical renderings of vulvas masquerading as flowers. Here the artist shares her views on art, censorship and why her work makes people feel so uncomfortable.
Tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up?
I was born and raised in a family of artists in Berkeley, California. In high school I was always going to local art and punk shows, I would bring my sketchbook around and spend a lot time in art class when I was skipping school.
What inspires your work?
I'm inspired by love and sexual desires. Women's equality and gender fluidity are huge points within my art as well as body positivity, surrealism and absurdity.
What's the story behind Fruit Fingering?
I bought some blood oranges to eat and photograph and when at home hanging with my boyfriend, then I impulsively halved one and then filmed it. I posted the first video to Instagram in late December 2015 and art critic Jerry Saltz commented, "You. Are. Genius." I had to make more. The second Blood Orange video I posted was the one that went viral. It became a meme and the copyright infringement problems and censorship issues with Instagram all started there.
Why do you think Fruit Fingering makes people feel so uncomfortable?
I think it's because vaginas make people uncomfortable, and these are surrealistic representations of vulvas and vaginas. I confront the uncomfortable with my art. I think that's a necessary emotion to evoke to make people change the way they think. People get super angry or uncomfortable, in the worst cases it even brings out sexism, homophobia, and threats of violence, and this is them talking about fruit! But there's also appreciation, laughter and excitement.
How does it convey a message about female empowerment?
By humanising the vagina I am de-stigmatising it… it's all about women's perspective on sex and sexual exploration.
What do you think Instagram's policing of your work says about how society views women?
It's also about how society views art and tolerance of art censorship. I see artists censoring their works for Instagram and it's just something I think artists shouldn't be doing, because it's like throwing in the towel and saying it's okay to censor art. Instagram has harsh and silly policies when it comes to judging what is art. I've seen so many other artists' profiles get taken down for "sexually suggestive" content. I do know that women's bodies are censored more than men's. It bothers me that men can show their chests and women can't, what does that say about how people view men's sexuality?