photographers maisie cousins and francesca allen on celebrating sex, pleasure, and the female form
In their first joint exhibition, I FEEL SICK/ HOT FLUSH, the British photographers have occupied a room of their own at the KK Outlet and turned it into a den of sexual freedom.
British photographers Francesca Allen and Maisie Cousins are coming of age. Well, their work is. Abandoning their previous explorations of girlish innocence, Francesca and Maisie have opened up their visual world to include the female form as a highly sexual object. Emancipating what has traditionally been reserved for the male gaze — but far from conforming to pseudo feminist realizations of old erotic art — Francesca, with her sexually charged nude portraits and Maisie, with her dark and humorous collages, represent women who are fun, rebellious, empowered, and unashamed of their nakedness. As the meme goes: "In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act." Indeed, these women are self-assured and in control of their own image and sexual identity. Instead of plying Francesca and Maisie with obvious questions, we let the girls interview each other ahead of the show's launch.
Francesca: Maisie, why have you started making collages and changed your approach to how you make work?
Maisie: The way I work with photography is very instant and throwaway. I shoot digital and everything is accessed immediately, there is no time for thinking about it. This has been great for me in the past to get everything I wanted to express out quickly but recently, I wanted to make things at a slower pace. I didn't have internet for a week because I was in Cuba, and that changed my attitude.
Francesca: It's funny to come full circle like that. When we first met, you were shooting film, and I was shooting mainly digital. It's nice to work at a slower pace, and shooting film allows your work to become more introverted. It's a much more selfish way of taking pictures, because you're not letting anybody see what you're doing and you have to wholly trust yourself, everybody else does too. That's definitely 90% of why I like shooting film, because of the way it forces you to work. How was Cuba, what did you do? Did being in a new country inspire you in different ways?
Maisie: Absolutely, so cliché though — Western girl goes to another country and finds herself. But the place just really stuck with me. I love the people and their forward and open attitudes. Women are treated like goddesses and sex is not a taboo subject at all. They are so resourceful there, as hardly anything is new or imported. I hadn't been outside of Europe as an adult, and at the moment with how awful the world is, traveling seems like such a big deal.
Francesca: Definitely, I felt the same when I went to Japan — everyone I met was really interesting and most importantly interested. In London it's cool not to care, but it's the complete opposite there. I've never had anybody be so excited when I asked to take their portraits.
Maisie: London particularly has a lot of people who are so repressed, there are a lot of pressures coming at you all angles here. Right now I truly believe being passionate and joyous is the biggest rebellion.
Francesca: This is a pretty cliché question, but do you ever feel disadvantaged or patronized as a woman in the industry or do you think it plays to your advantage?
Maisie: I definitely use it to my advantage. There's not much I can really do to change it other than carrying on making work all the time and hoping people see it.
Francesca: I agree, it forces us to push ourselves harder than a lot of our male peers because of that, we have to make room for our work.
Maisie: Are you more attached to these pictures than previous portrait works?
Francesca: I don't think so. I am quite detached from everything I've made from the past few years. Everything I was shooting when I was younger was very much personal work and it felt like a diary — I would shoot my friends having fun and I was very much a part of it too. Now I'm trying to emulate that feeling. I'm trying to find a way to approach work as an (almost) adult.
Maisie: Do you feel like you're in a bit of a limbo at the moment? Not quite old enough to be pulling from life experience but not young enough to just be flippant and not holding back.
Francesca: Definitely. I have all of these adult expectations of myself, which I don't feel I can live up to. I recently moved into my own flat and it's like I'm playing house. I just walk around in my pants and clean things and decorate, sometimes I'll paint a wall a different color or do some photos. I feel like a tiny person, I don't know what to do with myself!
Maisie: London is extra hard with these things.
Francesca: We had really similar experiences recently. We both came out of long relationships, moved house, started afresh. I know this has changed my work. Do you think it's done the same for you?
Maisie: When all your stability goes out the window, you only have yourself to rely on and it hardens you a little bit. I turned more inwards and started reflecting on personal things as a way of getting through it all. I never really included myself in my work before, but I suddenly felt the need to as a documentation of it all.
Francesca: That's why having a show together makes so much sense. We were struggling to think of a common theme in our work, but in the end it became so obvious. We are at very similar stages in our lives, and this part is rarely documented visually. It's an in-between stage. The show reflects our own feelings regarding becoming women. I wanted everyone I photographed to feel sexy, powerful, and elated. Both of our works explore a sexual awakening, and the women in our images are very much in control.
Maisie: Having shows allows you to have a satisfying big release of work which is what we needed with all these pent up feelings!
Francesca: We have been so excited about everything recently; it's a good time to make new things. We were both drunk on freedom for a few months and our new work mirrors that. I wanted to take photos of women at the height of sexual freedom, self-assuredness, and expressing absolute hedonism, as that was the way I was feeling. It's been difficult to make work recently, as I definitely don't have fun in the way I used to. I have a great time, but as a teen your life is naturally more aesthetically pleasing. Now I go to dinner with friends, I go to work, there aren't opportune times to take photos as I'm not running around naked in fields anymore. But I've found new things to be excited about recently. In a sense, your new work is creating a dream visual world, the collages are an amalgamation of your favorite things.
Maisie: I'm finding my mid twenties to be even more confusing and chaotic than being a teenager. Now things really mean things to you, your heart breaks harder. I'm already exhausted and it's only February. Making a visual world through collage is definitely an escape.
'I FEEL SICK / HOT FLUSH' is showing at London's KK Outlet from February 10-27, 2017.