Menna Siwan is a lesbian feminist artist from Cardiff, whose work is primarily concerned with rebellions against social constructions that confine women. A connotation relating to the beauty of women is hair, yet off the head it undergoes a shift in representation that unsettles the viewer as a reminder of the person on which it grew. Disembodied hair contains the identity of the person, and whilst growing it represented an important facet of society – that of the pressure on women to look a certain way and to act a certain way in order to conform to the patriarchal society into which we were born. Cut hair sits in a liminal space, as do cut flowers, where they appear alive but are in fact dead. Her work creates an interplay between the beautiful and the grotesque, shifting the textures of these liminal objects which were once pleasant in a rebellion against the beauty ideals that intrude upon the lives of women from a young age, throughout their lives.
AA: So, I hear you're an artist. What was your experience growing up, and later, your experience as a feminist artist in Wales?
MS: My grandparents played a huge part in my childhood, and seeing the way my grandmother behaved, it was made clear to me that the woman’s role was at home. My own parents were quite different – they weren’t afraid to go against the norm. I feel like I’m an amalgamation of both generations. As a feminist artist, I am able to express both sides of myself, one as an expression of succumbing and the other as an opposition against the structures set for us as women. Growing up in Wales near the Valleys, women as housekeepers were not, and continue not to be uncommon. On the other hand, more and more feminist artists are appearing in the country, which makes me both in good company and proud.
AA: What is the art scene like in Cardiff?
MS: Cardiff’s art scene is steadily improving. Especially for feminist art. I recently viewed Dinahvagina’s ‘Any Feelings About This?’ in Arcade Cardiff, which blew me away. There are a few lovely small galleries around the city centre, like g39 and TEN. Chapter is a cornerstone of Cardiff’s art scene, one of my favourite places to be and has amazing biscuits too!
AA: What role does feminism play in your practice?
MS: Feminism plays a pivotal role within my practice, as I use my form of expression to satire and exaggerate the female stereotype. There are subtle feminist influences in each of my artistic choices – the colour pink, using flowers and hair, and referring to the female form without objectification. Most of my inspirations come from feminist artists and writers, so it’s fair to say that my work centres around the problematic aspects that relate to feminist thinking.
AA: What does your process entail?
MS: My process always begins with collecting. I collect found photographs, articles, clipart, and advertisements. Anything that follows my train of thought at that time. Instagram is excellent for inspiration, as so many feminist artists share their work on the platform (I’m at @mennasiwanart). This may lead to collage, but more than likely inspires a series of photographs. I then begin collecting objects that relate to the theme that I’ve established. Once these are collected and collated, I am able to begin taking pictures! I try not to think about this too much, as I find loose shooting tends to create interesting results. I don’t Photoshop too much either, I let them be what they are. The finessing goes into setting up the scene.
AA: How do you choose the objects that you photograph?
MS: I collect objects that scream: I am a girl! Everything must be pink! After weeks of trawling charity shops, craft shops, Cardiff Market, I begin collating objects. I collate the objects that I’ve found in groups of varying forms, shapes, and textures. This ensures that my images are interesting to look at and don’t appear too flat.
AA: Your work is a culmination of photographs, still lives, collage, mixed media, and more. At what point in your process do you decide which medium you're going to go with for an idea that you have?
MS: I often use collages and paintings as a way of understanding the objects before I photograph them. I can see them in relation to other objects, which sometimes result in unlikely photographs. I’m currently looking at seafood and flowers over on my blog (mennasiwanart.com/blog), which was a result of cutting out magazine images and placing them in conjunction with one another.
AA: Hair is a powerful object to use as an art medium because of the social connotations that come with it. Do you have a personal experience involving hair that inspired you to start incorporating it into your work?
MS: I love this question. In short: yes. Then again, hair is such a key element to ideas of femininity that it is relatable to all women. I incorporated hair in to my work first when I shaved my head. I have always been quite experimental with my hair, and I saw some beautiful strong women wearing their hair like this, and wanted to try it out. It was so liberating! I remember feeling so much better after doing it. It’s a style I’ve revisited and will probably do it again soon and use the short hair I have now in my work too! The reactions I got after doing it the first time from friends and family actually inspired me to use it, more than the liberating feeling. My grandparents were quite upset, and worried that I wouldn’t find a man to marry. A few thought I wasn’t very feminine any more. It’s these opinions, echoed through society, that weave into the massive knot of the expectations of women. I continue to use hair to remind myself and others that it is ok to do what the heck you want.
AA: Who or what are you listening to when you're creating work?
MS: I go through phases. At the moment I’m massively into the music of Etta Bond and Nadia Rose. I never realised how much it impacted my work until I switched from Einaudi. I guess powerful women’s music makes me feel kinda badassy too.
AA: Are you currently reading or watching anything that has influenced your art practice?
MS: I’m currently reading Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women by Elizabeth Wurtzel. I love the way she looks at power as a direct link to sexuality for women. Previously, I read Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. I read a few passages over and over again, and it really moulded my sense of power/powerlessness regarding women and their vaginas. Amazing writing.
AA: Which artists do you look to for inspiration?
MS: I love Instagram and Pinterest for inspiration. I’m really into Mayan Toledano’s earlier stuff at the moment looking at tears, and Maisie Cousins’ use of flowers and wet textures.
AA: Aside from art, what do you enjoy?
MS: I’m a massive bookworm, and I’m obsessed with feminist novels. Then again, I also love daytime TV. I know, I know. I do write too and publish regularly with Harness Magazine. I’m always dreaming up ways of making my writing more present in my art as I often am inspired to write by my photographs and vice versa.
AA: Do you have any advice for a fellow artist who may be reading this?
MS: Set goals and look after yourself. I am reminding myself constantly.
AA: I like to think of artists making artwork the same way as chefs cooking in the kitchen. At first, it may seem intimidating, but once you gain a little confidence, the possibilities of creating tasty meals are endless. With that being said, every famous chef has a catchphrase. What’s your catchphrase in the studio?
MS: As I work from my home studio, I am able to go in in my pajamas. When I’m writing important things, I prefer to be dressed up as it makes me focus better. But for photographing, my catchphrase has got to be: anything worth doing, is worth doing in slippers.