We don’t remember reading the part that depicts the Virgin Mary as a tattooed matriarch with a nose ring and knuckle dusters? Or the painting that shows Venus to be a body-building athlete with groomed hair down her legs? These representations may not have made it into our history books, but Amsterdam and London-based photographer Lois Cohen and New York and Amsterdam-based stylist Indiana Roma Voss have given the female protagonists centerstage in their latest series Metamorphosis. Together the duo reimagine female archetypes from a range of geographical areas and cultures and place them in recognisable contexts in order to transform them into 21st century women.
Lois’ photography is graceful and direct. Her confrontational portraits declare the protagonists as the photographic centrepiece, placing a sharp focus on the female figures and their unapologetic authority. “Although we’re criticising the icons that we’re redefining, we’re also paying homage to their beauty; for example the classical and painterly feel of the Odalisque, the Madonna, and the Venus as well as the girly aesthetics of Barbie and the filmic atmosphere of Goldfinger. But we wanted to completely remove some of them from their original contexts like the pink Power Ranger and the Disney princesses,” Lois tells It’s Nice That. In drawing on cultures from around the globe, the duo incorporate different aesthetic styles into the series which, Lois explains, was both creatively stimulating and intellectually refreshing.
“It’s true,” Indiana, who won the Elle Stylist Award in 2016, agrees. “Every image in the series is different because each of the women we focused on comes from a different time and cultural background. I was careful not to dip into too many colour pools because I wanted to maintain continuity between the images. I adjusted the elements I wanted to highlight, depending on the story we were telling. Overall I tried to enhance each woman’s confidence through their styling and add an extra layer of meaning to their original story.”
The series is steeped in symbolism that serves to highlight each woman’s brave determination. Jean Auguste Dominique’s 1814 painting Odalisque, for example, depicts a Turkish concubine laying naked on a bed presumably waiting for her next lover. In Lois and Indiana’s version, however, the beautiful woman is lounging on her bed, fully dressed, gazing at a naked man on her iPad. In this way, the duo challenge and subvert the male gaze. Another example is Lady Justice who holds her scales in one hand and a rolling pin in the other. The rolling pin, however, looks more like a baton than a kitchen appliance, discrediting stereotypes of women as domestic carers. In denouncing the traditional representations of female archetypes, Lois and Indiana celebrate inclusivity, individuality and female strength, rendering them relatable for a new generation of women.
“I’ve always collected images of badass women like female heroines and warriors from comics books and cult-movies. Fictional characters like Tank Girl, Catwoman, Kill Bill, Wednesday Adams, Pam Grier’s movie characters and the warrior women from Heavy Metal comics are big inspirations too,” Lois explains. “I love eccentric women who are overly confident without trying to conform to beauty and social standards. I think these are the women you keep seeing in my work. The female characters I portray are my alter egos in a way; they empower me. The greatest feeling is when I notice that my work empowers others too like Pink Ranger from Metamorphosis. The photograph got reposted many times by Muslim women, explaining how they adored it and how it empowered them."
Feminism played a similarly central role in Indiana’s upbringing. Raised by a single mother, Indiana looked up to Madonna and Patti Smith as well as Gloria Steinem, Lena Dunham and Rose McGowan. “Feminism has funnily enough never been the core concept of any work I have created in the past. I figured it was about time I constructed something that would educate people about women’s history. We also tackle movements other than feminism in Metamorphosis such as the body positivity movement and LGBTTQQIAAP movement. I have included elements of these in my work before as well as pushed to work with racially diverse castings.”
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