As we continue to slog our way through the metaphorical bog that is January, we’re finding life inspiration in unexpected places. Take artist and illustrator Melissa Kitty Jarram, who borrows power from Greek goddesses and repurposes it into pastel-hued images of a modern day myth: the woman who truly doesn’t give a fuck. Whether she’s dabbling with Adobe Illustrator or gouache, Melissa skates across the whole spectrum of human emotion, prodding morality and the Madonna/whore context along the way and reminding us that we should all channelling Calypso – at least until spring. We caught up with the artist to hear more.
Tell us about yourself and how you found your way into painting and illustration.
I studied illustration and animation at Kingston University but never really felt like an illustrator. As soon as I graduated I felt like I still had so much learning to do, so I’ve just spent the last few years doing that, supporting myself by working a million different temp jobs and doing some freelance work. Painting is something that I fell back in love with after uni. I guess it just feels natural to me as it was my first love in the artistic practice; I would spend a lot of a time as a baby covered in paint. I lived in a hotel in China for the first seven years of my life, back then the country had only just opened its doors to the west and started to develop, so most of the time I was inside immersed in creative activities or in the world of film.
What have you been working on recently?
The work that I’ve been making recently is totally inspired by my fascination with sexual politics and anthropology; it’s all a documentation of my journey towards understanding humanity, how we interact with one another, and my own personal experiences with relationships. Visually I am influenced by the things that I come across in my research such as folk art (particularly Asafo flags, hermetic prints, and Mexican Votive paintings), religious artifacts, Renaissance paintings (for their renditions of the Greek myths), and everything left behind by the Ancients. I was really obsessed with Greek mythology last summer, and spent a lot of time reading about it. I just love how all the stories encompass pretty much every human emotion. They’re all valuable morality plays, and our culture to this day is still so saturated with elements of theirs, one of the most successful and dominant companies in our world – Nike – is named after the goddess of victory for example.
And how does your preoccupation with the sexual and moral politics of ancient myths play out in your paintings and illustrations?
My characters tend to be thicc girls who have overcome any kind of dependency on romantic love… Boys suck. Not really. I have loads of guy friends and I love them all but sometimes I watch the way they interact with girls romantically and I wonder what the fuck they’re doing. We live in a time where there is so much freedom, choice, and lack of rules that I’m struggling to navigate my way through it all. My characters are girls who don’t care about it, because I wish that I didn’t. The silhouetted heads and eyes you can often see in the background of my paintings represent the sexualisation of women.
My process usually begins with a trip to the British Library, British Museum, or Wellcome Collection. These are places I can spend hours in on my own and always find something new to look at. I’ll draw all the things that fascinate me, or I think are beautiful, then later on when I’m starting a painting or one of my digital pieces I will go back to my sketchbook and start pulling things together into a composition. I always start with drawing, and then depending on the purpose of the piece I will determine whether or not I need to start a painting or open up Adobe Illustrator. Gouache is my choice of paint, which is really annoying because it’s so expensive, however I want to start working on a much larger scale so am thinking about playing with matt emulsion.
As for 2018, what’s bubbling away in the pipeline?
2018 is super exciting as I am planning a group show with some excellent artists and illustrators, exploring the Madonna/whore complex. The complex has existed since antiquity and entails a pattern of thought that divides women into two mutually exclusive categories: Madonnas and whores. The Madonna figure possesses and protects social virtue, she is dependable, respectable and maternal. However she is devoid of sex. Anybody who fails to live up to the Madonna standard is often perceived as the Whore: the woman who is driven by sexual desire and is therefore lacking in morality and humanity. Consequently men who suffer from this complex have difficulty maintaining a sexual relationship with their partners, instead they find that they can only be aroused by mistresses or prostitutes. Paradoxically, these men admire their partners too much to be sexually attracted to them and are unable to respect the women that they lust for. I feel like this issue may be more prevalent than we think, so would like to address it. In addition to this I’ve followed a call girl for the last year, documenting her experiences and feelings about working in the sex industry, so will be putting together a solo show of paintings about that.