The Artist Using Stunning Nude Portraits to Celebrate Female Sexuality

Artist Maggie West's latest installation—"98," a reference to the fact that someone is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds in America—allows her subjects express their sexuality on their own terms.

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Sep 20 2017, 7:57pm

Jazzmyne Robbins and Isis King by Maggie West

Amber Rose kicks off her third annual Slutwalk next month in Downtown LA with the goal of protesting victim-blaming, derogatory labels, gender inequality, and "shifting the paradigm of rape culture." This year, a tall, stained glass installation featuring portraits of 40 nude women by artist Maggie West will stand in solidarity with those in attendance in a body of work titled 98.

West chose this title to represent the Department of Justice statistic that someone is assaulted every 98 seconds in America. This installation is the latest in a line of artwork by West—who last year created a series in support of Planned Parenthood and earlier in 2017 released a book focusing on gender inclusivity—with intersectional, body-positive feminism at its forefront.

From reframing the conversation around virginity to reclaiming public nudity, West spoke to Broadly about the inspirations and themes behind 98, which features sex workers, trans women, and women of color alike.

BROADLY: How did your work end up being displayed at the Slutwalk?
Maggie West: Three months ago, I saw Slutwalk posted a call for an artist wanting to exhibit their work. Last November I did a benefit charity art show for Planned Parenthood, and since then I released my book 23, which is kind of about the intersection of gender and sexuality—so I felt like my work was pretty relevant to Slutwalk and the cause.

Anna Foxxx by Maggie West

How did you come up with the idea for your installation?
I liked the idea of having a gallery that's like a group show of other artists. I feel like, because of the colors and the clean composition in a lot of my photos, it lends itself to installation really well, so I've been kind of playing around with the idea of a stained glass wall or ceiling. From there I kind of came up with this concept for 98 about doing almost a model of the stained glass ceiling—only instead of saints, it's contemporary women celebrating their sexuality.

Going along with idea of stained glass: Can you talk about how you worked with, or rather against, the image of the virgin saint and how that manifests in the installation?
Most of the time when women are portrayed in stained glass, it's usually in a cathedral. I started looking into who exactly is in these stained glass installs, and it's primarily female saints. The more research I started doing, I realized that 99 percent of female saints are virgins. There's a handful of married ones, but for the most part, they're not. I kept reading all of these different stories of women who would suffer violent torment rather than give away their purity. They were being celebrated for their dedication to their own chastity.

I started thinking about how the Slutwalk is a celebration of female sexuality and our ability to express ourselves sexually without violent repercussions. So I kind of wanted to juxtapose these earlier ideals of purity being your most valuable asset with a more contemporary idea that women have the right to express themselves sexually and should be celebrated for owning their own sexuality and freedom. It's kind of using the same visual medium with a very different message behind it.

Nikki Hearts by Maggie West

I recognized quite a few of the faces in your photos. How did you go about choosing your subjects?
A lot of models have either been in my series for Planned Parenthood or in my book 23, and a lot of them were friends I already knew. Some women I specifically reached out to because I liked their artwork or the message in what they were doing. It was really important to me to include a really diverse group of women because I feel that the issues of harassment, or the threat of rape because of sexual expression, and things like that are things that almost all women have gone through regardless of your gender identity or sexual orientation or physical appearance. For example, there's a few porn performers in the series, but there's also some YouTube stars whose content is primarily for teens and children. I thought it was important to include both aspects of that spectrum.

Was there a certain quality you were looking for when you selected the photos of each person?
I actually didn't select the photos; I let each model do that. For me, it's very important that the models like their photos and that they're comfortable with them. (Though I can't do this all the time, like in my art books.) What we did was: I narrowed it down to the top 20 images and then I let each of the models pick their top three from there. I wanted them to be really comfortable with how they're being presented, especially because for a lot of these people haven't posed nude before.

Sanam Sindhi by Maggie West

That seems to work really well with the ideas core to the Slutwalk when you think about themes like consent.
Yeah, and the level of nudity in the images varies a lot. Some people didn't care just going in and being full-frontal, whereas some people really wanted to be in it because of their voice and the message, but they didn't feel comfortable being totally nude, and that was fine. We just either cropped them at the shoulder or held their hand over their breast or whatever. I'm actually in it. I ended up doing a self portrait of myself for this too, just out of solidarity.

What do you think the response to your series will be, or what are you hoping it will be?
I hope in some ways it de-stigmatizes some of the perceptions around public nudity and who is OK to be publicly nude. I think I just want people to realize that this is a really universal thing that all women go through. For instance, Alaska Thunderfuck is in this—and while, when Alaska is not in drag, Alaska identifies as a gay man, the character of Alaska is female presenting. For me, it doesn't matter that much if you're a drag queen or trans or a cis woman, it's like if you're female-presenting and you go outside in a short skirt, we all deal with this.

Alaska Thunderfuck by Maggie West
Caroline Miner by Maggie West
Abella Danger by Maggie West
Luka Fisher by Maggie West
Luka Fisher by Maggie West