Nasty Women Exhibition – Empowerment: In Conversation with the Artist Zoe Burt
She is a fashion designer and an artist, with international experience. Her recently acquired MA degree served as an outlet for her to use fashion as a means of activism, creating wearable art with feminist themes and by doing so, enabled her to initiate dialogues on sexist language and gender. Feminism is very much Zoe Burt’s life; well that, and her cat.
What does empowerment mean to you personally?
Empowerment to me means having the strength to be who you truly are, and to speak about things that others may find uncomfortable in order to try and better the world. It means being comfortable with myself, my beliefs and my thoughts to carry out my life and my art with confidence and strength and have the ability to not have to conform to societal restrictions. I find empowerment through art because creating art for me is a means of activism, a way to open dialogues around sexist language and gender. I believe that art can serve as an important outlet, and inspire change, sending a broader message; art activism can make a real change, especially when it’s accessible and involves an array of works, the theme of my recent thesis was based around the importance of art in making change. It’s empowering because it gives me the opportunity to explore my own beliefs, dig deep down into my own identity, and feel strong and confident about the person I am and what I believe I could be. And if I can change the mindset of just one person through the challenging content of my work, then that’s empowerment in itself.
How do you create your art and what is the main subject of your work?
The subjects of my art can really vary! It’s all dependent, but it does very much revolve around gender and oppression, and how society can be very restrictive to those that don’t want to conform. I’m inspired by my own feminist beliefs and the feminist communities I’m a part of. I tend to look at the beautiful people around me and their struggles and aim to bring them to the attention to people who might not give them a second thought. I try to be as inter-sectional as possible with all my work and do my best to be inclusive.
My piece shown at the Nasty Women exhibition was inspired by toxic masculinity and the modern “ideal” of men, it’s effect, and the deemed “perfection” of male Greek gods. The coat, when worn, provides an experience of discomfort and the inability to move, representing the effect and restrictions of toxic masculinity in modern British society; particularly focusing on the male patriarchal construct of society, the constrictions of the masculine and feminine boxes we are forced to adhere to. The inner coat represents the effects of said masculinity, how it manifests itself through social media, and how it serves to damage other identity’s in society by upholding out-dating traditional values. I wanted to create something that looked pristine on the outside but drew you in to reveal the horror of online social media comments, and how shocking they are, especially when grouped. The comments were found through my own social media feeds; that is to say I didn’t go searching for them; and I think that makes it even more shocking, that even in my little feminist bubble, these are everyday occurrences. For me, toxic masculinity is a major issue in our modern-day society and something that affects both men and women alike, and I genuinely believe that if we have more conversations around the masculine expectations of men, we could address the power dynamic. I think that this toxic masculinity drives so many of the issues we face as women in western society today.
I was very lucky when creating this piece to have access to a 3D printer, and so this was created that way (with a lot of after work too! The work doesn’t stop once it’s printed!). A lot of my other work revolves around textiles and fabric. My background is primarily fashion and so I tend to work with garments and wearable pieces, incorporating film. One of my favourite pieces, aside from the coat, is my dissolving coat jacket which is captured on film, entitled Diss/dressed. It seeks to use fashion to create a conversation around problematic traditional gender ideals in the west, and our persistent use of sexist language. The coat takes sexist language, which are all handwritten crowd-sourced submissions from people who experienced nasty phrases (catcalls, rape threats etc), and incorporates them into a piece of wearable art that is then dissolved & destroyed as a means of representing the decay and the effect these phrases have on our well-being on a day to day basis, but also the power in destroying them. The coat itself shows the after effects of the decay, and the film, the power in overcoming them. The models look at the end of the film to me is the epitome of empowerment. https://vimeo.com/232064145
Which is more important to you, the subject of your art or the way it is executed?
I think the subject is of the utmost importance, and is the main drive behind anything creative I do, but without the execution, the message might not carry. I love building things and creating, and knowing I have a prominent and great message behind it gives me immense passion and force to see it through to the end. It’s so exciting to watch something come together, and then to see other people realize the meaning you had behind it without explaining it is unbelievably gratifying. I take so much pride in having a great outcome with my work, but at the same time, I let myself and the work change as I go, as thoughts develop, as do people.
Having said that, there will always be failures in your work. Nothing is ever perfect but trying things can help develop you as an artist and person, and find new methods. In my professional life, I like to be chucked in at the deep end. I love learning new things, new crafts, new methods, new languages. I feel like I’m one of those people who will always be enrolled in a class somewhere. I like to take all these things and find my own way of doing. A lot of trial and error, and for me, that’s fine, because you never know what you might end up with.
When you create, is there a deliberate message present from the very beginning?
I always start with an intention in mind, but of course, it develops as I go. You find new things and new directions as you work through it. You see new points of view, you talk to new people, you reassess your stance on things, especially when your work is politically driven. I look back on who I was a few years ago and see a completely different person. It’s the same with my work. The base message will probably remain, but I think it’s important to take on board messages from the community and be open to changing your opinion. This is the primary theme of my work, changing opinions and learning, so if I’m not open to that myself, it’s rather hypocritical no?
When a piece of your work is complete, do you remain attached to it or is there a catharsis with detachment present at the end of the project?
This is such a problem for me! Aha. I’ve got everything I’ve ever created still with me, and I tend to remake any new commissions. I put so much love, time and effort into my work that parting with it is hard. Having said that, I also start to find imperfections and things that I would change and begin to change my opinion on said work. Though I wouldn’t ever actually change it. I’d love for my 3D printed coat to go to a good home though! Despite it being my favourite thing, I’ve created thus far, it’s one that I would love to sell as I’d like to see it displayed somewhere where it might make an impact.
How does it feel to be a part of such an important exhibition such as Empowerment?
It felt great to be surrounded by other artists. It’s my first big exhibition, and it was very exciting to see people connecting with your work, though a little strange to see so many pictures being taken of it. I had the opportunity to have so many great conversations around the subject, met one of my favourite artists, and generally had an empowering time. The Creative Debuts team were great and very supportive, and it was all round fun. My work is still up until the end of the month so go see it if you get a chance!
Interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
Featured photo © Ryan Prince for Creative Debuts
All other photos © Sanja Struna