The UK’s leading international photo festival showcases the best in contemporary photography in FORMAT21’s interactive Digital Art space. In light of Women’s History Month, we review the Matrix – fluid bodies, unlimited thoughts exhibition curated by Marina Paulenka.

Emma McGarry |  Ed Peter Traynor | 21 March 2021

*Trigger warning: mention of rape, violence, racism and sexism.

Martine Gutierrez, Body En Thrall p104 from Indigenous Woman (2018), Photographic C-Print, Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery 

FORMAT International Photo Festival (est. 2014) celebrates contemporary photography and digital media and all that lies between. Showcasing everything from major conceptual artworks to historical archives, including documentary photography, participatory projects and mobile phone imagery, FORMAT has long had a diverse and innovative approach to the photographic medium. Usually based in Derby in the UK, this year, the biennial festival goes digital with twenty interactive rooms in the virtual art space, New Art City. The 3D multi-guest environment of the festival invites visitors to experience the best in contemporary photography, from new and emerging artists alongside some of photographic and digital media’s best-known practitioners, including Tabita Rezaire (b. 1989), Juliana Huxtable (b. 1987) and Martine Gutierrez (1989), to name a few. These individuals, but innately interconnected artists, interrogate predetermined, binary misunderstandings and misrepresentations of gender, using their bodies and identities as their primary subject. Situated behind a dark veil signifying the R-rated content of FORMAT21’s first room, Matrix – fluid bodies, unlimited thoughts debuts at a critical time: at the end of Women’s History Month and at a crucial moment where conversations concerning the representations and safety of women across the world are once again to the fore. Centring on the practice of fluidity, self-muse and satire in the context of cyber, industrial and media landscapes, we outline these contemporary and highly pertinent feminist critiques. You won’t want to miss it.

 Tabita Rezaire, Sugar Walls Teardom (2016), Installation with HD Video, 21min30s loop. Courtesy of the artist

On entering the space, Tabita Rezaire’s lively and highly-stylised digital self-portraits, titled Inner Fire (2017), are sure to arouse your curiosity. Within the life-sized, New Media artworks lies a complex inquiry into the often problematic relationship between the female body and sexuality within cyber-landscapes. This is a common theme in the artist’s practice, where body, mind and spirit are used to materialise ‘decolonial healing’. Depicted as a goddess, a pole-dancer in a sea of flames, a serpent emperor floating above the sea and a lizard deity in space – the artist embodies fictional archetypes of the Black Woman through photographic self-portraiture and the deployment of retro-style computer graphics that recall the early days of the internet. Lurid colours and animated word-art draw upon a post-internet aesthetic through image, language and performance: reclaiming discrimination where gender, race and sexuality intersect within cyberspace. 

Similarly, in the video installation, Sugar Walls Teardom (2016), Rezaire reveals the commodification of Black Womxn’s bodies in the advancement of modern medical science and technology. In the installation, a gynaecological chair invites interactive and participatory viewing of the twenty-one-and-a-half-minute work, honouring the lives of Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy: three named victims of the sexual slavery, reproductive exploitation and torturous medical experiments practised by Marion Sims – the so-called “father of modern gynaecology”.  In doing so, Sugar Walls Teardom not only offers voice to the victims but healing for the artist herself and her participants, restating the persistent corruption and violence against Black Womxn within contemporary pharmacology. At the same time, the work honours the erotic pillar of the artist’s “decolonial trinity”, (alongside the other two pillars – technological science and spirituality). Her contribution to the show demonstrates an active reclamation of space and narrative, so we recommend reserving at least an hour to fully experience Rezaire’s progressive and holistic practice, including her 13-minute video installation Premium Connect (2017). For additional information, please read Henry Tudor Pole’s article for Agora.

Juliana Huxtable, Infertility Industrial Complex 3 (2019), Digital Print, Courtesy of the artist

Next, you’ll find Juliana Huxtable’s work: a multi-disciplinary artist working through visual art, writing, performance and music to engage with issues such as race, gender, queerness and identity. The video performance, Infertility Industrial Complex: Snatch the Calf Back (2019), accompanied by ink-jet portraits and propaganda-style tabloid posters, centre on genetic modification, fetishism and zoophilia. Using her own body and the industrial farming experience as symbols of the commodification of the female body – specifically the transfeminine – she offers a lived critique of the “elective violence” her body has endured. As both author and subject, the artist plays with her own structural truths, using inter-species fantasy to explore and offer visibility to these prevalent, interconnected and socio-political issues. Confronting the audience with an intimate, cubicle-sized viewing space, the work becomes both interactive and performative: possibly an analogy for the artificial insemination devices used to exploit biologically female bodies within the dairy and meat industry – known more commonly as “rape racks”, but more likely a metaphor for witness passivity, as audiences fleetingly experience activist campaigns in public rest-rooms. As such, Infertility Industrial Complex symbiotically references female sexuality – in the case of women and in animals – interrogating attitudes towards and ethics surrounding consent and female objectification. Subversively provocative and culturally symbolic, Huxtable’s five-minute video manifesto implores the reconsideration of our approach to identity: an intersectional, and indeed inter-species approach to activism. Be sure to also catch her A Split During Laughter at The Rally (2017) at FORMAT21 for more notes on active intersectional discourse.

Martine Gutierrez, Body En Thrall, p113 from Indigenous Woman (2018), Photographic C-Print, Courtesy of the artist

The exhibition continues the inquiry of gender, sexuality and race with trans Latinx artist Martine Gutierrez. Comparable to artists from the Pictures Generation, like Cindy Sherman or Barbara Kruger, or gender performance photographer Yasumasa Morimura,  Gutierrez frequents as her own muse, stylist and producer, utilising the visual pleasures of cinema and fashion to subvert binary constructions of identity. In recent work, BODY EN THRALL (2020), the artist embodies an array of masquerades in a glossy, billboard-style photographic series. Symbolisms of fruits or flowers – and her on-going use of juxtapositions between the real, imperfect human body and the man-made mannequin – parody the often exotic and fetishised consumption of the indigenous female body by popular Western media. Along with never-before-seen film <3 (2020) and fragments from her glossy, fictional magazine work, Indigenous Woman (2018), Gutierrez threads satire throughout her self-directed practice. In highlighting the persistence of pre-colonial standards of cis-gendered, white beauty in contemporary media, the artist parades stark-blonde wigs and melons for breasts to reassert authorship of her self-image.Striking and utterly outrageous, you’ll leave amused and entertained, with contemplations surrounding your understanding of power, perception, identity and truth. Don’t miss her continuation of the treatise in her online, multi-channel programming, Martine TV.


FORMAT21 is hosting a series of online events until April 11th, including virtual curatorial tours, capture workshops and nineteen more virtual rooms to get lost in. We’ll see you there!

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