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Although big breasts are celebrated in the media as sexy and desirable, the truth is that they can be troublesome and not entirely glamorous. On the other hand, the humble underwear can become a journey of reconnaissance and identity. In reaction to the prohibition of drawingin the V&A exhibition “Undressed” , I decided to transform my anger into something creative and thus I want to investigate my own relationship with underwear. I started by taking all my undergarments of my chest of drawers (pun unintended) and spread it around, so I could examine how I feel with each of those humble yet key garments in my life. I realised that my worst nightmare would be to leave the house without my underwear… it don’t care about clothes but underwear… that’s my thing.
In fact, my life would not be possible without bras, literally. My parents met when both were working at Leonisa, the successful underwear factory in Medellin (Colombia), in the earlier 1960s. My mother had moved from the country side, a very beautiful and educated girl, having to make her way as a worker in the big city. Just weeks after she was in the shop floor, she was promoted to factory coordinator: in charge of the production of undergarments for the country. My dad, on the other hand, had been touring the west of the country as a “tinker”, honing the selling and negotiating skills which later would saved his life, and in his perambulation he got to Medellin. This was the second most important city in Colombia and one of the motors of the textile industry. My dad, then a young man in his 20s, rented a room in a family house, who took a shine on the lad who was home-trained and good with the kids. The hosting family happened to be related to the owners of Leonisa and they found my dad a small admin job. The story, as told by my parents, is that my dad had of course noticed the beautiful factory coordinator, but he took a bit of time to gather some courage (and save money) to ask my mum out, to what she said she would asked her mother first. My grandma, albeit kind and open minded for her time, had only one question: “Is he a liberal?”. This was crucial for giving the permission, because conservatives, in her view, were the “enemy”. Conservative against liberals was the struggle at the heart of the longest civil war that engulfed the country, and it was said that Church priests encouraged the violence by saying that murdering liberals was not a sin. This conflict pushed both my parents away of their families’ lands to try their luck in the cities. So, yes, the thing that bonded them was their work in the bra factory and their political views.
I had a good look on my underwear and I found that The bras, specially, are high quality garments. I try to buy my bras in conjunction with the knickers, and I am terribly fussy about them. I had moved from the Leonisa traditional pairs, to the reliable M&S undergarments, with some incursions to other brands such as Bravissimo and Triumph. These are the ones that have my size… Having been gifted (or cursed) with a generous rack, bras are part of my identity -my daily armour-, the way in which I face the world frontally! Which makes me think of my troublesome relationship with my boobs, and how bras are part of the story. It began when I was 12 or 13 and got my first period, and soon my childish barren chest, began to grow, and grow, and grow and grow… and grow. The first t-shirt bras (called “acostumbradores” in Spanish or “getting used”), were replaced with more sophisticated garments, and the cups began to go through the alphabet… A to B, to C to D… to… etc. At school this evolution did not pass unnoticed, and soon I began to be the attention of unwanted gazes: my breast became an object of desire for the boys, intrigue for the girls, and also an excuse for laughter and bullying. I was called names, banned from certain sports (my love for gymnastic was drastically finished, and I showed no interest for “bouncing” activities like basketball, volleyball or simple running!), and in general I was thrown into a sea of confusion, hormones and insecurity. It did not help that the epitome of beauty was the twiggy figure; it was years before the Kardashian’s fever for big breasts and generous bodies. But the bras have been always there giving me support… Of course, the ones I wanted were those flimsy, delicately laced bras, which came only in small sizes… so I had to go to the “ladies” section to get the ones that were suitable for me… it is just until the last 10 years that brands have noticed the growing demand for bigger and sexier bras, a welcome evolution!
I have now some favorite bras, those that are comfortable, protective yet alluring. In my exploration of I discovered faithful bras in traditional colours (black, white, nude), but also sexy underwear in red, lace and lovely design… But definitively it is the support that draws me in. I have tried underwired bras for a while, but they are not my favorites, too uncomfortable; I have also experimented with the so called “reductive” bras; with sporty ones (not recommended as they make of breast a single amorphous mass), and I have never needed wonder bras or padded ones. Bras are a big part of my story, and I could tell it through bras and underwear. When I finally separated from my first husband, my first shopping trip was to get new bras and underwear. I remember buying some interesting underwear which was immortalized by the camera of the photographer Nereo, a way of re-connecting with my own (battered) self-esteem and my new found sensuality.
Which takes me to the knickers (or lack-of…) well, the knickers exploration does not compare with the bras.. here the collection is more diverse and varied. From nice designer knickers, to reliable M&S satin ones, to cotton colourful ones from H&M. Downstairs things are a bit different as I find evidence of greater experimentation: from high leg, low leg, minis, briefs, tangas, and dental floss panties (!) to an increasing collection of Bridget Jones’ granny knickers, definitively the best for daily life. I also found some “spandex”, a beige structure that goes from the diaphragm to the mid tights. The design is really interesting as it is constraining and shaping. The true is that I only wear them with summer dresses, to avoid the uncomfortable chaffing but also because summer is less forgiving with the old muffin…
The beautiful thing about this whole experience/art project has been to discover my own underwear story, to explore through the materiality of those garments, my own memories: made of insecurity, fear, but also pride and identity. It is true that having a big rack has advantages: I am popular with babies (of all ages!), and it sometimes can be used as storage (unintended pieces of food are lost in the bras), but most importantly I have healthy breasts. The twist of the story with bras and boobs is that five years ago my mum got breast cancer, and that changed my relationship with my breast. My mum got a malign one and she had to be operated almost within days of the diagnosis. The tumor was extracted and her left boob was reduced. She had to go through radio-therapy to curb the risk of spreading. Now, thanks God and the excellent Surgeon who operated her -La Doctora Sandra- she is well and without further problems. But I also know that this operation marked the beginning of an increasing ageing process. Of course, this has increased my awareness of the condition, and I keep examining my breasts and getting regular mammograms. My mum, who worked in the bra industry is as fussy as me when getting the right underwear, and she is smitten by M&S brands, so every time I visit her I must bring some of those trusted garments.
So, in a way, the prohibition of drawing, liberated my breasts and opened stories that I had well buried under my exterior. This is the power of art, the power of protest and the way in which my annoyance at the Undressed prohibition has prompted me to an interesting personal journey, a bare view at my story, a naked view to my body and the possibility of transforming frustration into art: drawing, photography and story telling.
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In the last few days I’ve been enjoying the pleasures of life by the sea. I’m in the caribbean coast of my birth country Colombia, and in one of my favourite places: the city of Santa Marta, at the edge of the mighty Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a place of wisdom, nature and magic. Many years ago, in my hippy life, I went into a huge questioning of the university life and I decided to wander across the country. In this perambulation I went to the caribbean coast, invited by my friends Nelson Pinilla (biologist) and Marta Prado (anthropologist) who were doing some work there in the mystical Sierra Nevada.
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Sketchbook. Beatriz Acevedo 2014
I travelled first around the coast, exploring the beautiful Tayrona Park, staying in Santa Marta with the beautiful Tatiana Cartwright and my friends Marta Lucia Prado (anthropologist) and Nelson Pinilla (biologist). The initial idea was to see the Sierra Nevada but to get there you really need time and fitness… it takes around 3 days walking over steep hills and uncertain roads to get to the camp bases of the fundacion Sierra Nevada. So what I thought would be one month of visit, became the six most formative months of my life: the simplicity and wisdom of the indigenous communities of koguis and arhuacos, living relatively untouched by the the white people, has been something I’ve held dear in my own believes and way of life. Indeed, by helping my friends Marta and Nelson Pinilla in their work on ethnobotanic and uses of plants by indigenous communities koguis and arhuacos, I started drawing (see my first Botanic Exhibition).
Tayrona Rocks. Sketchbook, Beatriz Acevedo. 2014
Tayrona Rocks. Sketchbook, Beatriz Acevedo. 2014
The koguis believe that we come from the sea, from Aluna, the Mother, and their message refers to live in harmony with this Mother. They warn us about how we are destroying the Mother’s children (nature, animals, plants) and their mission as elder brothers is to warn us and to teach us -the younger brothers- how to live in peace with nature.
Aluna, Sketchbook. Beatriz Acevedo 2014
Their myths are like poetry: profound and musical.
Primero estaba el mar,
At the beginning there was the Sea
Todo estaba oscuro.
No había sol, ni luna, ni
gente, ni animales, ni plantas.
El mar estaba en todas
Everything was dark
There was not sun, nor moon, no people,
no animals, nor plants
the sea was everwhere
El mar era la madre.
La madre no era gente, ni
nada, ni cosa alguna.
the sea was the Mother
the Mother was not human,
it was nothing, or anything
Ella era el espíritu de lo que
iba a venir y ella era
pensamiento y memoria.
She was the spirit of
the times to come
she was memory and thought
The anthropologist Reichel-Dolmatoff documented the traditions and myths of these indigenous groups, who remained “lost” in history. As a matter of fact, it was only until the 1970s that this great civilization was revealed: the Lost City, at the top of the sierra, was a complex architectonic place, with symbols and roads, and places for worshipping, planning and political participation. Some young people riding on the wave of the flower power and the search for alternative ways of civilisation, went to learn from these “elder brothers” and created communities and families, commonly known as the “hippy-koguis”. Around 1991 I was travelling by the Tayrona Park and I went to live with the hippy koguis: I had the pleasure to meet great people like Simungey, el Jate, and other great people, they welcome me and my boyfriend at the time with the only condition of us to be open minded and share the community labour. We first lived in the area of Loscuisi, where I had a great time learning how to live from nature, spending our days gathering fruit (basically banana and avocados, and the ocassional treat of pineapple), drawing, cooking and taking long baths in the nearby river. Later we moved to Sangueka, where there was a larger community and more food! There I learned how to weave the traditional mochila and we had the opportunity to learn much more of the traditions adapted by the hippy koguis. To live with so little and to enjoy so much was one of the biggest lessons of my life… also the experience of living in such a raw conditions was so formative, I now now that I can live anywhere… Notwithstanding, I feel that after the years I’ve lost this skill: of being in the here and now, appreciating every single moment and simple pleasures. Is that what we mean as spiritual path? Somehow I feel I’ve lost it….
Flying Fish. Sketchbook, Beatriz Acevedo. 2014
Hence, coming back to this place, more than 20 years after and without so much thinking was truly meaningful. This time I came with my parents and my husband as part of my biannual visit to Colombia. We rented a flat in the beautiful Zuana “beach resort”, a plan that we normally shunned because of being too touristic, but somehow, it offered the necessary comfort for my eldery parents and a base for exploring the area.
Santa Marta. Tayrona Rocks. Sketchbook, Beatriz Acevedo. 2014
The previous week had been absolutely chaotic: Bogota, a capital city, can be terribly messy and stressful. My heart pressure was by the roof, to the horror of my GP, and I was trying to deal with the high altitude; even worst, I had not been able to paint or to draw! Then my husband arrived, bringing some nice letters from my friend Donna Ladkin, and her phrase of allowing Colombia to nurture my Colombian side was so spot on! Travelling to santa marta was also a great gift of new and remembered images, of colours and warm weather, of golden sands and blue sea. The journey brought back that young idealistic woman, travelling through these landscapes, trying to understand more about herself, her country, her spiritual journey.
One of the defining facts of that period of my life was how I dived into drawing. First in 1991, in my 6 months residence with the hippy koguis, and later in 1997 when I visited the mythical Lost City. I kept some visual diaries that somehow i lost in my many travels and every time i come to my parents house i try to recover, but they remain elusive. This time i decided to re-draw some of the landscapes, specially those in the Tayrona park: the curly sea of infinite blue, adorned by huge rocks like prehistoric eggs, the palms and tress, the climbers and the light! I was so sad to have lost those notebooks, but perhaps, as the “Twelve wandering tales” (Doce Cuentos Peregrinos) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the lost sketches and my desire for recovering them were an excuse to remember who i was then and who am i now. As it often happens the memories were more vivid than the reality, but the sights before my eyes were as worthy as my memories of the place… looking with my eyes now I simply let my heart to guide me….
Flying Heart and Lover. Tayrona Rocks. Sketchbook, Beatriz Acevedo. 2014
This connection between what one feels, thinks and does, is according to the Chinese medicine practised by my friend Carolina Duarte (who i had the pleasure to see this time in santa marta) is very difficult to achieve and any unbalance can be the root of illnesses and ailments! i wonder how y blood pressure and the stress of the last few years have become a normal thing that justifies my irritability and swinging moods? of course being on holidays allow you to “see” and to realise that stopping and idleness are necessary (if not crucial) aspects of our lives. its not only about health but also idleness creates space for creativity! While reflecting on all of that i drew and drew and saw and looked, filling my eyes with lines and shaoes, harmonies and landscapes, and soothing my soul and accelerated heart! sharing with my beloved family was also such a cherished and healing medicine and with the days i felt that the weight of (self imposed) burdens was getting lighter.
The drawings tell it all!
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