2020 Bermuda Biennial

Interview: Emma Steele

Strength In Vulnerability

Emma Steele uses textiles to challenge preconceived notions of craft based practices, drawing from a place of strength to express a feminist directive. Her 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork, which explores sex from a woman’s point of view, roots the traditional medium firmly in a contemporary context.  

“Experiences leave impressions. The impressions are the aftermath.” explains Emma of Aftermath, which marks the second time that the artist has exhibited in the Bermuda Biennial. Her 2018 artwork Just One Word: Consent fused knit textiles with prose, drawing from personal experience to explore the trauma of sexual assault.  

We caught up with Emma, a former BNG student currently studying for an MFA in Textiles at the Royal College of Art in London, to discuss why textiles are both misunderstood and underestimated, how they have given her a platform from which she is able to make her voice heard and why the fourth wave of feminism has brought us to the cusp of change.

Top: Emma Steele at work in her studio in London.
Above: A moodboard serves as the starting point for a project.

BNG: Could you please talk us through Aftermath?

ES: Aftermath looks at the experience of sex. We are born pure and innocent but over time, experiences leave imprints on the body. The body adapts and manipulates its form.

Each person you have been with leaves an imprint. You adapt and change to that person. Over time experiences leave impressions. The impressions are the aftermath.

The knit represents the body. Each piece has a different print, created using my body, which is cut out of the polyester knit, leaving an abstract form within it.

Broken. Reformed. Marks disappear but the experiences stays with-one forever. Forgotten. Lost. Undefined.

I like the similarity between the representation of knit and the representation of a woman. There is a raw openness in the way that the knit falls when it is cut. It creates its own new form.

Experience. Expectation. Colliding into one defined piece. The aftermath remains.

BNG: How do you tell a story through textiles?

ES: Photography captures one part of the story. It is then placed within the structured form of a textile through dye sublimation – a print technique that allows me to print photography onto my knit structures – which further opens up the story.

The knit, with its tactile nature, represents a woman; her naked form. The photography adds layers of imagery to the piece. These are printed on both sides of the knit so that the viewer is able to walk around and examine it from both sides, a metaphor for the woman being displayed in her most vulnerable state.

To touch something. To desire. To want. To crave.

Aftermath by Emma Steele, on display in the 2020 Bermuda Biennial.

BNG: Aftermath explores sex from a woman’s point of view.  Why was it important to you to tell this story?

ES: Sex has been stripped down and twisted back and manipulated into a social form, creating conflict within the topic. We are constructed and deconstructed.

Sex. Reclaiming. Judgement. Imprint. To be wanted. To be desired. To be loved. To be touched.

How do we cope with the reality of sex?

The experience of sex. Defining and remembering the experience. Reclaiming sexuality. Defining sexuality.

I wanted to re-introduce the narrative. To reclaim it for women so that we don’t live in fear of judgement. For me, this meant reclaiming something that I had lost.

I was sexually assaulted when I was eighteen. After my trauma I did not know how I felt. I had no emotions. I did not want to be touched. I did not know if I could be loved again. I did not know if I could feel beautiful and comfortable in my own body.

To be seen naked is to allow someone to see you fully vulnerable. You are at your most vulnerable state when you are naked. You are allowing someone to become a part of you.

I wanted to open the topic up, look at the emotional aspect of sex and the experiences of it.

The simple motion of a touch. To see. To react. To notice.

Detail from 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork Aftermath by Emma Steele, 2020.
Knit textiles. 35 x 19 x 3 in.

BNG: Both your 2018 and 2020 Bermuda Biennial artworks use knitting a traditionally feminine and passive pastime to tell stories of female empowerment. How do the medium and the message interplay in your work?

ES: I did a BA in Textiles at the London College of Fashion before going on to the RCA, where we were taught the history of design and fashion. I became fascinated by the historical portrayal of women though the lens of fashion, particularly the portrayal of feminism through photography.

Throughout history, different stages of feminism have continued to evolve. This is the same for textiles, especially knit. In the second year of my BA, I began to interlink storytelling with the use of knitting. Textiles became a platform for my voice to be heard.

I use knit as a portrayal of femininity. Textiles are misunderstood and underestimated. Historically, women have been portrayed in a certain way, as has knitting, and I am trying to bring the two together to explore them both and to showcase it as more than just a craft or a simple pastime.

BNG: Your work is an expression of female strength in the face of male aggression. In what ways has this impacted your artistic practice?

ES: I was assaulted when I was eighteen, at the beginning of my artistic career. Over the past four years I have explored the topic by creating two individual pieces of work: Just One Word: Consent, which was exhibited in the 2018 Bermuda Biennial and a dissertation entitled Am I asking for sympathy? Do I need to be looked at differently? Will you listen to my story?

These two separate pieces of work allowed me to explore and understand two separate sexual assault cases that occurred to me. It was a way for me to allow myself to heal through an artistic platform and identify my feelings around the subject.

Being assaulted has impacted my life but it has also allowed me to re-think and re-design as an artist. There is a long healing process to being raped and there is not always help available when needed. These projects allowed me to open up the conversation and explore a new form of creating.

I use my traumas and how I am feeling as concepts for a project. It helps me to explore things and it is a way of self-healing though my creative practice. I allow my feelings and the events that have occurred to me to define and lead me within my practice.

Detail from 2018 Bermuda Biennial artwork Just One Word: Consent by Emma Steele, 2017. Knit textiles. 14 x 12 (x12).

BNG: The conversation surrounding sexual assault has been amplified in recent years with the growth of #MeToo. How has the movement affected people’s perspectives on consent and sexual intimidation?

ES: The Me Too movement was first started in 2006 but did not gather strength until 2017. I am sure we all remember this hashtag appearing on our screens with friends posting #MeToo. I posted my #MeToo post in 2017. I was hesitant at first. I wondered how I would feel typing those five letters on my keyboard. When I posted it, it verified that I had begun to accept what occurred to me. I had announced to the world that this had happened.

The Me Too movement has opened a new form of feminism. We are now in a new era and the internet rules the fourth wave of feminism. It has allowed women to take their voice back and it has given them a platform from which they can use their voices. We are at the starting point of change.

BNG: In the past year alone we have seen the conviction of both Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein for serial sexual assault. In what ways have these high profile cases helped to shift the conversation?

ES: These cases have opened people’s eyes up to the sheer volume of victims out there that have been silenced for years and are only now feeling comfortable enough to speak up. The Me Too movement has helped bring the fourth wave of feminism to life. Feminist power is growing and it is allowing the victim’s voice to be brought back to her.

Let’s begin to open up the conversation about rape. Let’s let the survivor know they are not alone: “I know it’s hard, but if we don’t figure out how to have tough conversations, we will sacrifice another generation of victims” (Anderson, 2019, Time, 15 January).

This is to help further educate people into a better understanding of what consent is and how important it is to give it. It is about helping the victim to become more empowered in herself and to allow her to begin to heal.

Education is the key to success. Educate people about what they are unaware of. The conversation needs to keep moving forward.

Just One Word: Consent by Emma Steele on display in the 2018 Bermuda Biennial.

BNG: Do you have any advice for women who have suffered a trauma similar to your own?

ES: I am sorry to anyone who has suffered from a similar trauma. I would like to say that what occurred to you is awful. Remember that you are a strong person and that you will overcome this trauma. It will not define your life forever. It may feel that way at the moment but I am a survivor and you are a survivor too.

My advice to anyone who has had to deal with a similar trauma is to understand that it was not your fault. You are not to blame. No matter what you were wearing or what you were doing, it was not your fault. That is something that I have struggled to come to terms with over the years.

I am three years surviving my trauma and every day is a new beginning. Some days I feel pain and anger and other days I smile and giggle like nothing has ever occurred to me. Let the pain come in and then remember that you won and that you are a survivor. Use that anger and pain to let you feel like a woman again – the powerful woman that you are.

To deal with such a traumatic event will change you. There is no way around that. It is how you deal with that event that will shape your future. Remember that you are a survivor and that you will overcome any aftermath that occurs to you.

Follow Emma at @emmasteeletextiles and @foxyladydesigns

If you are dealing with the trauma of sexual assault and would like to speak to someone the hotline for Centre Against Abuse is available 24 hours a day and can be reached on 297 8278.


The Spoken Word

Tiffany Paynter

Tiffany Paynter describes herself, in the words of feminist writer and Civil Rights activist Audre Lorde, as ‘a black lesbian woman poet warrior.’ The artist, who teaches poetry and creative writing, exhibited God Gap in the 2018 Bermuda Biennial What We Share.

The spoken word poem, which Tiffany performed at the BNG every week throughout the duration of the exhibition, was a response to the repeal of the gay marriage act that took place in Bermuda the previous year.

In the poem Tiffany uses the emotions that it conjured to examine “the Why where science ends and God begins.” She describes it as a medium through which she was able “to weld my joy to my pain and my love to my anger in such a way that made clear that I am a whole and hallowed human.”

In the same year, Tiffany presented the BBC documentary Bermuda’s Change Of Heart for the BBC World Service which investigates the dichotomies between our Christian and LGBTQ+ communities that led to Bermuda becoming the first country to repeal gay marriage.

Ahead of what should have been the second Bermuda Pride parade this weekend (cancelled to help prevent the spread of Covid-19), we caught up with Tiffany to discuss her experience as a gay woman in Bermuda, how the writing of Audre Lorde shaped her and how “when you sprinkle in craft with insight something powerful emerges.”

BNG: In your artist statement for the 2018 Bermuda Biennial you say that God Gap was inspired by Audre Lorde and the “comfort and discomfort experienced in her poems”. When did you discover her work and how has she impacted your own?

TP: When Lorde asked, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own…” I felt like she was speaking directly to me. Her voice felt like it was mine; sounding out itself from the inside out. It was almost like a new me was being spoken into existence.

I was 18 or 19 when I discovered Audre Lorde in my first year of university at Queen’s. I had planned to become a lawyer and took a Women’s Studies (now Gender Studies) class and one of the assigned readings was Lorde’s Sister Outsider. After I read her essays, something inside me began to shift.

She was fearless, poetic and introspective. Lorde weaved together the spiritual, political and personal in a way that made her truth irresistible. I started to scrutinise my ideas of what life is, was and should be…to hold myself up against the light and delve deeply into what was truly me as opposed to the idea of me I had created to survive. It is because of Lorde that when I write, I strive for that same fearlessness in unveiling my inner and outer worlds.

Audre Lorde photographed by Robert Alexander for Getty Images .

BNG: You performed God Gap at the Bermuda National Gallery every week during the 2018 Bermuda Biennial. What was that experience like?

TP: Despite having the poem memorized, I was nervous every time. Sometimes when I’d get to the gallery there would be people waiting to hear me perform. At other points, I’d just start and unsuspecting people in the gallery would be startled and gather around or stop where they stood and give their attention.

It was always better when people would engage after. The best moment by far was on June 6th. I remember that date because my partner was waiting on the City Hall steps to give me the news that our Surpreme Court had struck down the ruling banning same-sex marriages. It’s hard to explain but that day the words felt more alive to me and I performed that day with so much joy in my heart.

Click the image above to listen to God Gap by Tiffany Paynter.

BNG: You have described spoken word poetry as an invitation to listen and once said that ideas alone will not change the world, we have to feel our way free. Why is spoken word poetry so powerful?

TP: I don’t think all spoken word poetry is powerful. But great poetry is powerful. I think all great poetry comes from a place or space of seeing or insight. When you sprinkle in craft and mnemonic devices with insight, something powerful emerges. Power isn’t always a tidal wave. Sometimes power is subtle, like the pull of the moon at high tide. Poetry is powerful when it reaches into us and bridges that feeling of disconnection or separateness.

Nothing really reaches as deeply as sound. Spoken word poetry is imbued with this extra potency because sound is potent. That’s why so many creation stories start with it! Whether you believe that Aum was the primordial sound, or a ‘Big Bang’ created the world, or that God said “Let there be light”, there is something to be said about the power of word sounded out.

BNG: In your 2011 TED x Bermuda talk Dare To Dream you perform Daddy, an impactful piece which describes the breakdown in your relationship with your father when you came out. What has your experience been as a gay woman in Bermuda?

TP: My experience at first was very difficult because my parents kicked me out of the house. At 19 I was and felt homeless for a short period of time, before a gay couple took me in. I didn’t actually come out to my parents, my older sister outed me. I felt betrayed both by her and my parents for many years. It was rough at first, not because of how society at large viewed me or treated me, but because of my own family’s limiting beliefs and homophobia. Overtime, after several arguments and difficult conversations, stronger bridges were rebuilt over all those burnt bridges and I feel closer to my family now than I ever have.

BNG: Your 2018 BBC documentary Bermuda’s Change Of Heart looks at the strains between the Christian and LGBTQ+ communities in Bermuda that led to the repeal of the gay marriage act in 2017. Although this has since been overturned, the government plans to take it to the Privy Council. How can we overcome these differences?

TP: Let’s first define this ‘we’ as humans. It seems like as long as ‘we’ humans have lived on this planet we have created and invested in both subtle and devastating ways of making some human lives more valuable than others. Throughout every century, since before we began counting centuries, we humans have found creative justifications to oppress others.

Most often the oppressed become oppressors and while we feel the heel of oppression on our own neck we fail to ask ourselves, “Whose neck am I standing on?”. It’s a special kind of insanity that we pass from generation to generation, just like we pass down glaucoma. This inability to see. To see our contribution to the same problems we claim we wish would change. We agree to divide ourselves. Muslim – Hindu. Bermudian – Non-Bermudian. Straight – Gay. Black – White. Man – Woman. Rich – Poor.

This need to divide, define and place value on, is so deeply entrenched in human culture that we destroy our planet and ourselves. This is what we’ve done, what we’re doing and what we’ll continue to do for as long as we avoid or postpone profound, continuous and enduring self-reflection.

The Bermuda Pride parade captured by @flyinghighmedia via @bermudapride.

BNG: Last year saw Bermuda’s first Pride Parade, 50 years after the Stonewall uprising first sparked the gay rights movement. What was your experience of it?

TP: It was one of the happiest moments in my life because my younger brother and my niece walked with me. Don’t get me wrong the colours, music and energy made it an amazing event. About 5,000 more people showed up than I thought would be there! But if I had walked with 6,000 strangers without a single family member, it would not have meant as much to me. I love my family and I’ve always believed that part of showing love is showing up and my brother showed up. He was a long way out of his comfort zone and that is love. Love needs more parades.

BNG: 6,000 people turned up for the inaugural Pride parade, which equated to 1 in 10 people in Bermuda. What impact has it had on gay rights and the acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in Bermuda?

TP: I imagine that leading up to the parade, a lot of families were having difficult conversations around the dinner table and I think lasting acceptance and healing begins in conversation. For instance, leading up to the parade, I witnessed my friend and her mother have a difficult discussion about the other’s version of events surrounding her coming out. And although there were still painful memories and disagreement I felt a shift in her mom. On the day of the parade her mother, father, and brother were there in matching outfits. Her dad even donned a rainbow cape! The impact of that is beautiful and rare.

BNG: What are you working on currently?

TP: At the moment I’m working on my website and I’m trying to memorise a new poem called Ode to Kairos Lover of Dinosaurs. It’s a poem about my godchild and how she sees the world versus how the world will see her. Stay tuned for both of them.