I first learned of contemporary artist Zoe Buckman’s work two years ago when I read about her solo exhibition, Every Curve, at Papillon Gallery in Los Angeles. I was fascinated by her project, which incorporates hand-embroidered text onto women’s vintage lingerie. The words Buckman included are lyrics from hip hop songs that make reference to women, often with sexist overtones. She has explained that she grew up in East London listening to rappers like Biggie and Tupac, and that their lyrics had an impact on her consciousness. Her body of work reconciles her love of hip hop with her feminist beliefs.
Buckman selected garments from the beginning of the 1900s through the 1960s, which demonstrate changing ideals of the female body over the course of the 20th century. There is a sort of nostalgic pleasure in looking at the delicacy and feminine beauty of vintage lingerie. Juxtaposed with the toughness and machismo of hip hop, I saw Buckman’s work as an act of rebellion. I also appreciated the nod to the historically feminine craft of embroidery used to express song lyrics with masculinist, womanizing content. Generally, I found this project playful and lighthearted, a fun contrast between two disparate things I enjoyed personally.
Since 2016, there has been a rather alarming turn of events in the arena of American media. We have seen the election of a President who boasts of grabbing women ‘by the p****’, the confirmation of a Supreme Court judge accused of multiple sexual assaults, and the outpouring of women who have exposed prominent Hollywood figures of sexual misconduct igniting the #MeToo movement. All of this is rather appalling, but not new. This is the pattern of history, where dominance and privilege are rewarded with more power.
Over the past months, I have found myself often thinking about Buckman’s work. In the age of #MeToo, it has become painfully clear that women’s bodies remain a battleground, a site on which to reinforce patriarchal power through sexual violence. Reconsidering Every Curve again today, there is something eerie and disturbing about such intimate garments exposed in such a way. They recall a time when women had less choice, less freedom, and less of a voice. Strung from the ceiling together in a room, they take on a spectral quality, and among them we can hear the echoes of women struggling to be heard. These garments are intrinsically tied to female sexuality and femininity, and, when superimposed with the often domineering words of male musicians, become a symbol of the exercise of patriarchal power over the female body.
Previously, I appreciated the contextualizing of a male-dominant hip hop culture in terms of women’s dress, but now I understand them with a different kind of imperative, one that makes reference to violence and silenced narratives. Buckman’s work exposes the intimacies and intricacies of gendered power dynamics through dress, revealing and engaging with the nettles of difficult histories. Addressing violence currently and historically is an endeavor as difficult as it is necessary, and Buckman’s work makes legible a feminist struggle for liberation through the visual vocabulary of that which is most intimate and essential.