sex worker artists

(“Flurry” by Marilyn Minter, 1994)

This year’s London Frieze art festival included an exhibit called Sex Worka retrospective on the first wave of feminist art. “Your Art (Probably) Sux!” cried sex workers, upon realizing that the only one of us formally involved was an anonymous porn actress’ cropped pussy lips in a photo.

But to be fair, we hadn’t even seen much of the show. So how have we gotten to this cynical place, where giving an artist the benefit of the doubt seems like a losing bet? Because when it comes to conversations about sociosexual mores, the deck is stacked against us and the house always wins. Sex workers have long been used as muses, metaphors, and props, sensually strewn throughout the art world’s most famous boudoirs but rarely recognized as cultural producers in their own right. When it comes to the era of radical feminism at the heart of  Sex Work, a period of artistic fascination with (fetishization of?) prostitution, a time integral in the creation of a violent anti-prostitution feminist politic, the stakes seem life or death. Fool me once, you know?

For the record, I don’t think the art in Sex Work sux. Considering the recent death of Hugh Hefner, a misogynist whose myopic hetero vision of men, women, and sex shaped a generation, it is still somehow precious to see bodies represented through the eyes of anyone but straight cis men. Betty Tompkins’ black and white “Fuck Paintings” feel spectral, like catching a glimpse of her hazy vulvas through a steamy window. They were all too real, though, in 1973 when she had to order pornography from “the far east” to a secret mailbox in Canada, and then smuggle it across the American border.  Marilyn Minter’s color-saturated orifices aren’t nearly as shocking as the idea that only a few years before I was born she was told by a gallery that women artists don’t sell and to come back in ten years—or never.

The historical context of these works can’t be overlooked. They herald from a time that is eerily recent, when an exhibit featuring only women artists like this one would be so transgressive a curator might lose a career over it, and where the best an artist could hope for in terms of positive reviews was a patronizing remark about a work’s alterity—its “feminine qualities. “I like this art and yet I still struggle to release the distrust lingering from a many-decades-long betrayal committed by the epoch in question. Because after all, there is a historical context for sex worker outrage, too.

[NSFW image after the cut]

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(Photo by Ed Barnes, courtesy of Akynos)

(Photo by Ed Barnes, courtesy of Akynos)

Akynos is a multi-platform sex worker artist. Her many talents include photography, burlesque, and performance. She’ll be appearing this week in the San Francisco Bay Area Sex Worker Film and Art Festival from May 15th-24th, where she’ll perform in the Sex Worker Soliloquies series and teach classes in the Institute of Sexworkology, an all day workshop. More photos of Akynos in action after the jump.

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Juniper Fleming's "Venus of Urbino" in Reclamation and (Dis)Atonement. (Via Fleming's site)

Juniper Fleming’s “Venus of Urbino” in Reclamation and (Dis)Atonement (courtesy of the artist)

I interviewed sex worker artist Juniper Fleming on her collaborative photo series with other sex workers, Reclamation and (Dis)Atonement.

Your project consists of remaking iconic Western art works, creating photographic reproductions in which you replace the main figures in the paintings with sex workers. What does depicting sex workers in these roles achieve?

As sex workers we use the archetypes represented in these paintings every day in our performances, at work and in life. This history, and reality, of the feminine script is one that you cannot escape, but you can define your relationship to, through fantasy and inversion. As sex workers we are the inversion, at the same time as we are the embodiment, of the feminine.

How do you feel about the way sex workers are classically portrayed in the Western canon? I do recall some bright points, like all those gory paintings representing the triumph of heroic Biblical harlot Judith, when she beheads the general (and client) Holofernes for the Israelites.​ I was happy to see one of your photos is a riff on one of these paintings.​

Well, first what has to be re-established from history is that sex workers were often models and muses for artists. Caravaggio often employed sex workers as models in his paintings. His piece ”Death of the Virgin” was rejected by the commissioning parish because it depicted the well-known courtesan, Fillide Melandroni, as the Virgin Mary. And the modern (Western) canon has painters such as Manet, Degas, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Seurat divulging their fascination or at least proximity to sex work in their paintings. Many of them went directly to brothels to do some of their most famous work. Countless other times, however, our position as the model, muse, and/or subject has gone undocumented. These reimaginings are so important because they include us in celebrated and preserved artifacts, when so much of our history has been erased, deemed invaluable, throughout time.

Which model did you decide to use for each photo and why?

Actually, when a worker decides they want to collaborate with me on the project, they get to choose the painting. I have a growing index of paintings, throughout the span of art history, that represent the feminine in some way. Each person looks through that index, or comes with a painting I don’t have, and we go from there. Then we work together to design the props, with them collaborating as much or as little as they want.

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