Shona McAndrew – Artist
It was one of the softest, most touching moments I’ve ever experienced with my sculptures. The moment took place on one of the last days of the 2017 Spring/Break art fair in New York City. Three young children between the ages of 4-10 entered my booth and began examining my sculpture, Charlotte. Charlotte is possibly the largest woman I have ever sculpted, and secretly one of my favorites. She proudly stands over 6ft tall, one leg up on a stool, naked except for two towels, one draped around her waist and one holding her hair up. The sculpture's large and heavy breasts are set free to be seen and, in this case, touched. These children neither shy nor scared by Charlotte’s unabashed nakedness, walked and waddled up to her hands first. Two of the children delicately touched her breasts, the third, possibly too small to reach, watched as her siblings closely inspected. I quickly took out my iPhone, snapped a photograph and shared it on my Instagram. I captioned the image “I think I’ve won. Charlotte and I are beyond satisfied, #sculpture #lifesize #effyourbeautystandards.”
That moment perfectly captured something I want from my work. To create an experience, a desire to step in close to these women's bodies and discover their unique folds, freckles and moles. To see past the immediate associations one might have with a certain type of body, action or attitude. And these kids did exactly that. They saw Charlotte for Charlotte, a representation of a confident woman, meant to be discovered and appreciated.
Unfortunately, Instagram did not agree. The next day I woke up to a notification that my account had been taken down. This photograph of people interacting with my sculpture, which I had shared with nothing but pride and tears in my eyes, was seen as something so controversial that my entire account, not just the ‘offending' post, needed to be removed from Instagram’s entire platform. I was still in the highs from Spring/Break, an art fair that accepted my work with open arms. I had stood in my booth for close to a week, exchanging personal and powerful conversations with visitor after visitor, none of whom saw my work as something to be censored. Yet someone, or some algorithm, felt my picture of three children touching a sculpture had crossed some invisible digital line. It took weeks of messaging, from me and my wonderful friends and supporters for my account to be reinstated.
I have experienced a lot more of this kind of censorship since that original post, both on Facebook and Instagram. Picture after picture being taken down, stories being reported, hashtags not working, and, most recently, Facebook blocking me from posting for a 24-hour period as well as threatening to delete all my pictures and entire account. I want to say I’m better at dealing with it now, given a whole year to mature and grow, but I would be lying. I feel just as hurt, and disappointed, and fired up with each censored post. It makes me want to upload nothing but closeups of my sculpture’s painted nipples, intimate portraits of the recent papier-mâché penis I sculpted, and videos slowly panning over their yarn pubic hair.
I see this happening a lot with female, queer and ‘othered’ artists. From my limited research and experience, it feels like the recent Instagram update has caused the algorithm that monitors the community guidelines to freak out whenever it finds anything that resembles a female nipple or an offensively exposed body (which varies wildly depending upon society’s relationship with the body). I feel like a lot of artists, who use ‘othered’ bodies in similar ways are stuck in this loophole, where our potentially ‘offensive' posts become the sacrificial offerings to help the average social media user enjoy their casual everyday experience. In hopes of making Instagram and Facebook a “safer” place for the average user, these platforms and their algorithms automatically report and block artwork and images of artwork that fall completely within the boundaries of their own community guidelines. The rules and regulations of both those platforms state that nudity in art is acceptable, yet many of us who understand and respect these limitations, see our voices censored. Voices, which these platforms originally gave a space to speak, are being suppressed. In most cases, these voices don't always have any other means of being heard.
This is true for many of us, but not all. There are many pages and people posting images that get mighty mighty close to crossing the line, but do not see their work nearly as restricted. Bodies that do not “offend” but arouse, posts that don’t confront viewers who may want to see your voice muted, but instead draw viewers who desperately clamor to see more not less. Just check out Sport's Illustrated Swimsuit Edition's Instagram page ( @si_swimsuit), and scroll back a couple weeks to find a video with almost 500,000 views posted on February 23rd of a very fit woman seductively rising from a pool. Water splashes in slow motion as she emerges wearing nothing but a bikini bottom and a very wet, very transparent white T-shirt with the words “do my nipples offend you?” written just next to her…well... nipples.
That same week, three of my posts of paper mâché sculptures were taken down from social media. Two of the pictures were even of a work in progress, my sculptures unpainted bald paper scalp clearly visible. A big part of me feels deeply empowered. This is why I spend hundreds of hours making my vulnerable and naked sculptures. I make them precisely because I know that people don’t want to look at a plus-size body like mine in a moment of self-love and self-care. Belly rolls hang out as passive and content gazes linger on my sculpture’s faces as they ignore the world and all of its judging eyes. Then there’s the other part. The part that makes me want to cry, point fingers, and say “See what they are doing to me!! It’s so unfair!! Why does this have to happen all the time!”. I feel knocked down and silenced. And then I get mad. Real mad. Mad for all the other people who are pushed down and erased, who don’t have the privilege of an audience. Mad for me, for all I have done to be able to share my work, ideas and intimate moments. So I post again. And again. And again. And again. In the hopes that this time will be different.