Gisela Torres is a London based artist and arts educator who is drawn to issues of under-represented histories, body politics and mourning. In her practice, she weaves together multi-layered narratives of personal and historical relevance to explore place, identity, and loss.
Over the past few months, Autograph’s Curator, Bindi Vora, has been mentoring Torres as part of a-n Artists Bursaries 2021: Time Space Money programme. Here, the two discuss Torres’ most recent body of work Looking for Edmonia (Self-Portrait), in which Torres adopts an uncanny dialogue with her muse, the 19th century artist Mary Edmonia Lewis, a neo-classical sculptress of African and Native American heritage. In this rich work, Torres moves between photography, film, ready-mades, and sculpture as she re-conceptualizes myth and ritual in an autobiographical context.
We’re sharing the conversation now to coincide with our exhibition YOU NAME IT by Sasha Huber whose artistic series, The Firsts, also features and honours Mary Edmonia Lewis – Huber’s practice more broadly explores how colonial histories are imprinted into the landscape through naming and acts of remembrance.
Bindi Vora (BV): Firstly, congratulations on being selected as the winner of the Peckham24 open call earlier this year. We’ve been in close dialogue about Looking for Edmonia (Self-portrait) as you developed the installation and display for exhibition. Can you tell us about the work you have been developing over the past few years?
Gisela Torres (GT): Thank you Bindi! Looking for Edmonia (Self-Portrait) proposes a spiritualistic encounter with Mary Edmonia Lewis, an American 19th Century neoclassicist sculptress and the first woman of African and Native American heritage to achieve international fame and recognition in the fine arts world. I began developing the work during my MA studies at University of Westminster back in 2018. As an American female artist of Afro-Cuban heritage myself, there were clear parallels that existed between our stories. When I first came to this country in 1999, I lived in Kensal Rise, often visiting the Harrow Road cemetery nearby. The catalyst for the project was the shock of reading about the discovery of Lewis's unmarked grave in the cemetery. It propelled a sort of psychic connection and a strong desire to channel her presence and find out more about her success and eventual fate.
In my research, I discovered that Lewis was savvy in promoting her work. She would often make sculptures without a commission; in the hope someone would acquire the piece. Her fearlessness is a quality I greatly admire in an artist. But the questions that I kept going back to was: how did she exist? As a young free single woman of colour, how did she manage to become a successful sculptor in the 19th century? How did she travel with her artwork back and forth from Europe to America by sea to promote and sell her work? What did she endure during this time?
BV: Her story sounds incredible – an individual who showed so much strength and resilience despite the hardship she must have faced continually. Your background is originally in filmmaking, but through your installation at Copeland Gallery we really began to see myriad layers, ideas and textures come together in your work. Can you speak a little more about the processes you have developed and explain why they were important in response to your research?
GT: It is incredibly important to me that my practice continues to evolve by exploring and experimenting with new ways of image making. During my postgraduate studies, I discovered and engaged with multiple artistic disciplines as I developed the project. They included plaster casting, silicone mould making, intaglio printing with photopolymer plates using a printing press, 3D scanning, design, mapping, printing as well as sculptural assemblage and printing on marble. Like chapters in a book, they each played a role in building a narrative of time and space via materiality within the installation format. The outcomes of these experiments were a series of chapters which collectively form Looking for Edmonia (Self-Portrait): the photopolymer print series Conjure; the projection mapping film on 3D prints with sound, Reverie and Slumber; the sculptural assemblages made with white Italian marble fragments and photo acetates in the series Subsume; a self-portrait white Italian marble fragment print, I Dreamt of You Last Night; a self-portrait cast in plaster.
BV: You can really see the boundaries being pushed and pulled with each chapter you have made. What draws you to expanded photographic mediums?
GT: I am interested in possibilities, in playing with and creating new layered narratives; fusing and disrupting traditional and emerging media to extend the boundaries of physical and digital spaces. Looking for Edmonia (Self-Portrait) is a way to build on these ideas and further the narrative through varied materiality, traditional and newly discovered [processes that I have come to learn]. This mirrors the storyline connecting a life from the past to my own in the present.
BV: We’ve known one another in your capacity as a wonderful artist educator for many years, but it was only in 2020 that I was introduced to your art practice during a portfolio review at the end of your MA at Westminster University. Your work was included in my write up 10 Artists Whose Practice We Discovered in Portfolio Reviews in 2020. As I have come to learn, storytelling is at the heart of your practice, and you often navigate deeply personal but also more broadly historical archives. Why are you drawn to these methodologies of visual storytelling?
GT: I am drawn to these methodologies of visual storytelling because I am interested in bridging past events, the life force of which time has eroded, with the reality of my internal emotional travel. These ways of working are a form of ritual which allow for ideas to flow while investigating concepts that inform and eventually develop the language for the story to unfold.
BV: It goes back to the idea of how you use the archive. For me, I am so drawn to ephemera and vernacular materials, because as we move through different life experiences our association with these materials and the way we see and understand them changes. As I look at your work, this same feeling resonates too; I am intrigued to see how you let the material you are working with guide you through the making process, as you unpack and unpick the various facets of not just Lewis’ life but your own cultural affinities. With the sculptural element, why was it important to create this self-portrait as a three-dimensional cast?
GT: I wanted to find a way to transfer an idea into a material form that was tactile and had life-like qualities, and a self-portrait as a 3D cast felt like the obvious place to start. The experience of engaging with Lewis’ own choice of medium (sculpture) became a claustrophobic experience. As the layers of plaster increased and the sound of my own breathing became faint, the sensorial experience of being buried alive was a reminder of my own mortality. The three-dimensional cast became the ‘Mother’ which led to the 3D mapping film Reverie and Slumber, the sculptural assemblages Subsume Illuminations, Subsume Metamorphosis and the marble print I Dreamt of You Last Night.
The idea of using self-portraiture was to embody Lewis’ spirit via my own and convey the strong sense of connection I feel with her, building parallels between the transformative, strong, and sometimes fragile characteristics of marble with the transience of the artist’s life, questioning Lewis’s eventual fate and what will become of mine.
BV: That is really fascinating and must have been a deeply moving experience. Alongside self-portraiture, performance - or performing in the landscape - is an important part of this work, as captured in your series of Polaroids. Were all the Polaroids made in Italy?
GT: Yes. Shooting on Italian terrain was important because of the connection that both Edmonia and I have to it. Italy was the breeding ground for my artistic development as a visual artist. It started when I applied to film school which involved writing an essay on the Italian filmmaker Fellini. I soon became immersed and inspired as I discovered his theatrical dream-like aesthetic, steeped in autobiographical context. I travelled to Italy to study language and arts as part of a college student program in Florence and I eventually settled there for three and half years. The experience profoundly affected the aesthetics of my practice both culturally and artistically and continues to do so to this day.
For many years I had held on to two boxes of Type 55 Polaroids, each containing 20 sheets with an expiry date of 2010. I had long been hoping to find the perfect project in which to use them and was very nervous about peeling them apart and the images evaporating due to air exposure. I thought of a scene in Fellini's film Roma, where a building demolition is hampered by the discovery of frescoes. As the construction workers gaze and marvel the outside air quickly erases all trace of their history. I had forty chances to create a narrative; I took the shots with a 5x4 Linhof camera on a tripod, adding to the playful and serendipitous nature I was eager to utilise in the work. The solitary Italian landscapes became the stage of past and present, where play and ritual induce a spiritual state and create a form of transcendence. The resulting imagery was of random ghostly shapes, ethereal sculptural forms, imperfections, and new compositions from the residue of aged photographic chemicals. The polaroid negatives were later used to make the photopolymer prints and some of the marble prints for the series Conjure. Footage seen in Reverie and Slumber of Via Canova (where Lewis lived and had her studio) and the Borghese Gardens and Gallery were also filmed in Rome, where I re-imagined Lewis’ steps, walking on ancient cobblestone streets and gazing at the art that inspired her work.
BV: So, in a way some of these journeys and the echoing of past presences of where Lewis lived and worked touches upon the notion of spiritualism.
GT: I am not religious but have always felt drawn to some form of spiritualism. I grew up in a home where there was always a small shrine with a Madonna and Saints. I delved into the history of the 19th and early 20th century spirit community during my research and discovered how its prominence spiked during times of extreme loss of loved ones due to pandemics and war and sparked the trend of spirit photography, where the photographer becomes a medium via the illusory magic of photography, and a godsend for many families in need of communicating with their deceased loved ones. The ‘artist as medium’ in turn became a theme I began to explore as I developed Looking for Edmonia (Self-Portrait), thinking of the possibilities of manifesting the transference of the psyche in material form.
BV: You’ve previously mentioned the idea of your subconscious especially in the film work Reverie and Slumber – considering the oscillating states between dream and sleep - why was this important to evoke this sentiment?
GT: To blur realities and the movement of time and space. As I continued to develop the work, I decided that my voice was an integral element to the storytelling, to fuse emotion with the dream states. In appropriating Peggy Lee’s Is This All There Is? I wanted to make a connection with the song’s title as it relates to the role of the artist in society and what becomes of us once the pomp and circumstance is no more. Lewis died quite young, she was in her late fifties, putting her death at the turn of the century, around 1907. In the latter years of her life, she disappeared from public records suddenly which evokes a sadness that comes out every now and then when I think of her. I find it incredibly melancholic.
BV: Absolutely, you can see the melancholy running through the work, it's very resonant. What are you hoping people take away with them from the work?
GT: An engaging and immersive experience as a self-portrait study where the storytelling - via its multifaceted materiality - conveys emotion and evokes a sense of the otherworldly in a spiritual context.
BV: How do you envisage these histories continuing to evolve in your practice? Where do you see the work going next?
GT: In the 19th century, British sculptress Charlotte Cholmley made a white marble bust of Lewis which has never been found. The London Arts Journal, Rome Studio Visits of 1870 described the bust, stating: “one side of the head is woolly, her father having been a negro, the other is of soft and flaccid character, which distinguishes the Indian race from which her mother sprang.”
Being deprived of the possibility of actual examination of the bust, the mystery of its loss and its depiction spur my imagination and I am currently researching possible contemporary responses using emerging media to reimagine Lewis’ bust. I also continue to work on a photo book about the spectral and the imagination while in search of Edmonia in Rome.
BV: Thank you Gisela.
This talk was originally hosted by Peckham24 in May 2022 under the title ART MUSE-INGS: PHOTOGRAPHY AND SPIRITUALISM as part of their curated exhibition Fact Fiction Fantasy which has been expanded and edited for Autograph's website.
Torres received her BFA in Film and Video with honours at The School of Visual Arts, New York City and has an MA with distinction in Photographic Arts from the University of Westminster. In 2022 her works were shown in a solo presentation at October Gallery, London; awarded joint winner of the Peckham24 open call exhibiting at Copeland Gallery, London and included in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Visit Torres’ website here.
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