This year New Zealand's media has featured a string of news involving sex workers. The Chiefs scandal, the murder of Renee Duckmanton, the revelation that there is a dark underbelly of human trafficking within New Zealand's sex industry, to name a few. When you're working in the industry, you can't help feel the sting of persistent negative attitudes that society holds.
So a group of women who met in Wellington's strip clubs have organised an art exhibition aimed at showing the world they're more than just stereotypes. Born in a strip club dressing room, the idea for the show came about after Eden Brosnan realised how many women in the industry were stripping to support their art.
"I started noticing how many strippers were artists on my first night in the industry," says Eden, one of the show's curators. "Another dancer was paid a few beers by the management to draw up a sign to advertise a new drink. She drew a badass pin-up lady with tattoos in a martini glass and I thought it was just so great. The more I worked in Wellington strip clubs the more I noticed how many girls were involved heavily in arts—poetry, theatre, ballet, tattooing, comedy, philosophy."
Eden met Anya Rzhevitskaya and the dancers started encouraging each other to create more art, often collaborating on pieces in the club's dressing room on slow nights at work. "Eventually other girls jumped on board and everything just fell into place. The more we talked about it, the more girls wanted to participate.
Nine women are exhibiting work, ranging from paintings, drawings, and sculpture, to handmade clothing and jewellery, to a garden grown out of seven-inch stripper heels. VICE spoke with six of the artists about their lives, and what inspired them to get involved in the show.
Amy started her own company, Aeon Dressmaking, a few years ago in Wellington, but turned to drawing and painting in reaction to the cancer diagnosis she received earlier this year. "Since starting chemo I've sketched, painted, organised photo shoots, sewed costumes and lingerie, and done all sorts of random decor and craft projects. Just whatever inspired me to drag myself out of bed."
As well as original pencil sketches and clothing, Amy is taking nipple castings of the exhibition's guests, as part of a work in progress which will be auctioned at the end of the show. "I originally cast my own nipples prior to my bilateral mastectomy in August to preserve them. Everyone has been really enthusiastic about being involved."
Willow Rose has been working in the strip club industry for three years, starting when she was just 19. An artist and circus performer, she feels the sex industry has broadened her scope as an artist. "My work in the exhibition consists of a collaborative installation between myself and another woman I work with and is a collection of platform heels and pot plants," she says. "I love the idea of regeneration and growth within individuals."
Anya Rzhevitskaya is a space-loving nudist from Russia. The 26-year-old artist and comedian says she's been making art for as long as she can remember, drawing instead of playing with other kids, making her own reality. "I've always wanted to draw ugly and creepy things, trying to make people feel scared and uneasy when they look at my art, like drawing dreams or nightmares. But all anyone says is that they want to look at my work while on drugs. My work in this exhibition is a triptych of self portraits. They show the noisy, angry, ugly parts of me. The parts I don't like, or that I try to hide."
Eden created most of the art she exhibited when she was an art student by day, stripper by night—a combination she says kept life interesting, while supplying her with what she needed. "Most of my pieces in the show are about music and relationships. I wanted to show how I have a life outside of work, as there is a misunderstanding that stripping is all we do and all we live for."
LexiAnne May is exhibiting her work for the first time. Called The Transcend Series, her abstract paintings are an expression of her emotions and growth throughout the last year. She says she was inspired by her coworkers. "I draw my creativity from my life and experiences, but it's not so much the job itself that inspires it—it's the people, the girls. The strippers I know are some of the most talented, creative, strong, beautiful and genuine people I've ever met."
The goal of the show was to humanise women in a stigmatised industry and Amber says that's exactly what they've achieved. "The public has been overwhelmingly positive about the idea, and the artwork." She's got several pieces in the exhibition, including portraits of co-workers, a zine of still-life photographs centred around her stripper heels, oil paintings of native birds and surrealist creatures, and a clay sculpture of a stripper Mary Magdalene.
So far the only negative reaction has been an attack of "Women are Not Commodities" stickers plastered on the windows by a local anti-sex worker activist. "She didn't even come into the gallery," says Amber. "I think most people who might have a problem with us being out and proud simply aren't coming in to have a look around." Eden agrees. "It's nothing we can't handle," she says. "We can wear eight-inch heels on 10 hours long shifts and run a charity art show a few hours later. We can handle a few measly stickers."
'Exhibitionism: The Art of Stripping' is at Thistle Hall until Saturday, December 3. 15 percent of the sale of the artworks will go towards Wellington Rape Crisis.
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