Women of Color Examine Assimilation Through Body Painting
Ashleigh Alexandria paints her models to blend in and stand out in urban spaces.
All images courtesy of the artist.
At The Bushwick Collective block party early in June, Ashleigh Alexandria, who goes by The Virgin Artiste, body painted a model live against a brick wall covered with a graffiti painting of a skull, the work of eight-year-old street artist Ethan Armen. As Ashleigh was photographing her work on top of Armen's work, a cop walked by. "I found the imagery of a nude, Black model covered in paint close to a police officer to be ironic," Alexandria tells Creators, "due to the recent police killings of Black men and women."
Sometimes Alexandria's subjects are painted to blend into their backgrounds, but more often than not, her subjects stand out from their environment while still remaining a part of it. A lifelong New Yorker, Alexandria is a portrait artist and a body painter whose work plays with the practice of body paint blending made famous by artists like Liu Bolin, in which subjects are made to disappear into their surroundings. While Bolin is an important influence, Alexandria's practice is a reinterpretation of this concept. "My use of women of color as subjects shows how these women can be blended into the background of American society," she explains.
The partial assimilation that occurs in Alexandria's work is central to her desire to emphasize what she calls "mundane intimate moments." Her characters are simultaneously important individuals and inseparable from their environments. This double-sidedness is important throughout Alexandria's work. In a painting series called Positive | Negative, Alexandria paints portraits of famous figures, one half of their face in visible light, the other imagined as infrared colors. This emphasis on celebrities having two selves, a public and a private persona, is not so different from the way that Alexandria's body painted models relate to their surroundings.
But what remains important is the individual depicted in every image. If Bolin's camouflaged subjects make statements about conformity and a lack of individuality, Alexandria's work celebrates her models' uniqueness. Her non-blended pieces feel like celebrations of individuality, blackness, and womanhood. Alexandria's other works use paint as replacement for clothing — covering her models in painted crop tops and bikinis — as a celebration of fashion in art. "Every time I paint someone," Alexandria says, "they automatically are more comfortable in their skin."