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POLITICAL, PERSONAL, BEAUTIFUL: Nudity delves into empowerment in Cucalorus performance piece, ‘Naked Ladies’

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“Naked Ladies” combines performance art (with a naked lady) and cinematography for a theatrical experience.

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Cucalorus expands annually to become more than just a five-day party of hazy cinema-infused fun. The 21-year-old independent film festival has emerged as an all-inclusive arts event over the years. It will continue to evolve in 2015, too, as it introduces performance art installations that combine cinematography and live storytelling.

BOOBIES ... ER, BARBIES: Thea Fitz-James bares all for performance art piece, “Naked Ladies,” debuting in the U.S. as part of Cucalorus 21. Courtesy photo.

BOOBIES … ER, BARBIES: Thea Fitz-James bares all for performance art piece, “Naked Ladies,” debuting in the U.S. as part of Cucalorus 21. Courtesy photo.

Thea Fitz-James’ “Naked Ladies” delves into the issue of body imagery in a provocative nude performance that rears its head with a political edge not easily forgotten. During her masters studies in performance arts, Fitz-James read “The Explicit Body in Performance” by Rebecca Schneider. The book explores how women use nudity in performance as both an object and an agent. Thinking back to female artists like Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneeman and Karen Finley, Fitz-James began constructing a naked art piece over six months as a response to her own life.

“I loved it, and that surprised me—especially since I’m not 100 percent comfortable in a bathing suit as it is,” Fitz-James says of baring all. Presumptions arose from the prospect of doing an all-naked performance show. Some considered it indicative of Fitz-James being sexually promiscuous.

“It got me curious about why I was doing this, and what the fuck was going on with our complete obsession with naked bodies, with this simultaneous sexist double-standard—the classic people love cleavage, but if someone breast feeds in public, it’s a shame! Like, what?” she surprisingly, rhetorically asks.

And so “Naked Ladies” began as a response to numerous questions.

When Fitz-James queued her own mother about the art piece, and asked, “Why do women take their clothes off?’, her mom said without a hitch: “to forget about their fathers.” It was the perfect response to start her show.

“‘Naked Ladies’ is a contemporary exploration about my personal history of being naked—as a kid and young adult—mixed with an historical survey and exploration,” Fitz-James clarifies.

While barebones nudity is imperative to the message—embracing vulnerability and taking back stigmatic notions of a woman’s body—Fitz-James does have some coverage in a few scenes. She performs in her underwear, with a sheet loosely draped over her, or while wearing just a dress shirt.

“The real vulnerable moments have nothing to do with nudity,” she explains, “but rather a different kind of exposure. But the show is interested in the assumptions that this can lead to. Assumptions of empowerment are kinda dangerous—like, I want this to be art and for it to be feminist and empowering, but are they? We have to be really careful, right? Just because I get naked and call it ‘art’ doesn’t make it so. The show is interested in this.”

In a day and age when social norms still focus on women’s bodies in a magnitude of ways—I am looking at you, weird Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. commercials—the subject is an obsessive one. From Ancient Greek art, to sexual revolutions, to the advent of porn, to women in pop culture, feminist concerns around nudity have been of massive fascination for centuries.

“The same visual devices used in traditional oil painted venues are echoes in contemporary porn,” Fitz-James draws in comparison. “I find that really interesting. Equally, I love the idea of using the body as a stage: Can I ever escape my own objectification? Probably not, but I can control it—or I can try. . . . When I reperform classic nudes, it’s art. When I bend over in a thong, it’s porn. What’s the difference? Context.”

Fitz-James has approached “Naked Ladies” academically. When the notion of bravery is brought up, it’s a non-issue. In fact, she doesn’t find the approach of performing nude courageous at all.

“It’s actually the easiest thing in the world, and in the context of the show, I wear my nudity like a costume,” she says. “It’s more meditative. It makes me a little nervous, but I think calling it brave is too much.”

Yet, she embraces the liberty it provides tenfold. Empowerment comes from the study of dissecting naked ladies throughout society as a paradox, essentially. To Fitz-James it’s a parallel experience to how women in the world are portrayed overall: to be an object and an agent of a gaze. For Fitz-James it’s about rising above it—taking back control of her own image, her body, her nudity, to be objectified.

“I think me going to a vulnerable place allows people to do the same,” she says. “It says: ‘Cool, so people are obsessed with bodies. With my body. Let’s unpack that! Let’s do it by looking at my body, and using my body as a metaphorical stage.’”

The show gets told with imagery peppered in the background. For instance, Yoko Ono and Karen Finley works make an appearance. Though more a slide show, Fitz-James is working with a projection designer to up the ante.

“For now, by replaying historical body art, and reperforming it simultaneously, the body and the video image come together in an interesting way,” she says. “It’s never as tedious as an academic lecture (hopefully). But the central question—why women take off their clothes in performance—never quite gets answered, as questions just uncover more questions.”

In her words, it’s like a TED Talk that falls apart. The show starts as an onstage essay before consuming itself to uncover more research. It’s like show and tell that began as a half-hour bit in December of 2013, but by June 2015 grew into a workshop before moving onto the Edmonton Fringe Festival in August.

“This will be the U.S. premiere,” Fitz-James says of its Cucalorus debut. “But I’m hoping to do a fringe tour next summer.”

With the success of “Naked Ladies”—five-star responses from The Edmonton Journal and Global TV—the fit for kooky Cucalorus is dead-on. “It’s experimental in the way that Cucalorus seems engaged with,” Fitz-James says. “There is a similar political engagement, too.”

However, knowing when to pull back the artist’s hand seems most challenging for Fitz-James. With constant news-making headlines focusing on women always—i.e., free the nipple campaign and Miley Cyrus revenge porn—she is having a hard time refraining from constant additions to “Naked Ladies.”

“There keeps being more naked ladies, more media obsession,” she excites. “The show aims to simultaneously educate, but also provide a safe space for us to ask what the fuck is up with bodies. It’s about my life and my body, and my deep desire to have my body be understood as part of a large history of bodies—one that is political, personal, traumatizing, and beautiful. Hopefully, this is what the audience takes away.”

To follow “Naked Ladies,” use #NakedLadiesThePlay on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

DETAILS:
Naked Ladies
Sat., Nov. 14, 1:15 p.m.
Bourgie Nights • 127 Princess St.
Tickets: $10
www.cucalorus.org

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, 910tix.com. Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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