Jessica Caldas talks controversy over her ‘Kama Sutra Exhibit’

Big ‘ole words


  • Jessica Caldas
  • WORDPLAY: Jessica Caldas’ “Four letter word”

Atlanta-based artist Jessica Caldas says her goal has never been to shock people. Primarily a printmaker, Caldas’ work typically revolves around having people share stories, connect with each other, and, in the process, spark conversations about bigger social issues.

As one of 11 artists selected for the prestigious 2014 Walthall Fellowship, Caldas’ piece “Four letter word” is included in Part 1 of a collaborative exhibition at Downtown’s Gallery 72, a secondary City Hall building. “Four letter word,” according to Caldas’ artist statement, explores her “relationship with three gendered insults, SLUT, CUNT, and BITCH and surveys the words’ overlapping historical, and social contexts while acknowledging this exploration comes through the lens” of her own perspective.

The installation features life-sized letters, hand-sewn, in reds, pinks, and cream colors, on cushions wrapped in bedsheets. The fabric has hand-written messages and phrases often heard in victim blaming and slut-shaming: “Don’t be a prude.”; “She was asking for it.”; “She lured them in.”; “She was dressed such a way.”

Though Caldas has received praise and positive feedback from the folks behind the fellowship (the Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art in partnership with WonderRoot and the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs), not everyone in the community viewed her work as “art.” This much was clear in the Fox 5 news package on what they referred to as Caldas’ “Kama Sutra Exhibit.”

See below:

Today marks the end of Part 1 of the Fellowship Exhibition’s run at Gallery 72, which includes “Four letter word.” Creative Loafing caught up with Caldas about the inspiration behind her piece, the somewhat slanted news coverage that followed, and what everyone can learn from her experience.

In an interview with CommonCreativ ATL, you said, “My themes always seem to develop out of issues or concerns I have personally.” What issues or concerns did you have that inspired this piece?
I’m really interested in the way language kind of affects us; sort of physically and how it carries weight, but is also kind of inadequate. With this piece, I’m a woman and I experience the world from a very active and conscious place and how being a woman sort of affects my interaction with the world. I work around a lot of issues that are impacted heavily by being a woman. I work with domestic violence survivors, I volunteer for HollabackAtlanta, which deals with street harassment and so I’m constantly engaging in those spheres and I think it’s kind of natural for me to be concerned or interested in the way language acts around those issues. Not just, “Hey I get called a bitch every day I walk down the street,” or the fact that I’ve been called a, “slut” or “cunt” in my life, but also the less obvious ways those words kind of work. So much of the perpetuation of these kind of issues of violence against women and street harassment deals with issues of slut-shaming or connect to ideas of slut-shaming and just the idea that women somehow ask for these things to happen, and the culture that sort of allows those thoughts to continue and continue to affect how women and victims are seen in these cases. I’m not saying women are the only ones who are victims to shaming and slut-shaming, but there’s a significant impact on women in our society. In a places like the U.S., which we consider ourselves to be so progressive, it’s abundantly clear that women’s positions are still challenged all the time. A woman can be blamed for having her picture stolen and put on the Internet with the naked pictures that she gave her lover, and she will be the one that’s blamed for taking the pictures or shamed for it. A woman [http://abcnews.go.com/US/janay-rice-woman-defending-ray-rice/story?id=25378681|gets hit and is instantly questioned as to why she would allow that to happen], or why she would stay, or why anything like that could happen to a woman. Those aren’t the questions that should be asked. It may seem peripheral or not as obvious, but these three words, to me, are so connected to control and how we understand those issues.

The city has defended you from the jump, but were there any concerns when you first presented the idea to the curators?
I’m aware that a lot of the issues I deal with in my work are challenging, so I always try to be very explicit about what the work is going to look like. Since December we’ve all known what this work is going to look like; it’s going to be 6-foot letters. In fact, I reduced the project. It was originally going to be four words and include the word, “whore.” The vinyl on the floor, the printing and writing of my personal stories, and specific things that related to the experience, to putting these words on the fabric and the fact that they’re bedsheets, that they’re pillows — those were all very conscious choices I made and developed in this fellowship and have known they way they’d be for a long time. ... Part of the point of the piece was that language can be aggressive. It exists in a historical and social context aggressively, but it also exists in sort of a fun way. It exists in a way that people can cling to and make it powerful for them in a different way. ... The idea was actually not to shock people right off the bat laughs.

So does it bother you when folks like Councilman Michael Bond refer to it as an “orgy” or Fox 5 calls it a, “Kama Sutra Exhibit”?
I’m glad that any conversation is being had. I feel like a lot of the points were missed through that coverage. To be honest, I think that Fox was probably feeding particular images to the people that they got reactions from. I don’t think those people saw the entire piece. You’ve seen the piece, so you know the part with the sexual positions is a foot on a 6-foot letter. They were being fed images so that it could appear sensational. I’m not trying to be heavy-handed. I am trying to create a conversation and engagement with challenging ideas and issues. I’m certainly not trying to be, like, “Let me slap you in the face with this!” In some ways it’s disappointing, but at the same time, I was given the opportunity to be interviewed, and they didn’t air a lot of that, but the fact that the part they did air even mentions the terms “slut-shaming” and “victim blaming,” which are not terms everybody’s familiar with, is great. I’m like, great, Fox News aired those two terms which honestly maybe a lot of their viewers aren’t familiar with, and so maybe somebody learned something, and the conversation being had is a little bit different and looks a little bit different than they would have had before.

<img src=”https://media2.fdncms.com/atlanta/imager/madeline-brandhorst-age-7-has-fun-with-f/u/original/12196927/1410469134-dsc05109.jpg” alt=”Madeline Brandhorst, age 7, has fun with “Four letter word.” title=”Madeline Brandhorst, age 7, has fun with “Four letter word.” width=”600” height=”450” />

  • Jessica Caldas
  • Madeline Brandhorst, age 7, has fun with “Four letter word.”

When I went to see it for myself, what struck me about it was that I didn’t feel immediately uncomfortable, it wasn’t in plain view from the street, and I had to go out of my way to seek it out and find it within the building. I wanted to be stopped in my tracks by this “Kama Sutra Exhibit.” ... I agree it feels like the shocked mother from the Fox 5 video package and Michael Bond were just seeing the raunchiest parts ...
... laughs The great thing is that people who actually have interacted with the piece and are familiar with my work have given me feedback and responses that are so positive. One guy — I have no idea who he was — he came to the opening and before he left he said to me: “I was just enjoying sitting on these great, soft things — they’re kind of funny looking. Then I started reading them and it was like I was comfortable and then uncomfortable, but it was good because I was thinking about it.”

That’s what you want ...
… Yeah, and my friend brought his 7-year-old daughter, and she was jumping all over them and diving in. At one point she’s playing and she says, “Hey, so what do these letters spell out?” She’s seven, so I said, “Oh you know, they spell out bad words that can sometimes be used for good. If you want to know more you should ask your dad about them.” I don’t know that it’s my right is to explain all of these things, but to a degree she understood that there was something more going on.

In a way the personal stories and messages on the pillows reminded me of Project Unbreakable’s photo project that featured 27 victims of sexual assault holding up posters with quotes from their attackers. In this project you took your own personal stories and included them as part of the overall message. Was that always the intention? Did you think about including stories from other women as well?
I had always intended to include my stories in this particular piece because I think that my interaction with these words — it’s really important for me to understand where I sit with my own privileges and things like that when I’m investigating a lot of these issues. A part of that is knowing that any examination that I make of these issues comes from my perspective, no matter how much I try to be objective or remove myself from research. Everything I understand or see is colored by whatever experiences I have. That’s really important to me to establish, but also I think it’s easier for people to experience something challenging if they know they’re engaging with someone’s personal story rather than a clinical examination.

Would this be the last we see of “Four letter word”? Would you consider taking it to another space?
I hope not. I don’t know how it will work into other spaces in Atlanta or if it will be in other spaces at Gallery 72, but I certainly hope to travel my work, in general, to other spaces. I’m really trying to focus on how I engage audiences with my work and how much they can interact with it. Of course it’s my dream to have it appear in multiple places and I don’t know if maybe that could exist outside. Maybe I could get permission to sit in Woodruff Park with them for like a 24-hour period and folks can sit and write on them.