WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present a dual presentation by Mia Chaplin and Pierre Fouché for Artissima Art Fair, Italy.

Mia Chaplin

“Mia Chaplin’s iconography teeters between embracing ‘femininity’ as it is established by the Western canon, and siding with its impertinent and unruly nemesis. Tropes of the passive and pretty-in-pink little girl are put to rest along with the homemaker, maternal instincts, virginity, duty, and the weighted responsibility that comes with being assigned.

Two feminine archetypes that Chaplin often presents are those of the foreboding, beguiled damsel and the dangerously vengeful woman. When translated into contemporaneity, these become memetic replicas of a bygone era, and bare the absurdity of the inveterate inclination to uphold such tropes. Particularly in South Africa, where gender-based violence, ‘curative’ rape, hate crimes, and rampant femicide causes fresh horror daily, these stereotypes feed into social behaviours such as victim-blaming, scapegoating, perpetrator advocacy, and ongoing issues of misogyny, sexism, racism, transphobia, queerphobia, xenophobia, and ableism. Chaplin gives testament to both the resilience and resentment of women and feminine-of-centre persons living in South Africa and the world.

She creates a narrative of womanhood and femininity that is complex: it is all at once ugly, violent, comforting, and containing. The most symbolic of this journey, are Chaplin’s sculptural works. Loosely shaped after vases and urns, these wire frames are covered in papier-mâché and plaster of paris, and finished with oil paint. Although doused in the allure of rich impasto and flowers, these reveal rigorous socio-political commentary and a more sinister underbelly. One poignant inclusion to Chaplin’s visual lexicon of signs is a little black dog, as seen in Shoulders Drop (2020). Attributed to the phrase “The Black Dog”, the symbol refers to depression. In accordance to Jean-Paul Satre’s theorisation of semiology (Richards, 2008:11-28)*, this is an example of the weightiness of signs and what they communicate through their subtleties.

Another example of this, is Chaplin’s use of the ‘Bad Women’ archetype, an alternative heroine to the idealised woman, as seen in Lost Women (2020). This character materialises through cigarettes, rats, bleach bottles, glasses of wine, daggers, blood, serpents, and beady eyes. These bad omens co-exist with the frivolity of reclining nudes, stargazer lilies, ribbons, and clouds. Rather than reading these as polarities, Chaplin creates all-inclusive and imperfect totems to women.

Chaplin’s ‘bad girl’ motif embraces behaviours typically associated with the masculine as a way of counteracting feelings of powerlessness and shame. Femininity is systemically synonymous with weakness – delicate, poised, subservient, fragile, passive. Her role is to undermine impossible societal expectations placed on women by being imperfect, assertive, and decisive. She expresses anger as a way of validating pain, and working towards healing and empowerment.

Women’s positioning as either saints or sinners, and the mythological correlation this has to Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, is also touched on by the artist. Chaplin surrounds her figures with flora, exploring nature’s representation as a woman throughout language, literature, and art history. ‘Mother Nature’ has been feminised as a beautiful and fertile muse. In Early classical mythological, goddesses were connected to nature and in High Romaticism, nature functioned as an access point to the masculine sublime. However, nature is also perceived as easily antagonised, uncontrollable, treacherous, and violent; natural disasters such as hurricanes, for example, are named after women.

Nature, like women, is either celebrated or eschewed. It is this kind of disenfranchisement and damnation that Chaplin, like many women, finds so frustrating. In The Damned (2020), the artist uses pyramidal composition to draw our eyes from a sprawled figure, being touched or touching herself intimately; to a women in a quintessential ‘damsel in distress’ posture; and then across to three alert, bobbing heads either surveying their territory or guarding their troop. Referencing Peter Paul Rubens’ drawing for The Fall of the Damned (1614/1618), which portrays those declared guilty following God’s final judgement, sinking and being hauled by demons towards Hell. This work summarises the anxieties of womanhood, particularly in South Africa. Chaplin guides us through the complexity of being assigned as doomed.

This more recent style of the artist’s embraces a cubist fragmentation of the pictorial plane, and obfuscation of foreground and background. The limbs and torsos of Chaplin’s nudes fracture and overlap across the surface; at times represented only by a swatch of colour. Chaplin conflates this cubist style with the odalisques of exotic Romanticism and the Italian Renaissance’s Venuses in pudica pose; the latter era being unattainably hyper-feminine and the former, effortlessly masculine. She uses the varying gendered styles of these eras to portray unconventional feminine subjects.

Writer and theorist Maggie Nelson states in The Argonauts that, “To be femme is to give honour where there has been shame (Nelson, 2015:31-32***).” Chaplin’s complex use of symbolism and tactile style, feed into this honour. Much like her work titled Soothe (2020), Chaplin’s practice is an intimate journey of ‘self-soothing’ and healing.”

*Richards, K M. 2008. Derrida Reframed: Interpreting Key Thinkers for the Arts (Contemporary Thinkers Reframed). Bloomsbury Academic: New York.

**Nelson, M. 2015. The Argonauts. Graywolf Press: Minneapolis

Text by Lindsey Raymond

Click here to view Mia Chaplin’s catalogue online.


Pierre Fouché

Pierre Fouché’s needlework series reveals the artist’s complex combination of sources and materials, and his compelling desire to preserve history, the lineage of knowledge, and its evolution through time.

994.77 or Lebenslänglichen Explosionsglück (2020) is a bobbin lace work crafted from World War II parachute silk cord gifted to Pierre Fouché. The medium’s provenance was authenticated by a crumpled piece of newspaper dating from the period, used as the core of a ball of 2m length cords. Lovingly sorted and preserved by generations of women, this thread holds the spotted residue of bright orange length markers, possibly dyed with mercurochrome. With too many to edit out in the thread selection and too few to incorporate in any meaningful way, these blemishes add nuances of stochasticism to the greater purpose of the work: an invitation to contemplate what humanity values enough to preserve.

The figure rendered is a bobbin lace interpretation of an iconic WWII photograph taken in 1944 by Horace Bristol; currently in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. The photograph is not only the subject of historical relevance, but also documented a staggeringly beautiful young man. Its uncanny contemporary feel highlights the absurdity of enlisting young men and sending them off to kill one another under the guise of patriotism. The artwork title is derived from two German words extracted from the found piece of newspaper by the artist. Combined, the words read: “life-long explosive happiness”.

In Sampler[]3×4 – or the Burden of Excess (2020), Fouché interprets a set of thread geometries discovered by an algorithm written by Canadian computer scientist, mathematician, and lacemaker, Veronika Irvine. This algorithm computes the variety of ways threads can intersect based on the rules of bobbin lace grounds. In Irvine’s article, Developing a Mathematical Model for Bobbin Lace, published in the Journal of Mathematics and the Arts in 2014, she posited a mathematical representation of the lace craft with potential applications well beyond textiles, patterns, and adornment.

Fouché’s sample shows 23 of the millions of new grounds already discovered by Irvine’s algorithm, and reflects his effort to translate these into bobbin lace designs; which still require a lacemaker’s interpretation. The grounds in his sampler are all based on a 3×4 tile of possible thread intersections. The possibility of multiple outcomes is the ‘burden of excess’ of this endeavour, as any geometric mesh possible to be made in lace can have hundreds of variations based on what stitches and combinations of stitches are used, and the way the thread’s movements are interpreted with the inclusion or not of support pins at each intersection.

06.642 or Temporal Consciousness Access is Fouché’s macramé reconstruction of a 17th century proto Binche length of lace. The number in the title refers to the artifact’s accession number. The Dutch piece was viewed by the artist at the Ratti Textile Centre in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, in 2019. Fouche was struck by the uniqueness of the piece; an early lace design referred to as “Opaque Lace” for its dense cloth areas and lack of open net stitches. This style would later evolve into Binche lace, known for its erratic thread movements and distinctive six-pair “snowflake” motifs.

Fouché reconstructed the pattern by tracing the threads from a high-resolution photograph he took of the piece. The hand-spun linen of the original was uneven and worn, and the thread movements nearly impossible to discern in places, taking the artist four months to resolve and trace the pattern. In order to understand the design’s interpretation, Fouché had to enter the mind of a medieval lacemaker. While most of the original lacemaker’s technical problem-solving decisions were uncannily familiar to the artist (representing an unbroken lineage of the technique’s development from then to today) others were completely counterintuitive to what a contemporary lacemaker would do; prompting Fouche to wonder if this rationale signified a medieval world-view, an idiosyncratic personality, or some form of knowledge, now obsolete or lost to history.

Text by Lindsey Raymond

Click here to view Pierre Fouche’s catalogue online.