I have not blogged in a year, but I return here to write the ritualistic elegy to the last 12 months (with a befitting title nicked from Russell Brand).
I would like to first recount the privileges 2017 has gratefully brought me. January saw the back-end of my favourite ever exhibition of my work at Waldermarsudde Museum in Sweden, followed by a surreal moment seeing my commission ‘Twelve Women in Academia’ in the Houses of Parliament in London – dauntingly accompanied by my life story centre-spread in the Brighton Argus. In April, twelve of my art pieces were bought by the Crillon Hotel in Paris, and later I was double page interview as the only photographer in Saatchi Art’s catalogue. I was commissioned by Coalshed at Tower Bridge to make a large-scale, fish-and-fire themed Face. I went to Turkey, Tuscany and Tennessee, drank at least 700 cups of tea, did almost zero exercise whilst Lilith watched too much TV, oh and it’s also the year I nearly quit photography.
Happily instead, 2017 ends with a separation of identities that’s been a decade coming.
I knew I wanted to do something new this year – I just spent the first month confused on exactly what. I toyed with going higher production, or more soberingly realist. What resulted was a mixture of both. This year we’ve dabbled with prosthetics artists, CGI artists, videographers, illustrators and new unconventional models – all as I’d hoped. We did just one Fashion Shoot Experience this year, and made just one Surreal Fashion image. The rest of the time was spent gestating an entirely new project, “Birth Undisturbed”.
I wanted to throw commercial caution to the wind, shun prettiness and dresses to take on a “serious, biosocial” topic for the first time with sustained videography in a way hitherto unprecedented for me. Despite having exercised my imagination regularly in my past 6 years of Surreal Fashion, “I have never had a consistent stream of visions like this” I implored my Instagram audience, “never worked in this slow considered way on a set of curated visions, nor do I feel I’ve ever yet unleashed my mind – really unleashed it – into a project till now.” Of course, talk is cheap, demonstrated by a decade in an industry flakier than a puff pastry pie (including my own past non-starters) so I kept my grand ideas on the lowdown codeworded with “salle sauvage” till I could prove the gestation of the idea was – so to speak – viable.
The main background was my own personal experience. Some readers will already know my story: three months prior to our first birth in 2013, we learnt our child Evan had a terminally fatal condition, Potter’s Syndrome, the absence of both kidneys. We decided on a homebirth as a peaceful conclusion to his chapter, and 15 months later we welcomed his healthy sister Lilith also at home. I look back on the births of both my children with joy, because our wishes were respected, and I found it a travesty that many women were traumatised years after a ‘normal’ live birth because of how they were treated. I longed for all women to feel as empowered as I felt giving birth to Evan, to have a birth undisturbed – whatever the setting. And thus, my story converged with a universal sentiment, and led to the conception of a series with that name.
The pregnancy analogy continues: with the idea growing in me like a seed, it quickly became all-consuming to the point of catching my breath in my chest fixated on it first thing in the morning and last thing at night. High on creative joy, gripped by a mysterious force rather than logic, a fuzzy yet compelling belief that this series was all that mattered even though I didn’t have a bloody clue where it would take me or what it would do to my career. Despite the obstacles like failing to get an arts grant, I felt invincibly determined to boldly soldier on if no-one was gonna even get it. Nerves jangled up to the first shoot, till the cold February day of its majestic ease took away most all fear overnight. Showing the picture to my friend Kirsty Mitchell prompted a reaction helping to confirm it all made wild sense.
“Nat, I love it. It’s like Gregory Crewdson does birth with balls! It’s the Nat I know and love, the birthing Nat, the swearing Nat, the I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuck-Nat…”
It was more the tenacity of her quote than the compliment that attracted me like catnip, the same confidence I’d get from friends’ responses later that summer when I showed them my birthing Virgin Mary on my phone screensaver, and had their earnest approval for its most probable resultant controversy. To be honest, if we’d got the EIGHT big commercial carrots dangled to us this past 18 months, I probably wouldn’t dare do this series – yet. Maybe ever. But rejection has literally slapped and sapped our souls like lettuce left out on the counter, fast making the predictable routine of even a supermarket job look preferable. Instead I decided to buy a medium format camera and only turn it on for something really fucking worth it.
Putting artistic desire above all commercial interest is not easy. Even fine-artists have commercial strings – sponsors, companies and agents that they’re perpetually trying to impress even in the midst of the most supposedly radical project. Anger partly helped: frustration at not just our commercial world, but the birth world – and the art world – the glaring issues of our world repeatedly ignored by revered, so-called artists. I decided to channel that trinity of pissed-off-ness straight into the indignant, Kubrickian red title font that opens up every video. ‘Bigger font’, I coyly instructed my video editor, ‘…bigger. Bigger!’
Going from live zebras to silicone placentas was always going to be a risk. But fodder for this theme has always been in me, from my college art projects about menstruation and the Bible.. to more recent dots of inspiration that have joined up and made sense. It would be too long to list the many inspirational strands that made the catalyst, but one was a moment watching a video of a photographer who’d been paid for a big shoot that promoted a drug for children. I found myself incredibly critical and inspired at the same time. How powerful would it be to make film a shoot that stood for the power of nature? I wanted to start something no-one in a million years would commission me to do. How about taking on my own client – my own rabbit hole mind?
“I’ve long admired certain masters in photography, obsessing over them and wishing I was them”, I wrote to my Instagram followers, thinking of the Tim Walker and Kristian Schuller books on my shelf, “But I reminded myself, I’m not them. Who am I? Their pictures are filled with women, yet, do the pictures speak anything to me about my experience being woman, being mother?” Indeed, what happened to me over the past few years? I had to face holding my first child dead in my arms, at the beginning of a journey intermingling pain, pleasure and passion through the saying of goodbye to one child and hello to another, richly rampant in artistic possibilities to explore. Through commercial and fashion work I’ve often despaired over the wastefulness of the whole pantomime of production, and wondered could it be done better in a painting. But not with this series. Staging fake births to look real in a way a painting cannot, with a cause somewhat more noble.
“You are now witnessing my next moment of curiosity”
A montage of me crouched on the floor from child to mother, in one form of creativity to the next, was my penultimate slide of my triple-meaning titled talk “The Telling of a Woman’s Surreal Story” told to a symposium of listeners at Story Conference in Nashville in September. I faced the challenge of speaking in a poetic style, with a dynamic movie-based visual behind me – both I’d never used before – talking about both personal and professional in a way I’d never dared before, going from earliest cloned self-portraits through to commercial work and THEN the debut of a birth series video – all in 20 minutes.
“I want to fill the gap see in art, women either token or broken. I want to story-tell a maternal voice screaming to be spoken,” I rhapsodised in semi-nervous breath, “because for this surrealism-loving photographer, surrealism now comes from the most real thing – my own births.” Two months later back in London at the Royal College of Obstreticians & Gyneocologists, I previewed the series to a roomful of birth workers for Women’s Voices 17, a conference created by Michelle Quashie that I was honoured to be told was originally inspired by Evan. Never had I publicly spoken of art outside the photography circle, till that day when my mind buzzed with the progressive thrill of separate worlds bridging in this way. Whilst the painted face of a historical obstretician gazed down at my projected, fullscreen primal-yell face of Gina in Salle Sauvage, I uttered, “How I birthed Evan mattered. Even though I had no live baby at the end of it, my story helps highlight for all women – that birth matters. And I want to help by picturing it”.
Then I launched the first 4 pictures of Birth Undisturbed in November, as Natalie Lennard – signing off from ‘Miss Aniela’ and her Surreal Fashion to exist separately. Using Instagram as my main portal, my dead Facebook page came back to life with a response I wasn’t expecting (nor necessarily needing, in order to continue the series) with positive and encouraging comments that suggest my audience are more unanimously enlightened than I even expected. It was the most recent, fourth image – my remake of the Nativity – that has by far elicited the biggest, fastest response I’ve ever had to a picture in my entire career. It’s the comments in particular that profess to feel a (2000-year) gap filled, from Christian women who’ve never had a longed-for picture of a birthing Mary till now, and general people of all beliefs just excited to finally see a physical representation of a long-told story.
It is the notion of doing what’s not been done before, rather than safe praise for something beautifully recognisable, that most excites me, and the response from those who are uncomfortable or even repulsed but confess to be compelled. And after years of not really knowing who I’m making my work for, I’m intrigued to identify a target audience opening up to this work: mothers, fathers, midwives, doulas, birth workers worldwide from Singapore to Brazil, normal people who for the first time want to buy a piece of art. It also excites me to come up under Google News with my series already. I love art that makes the news…
“Natalie Lennard, the British photographer popularly known as Miss Aniela, is well known for her surreal fashion work. Her new personal project, however, is leading her in an entirely different direction; showcasing childbirth through world history, celebrating the power of women who give birth on their own terms. The fictional narrative series draws inspiration from figureheads of birth philosophy, such as Michel Odent and Dr. Grantly Dick-Read, to shine new light on how we view childbirth. -“Miss Aniela Creates Fine Art Images Celebrating the Power of Birth Undisturbed” Nicole York for FStoppers
“British photographer Natalie Lennard… seeks to represent the ancient and modern childbirth, the impoverished and the luxurious… and presents a “birth” of the most literal and controversial that we have seen: the Virgin Mary giving light to Jesus . But without frills or ruddy plump little angels , or mysterious rays of light or smell of incense and myrrh. On the contrary: blood, pain and flies” Jaime Noguera for Publico
Fine-art has always been central to all I do. But it’s funny that the year I stopped giving a shit, I ended up truly feeling born.
The other stuff of 2017…
Commissioning my own prosthetic baby “Boris” made by Emmy-award-winning Davy Jones. It was like Christmas receiving that thing in the post, slicking its dodgy Donald Trump barnet into amniotic soaked believability, and waving it round the conservatory whilst Lilith gazed at it in pure nonchalance and continued dancing to The Killers.
Celebrating my 31st birthday in Tuscany with wild boar and cake during our Fashion Shoot Experience at Borgo Stomennano. An event of 40+ people that after so many months’ prep – went so perfectly and drama-free that I had to pinch myself.
Visiting a special place in Tennessee as part of a key, upcoming Birth Undisturbed episode in 2018 that will cover one of the birth world’s most incredible legacies – The Farm.
Spending the night at Broughton Hall, just us, one caretaker in the other wing. Simple sensory pleasures like that.
Hopes for 2018? Next year is all about going full hammer and tongs at Birth Undisturbed. Finishing it, if finances permit, and laying groundwork for the book, exhibition. And to get into the news again… oh yes..
If you got this far well done! Happy new year and here’s to 700 more teas!