In Residence: An Interview with Naomi Blakeborough
Straight from graduating the newly accredited Leeds Arts University, alumni have the opportunity to return to the institution as Creative in Residence, "intended to provide a platform for recent graduates to develop and work on a specific project within a secure environment that offsets some of the initial difficulties of getting new ideas, products and practices set up" says Sophie Miller Wallace, who oversees the CiR scheme at LAU. "By participating fully in the scheme, Residents have had access to the facilities and space they need to launch successful businesses, freelance careers, exhibit their work and deepen their practice . . . in return, the Residents are expected to engage with their course area, acting as role models and engaging with current students, sharing their knowledge, experience and specialist skills".
Who are you, and what does your work address?
My name is Nay! My work addresses aspects surrounding girlhood, particularly sexuality, identity and social expectations.
What have you been up to since graduating?
Since graduating I haven’t been up to as much as I would like to have creatively, which is why I really wanted to do the creative in residence! It’s pretty hard to create a Beyoncé-inspired shoot without access to lights and studio space.
Outline your project for the Residency. Is it an extension of your oeuvre or a refinement of it?
My project for the Creative in Residence is based on a trend from growing up in the 00s. It’s definitely an extension and refinement of my previous work on the sexualisation of girlhood; previously I focused on sexualisation in the school environment, whereas this project is more specific.
When I was around nine years old, Playboy clothes, accessories and décor became really popular amongst my friends. I remember being really envious of my best friend because she had the cushions, watches and pyjamas, whereas I wasn’t allowed any of it because my parents were against Playboy.
I wanted to create a project around this because it was controversial and I think that although my generation grew up through it, we’ve never really discussed it – our parents decided whether it was appropriate or not and that was final.
I also wanted to create this project because I actually don’t know how I feel about it - in the one hand I now adore the aesthetic, but on the other hand we weren’t stupid. We knew Playboy was “rude” and “grown-up”, and by not talking to us about it we just wanted to find out more!
We learnt that to wear tight baby pink outfits and to be blonde was desirable to men and that to be sexy you bought things like perfume. It basically low-key taught us to buy our attractiveness and rate it against “The Girls Next Door”.
My idea was to create a video alongside images that put this 00s trend alongside others that I remembered from growing up, such as butterfly clips, Groovy Chick and those weird handheld hair braiding things. I was curious to see how they sat alongside each other, to see whether Playboy and everything it stood for fit in, or whether it was actually uncomfortably out of place amongst other childhood trends.
How did your practice develop over the course of your years in study, and where do you see it leading?
I think as every term passed my work got bolder and brighter. I started out by wanting to photograph subjects around feminism in first year, but my approach was too aggressive. I was upset that I felt frightened walking home late as a woman, in fear of being attacked so when it came to creating a book about it, I just took pictures of places in the dark that I was terrified of, I didn’t come out the other end of the project feeling like I’d achieved anything or helped anyone, because I hadn’t! I’d actually just heightened my anxiety around the topic by telling myself these were potential places I or other women could be attacked.
The following year I photographed “Girl’s Room”, which was about the expectations and realities of female, teenage sexuality. I photographed everything within the same bedroom and then exhibited it on the same walls.
The main development between this project and my previous ones was that I realised I needed to make these subjects approachable and to a point more palatable for an audience, that was how to get people to discuss the topics I was so interested in. Rather than scaring people off or just making them feel crap about how challenging it can be to grow up a gal, I wanted to remind them that they’re doing great and they’re not alone.
For example, I wanted to portray the stigma of slut shaming without it being too obvious and purely negative, so I visually flipped it on its head and reclaimed being a “slut” as a positive. I photographed cucumbers held together by a dog collar that said “SLUT” in diamante letters against a baby pink satin backdrop - to me, that says “call me a slut and see if I’m bothered”. I was no longer moaning about how unfair life is because that helps no one.
Instead I began trying to encourage girls to talk about their experiences and be more open, so that the next time some loser tried to slut shame them, they would have more of a support network to help them deal with it.
From this project onwards that has been my aim, and will continue to be because it’s so rewarding!
If you had to sell all your photobooks but got to keep one, which would it be and why?
I would keep Babe by Petra Collins - it’s a pretty obvious one, but for me it’s my equivalent of the Bible. Not only is all the work in there beautiful and meaningful but incredibly encouraging to girls and women just trying to accept themselves for who they are, how they feel and how they look. It also embodies this idea of women lifting each other up and not competing in the same way as society tells us we do anymore. Babe was put together by Petra Collins and is a celebration of so many different amazing female artist’s work, some of whom were less known that others. It put them all on the same level and created a larger collective voice that’s really powerful.
Let us know where’s best to keep up with your work.