“Life is too short to care what other people think about you or your work.”
The first time I meet Angela Edwards is in London earlier this year. We are both participating in an esoteric art event, which is taking place inside an old tower that once used to be a church. In the top floor of this tower Angela has built a bizarre altar to Pomba Gira. Whoever makes it up here, is confronted with a highly controversial set-up.
We are in this former church tower, outside and through the open windows is blowing a cold wind and I look at this shrine installation composed of dozens of vulvic clay sculptures, glazed in fleshy colors and accompanied by various sigil drawings (in that context known as pontos riscados, scratched or marked points through which the spirits are invoked). The shrine is illuminated by candles, there are rose petals scattered over and between its elements and its overall aura is red – the color of blood, life, love and war. The place feels warm, whereas the temperature in the rest of the tower has dropped noticeably. We light candles, burn rose-scented frankincense and I am left wondering. We talk.
Angela mentions her daily devotional practice with the different Pomba Giras, female entities in the folk-magical traditions of Umbanda and Quimbanda, which act amongst others as protectors of prostitutes, gays and people living on the fringe of society. I learn Angela has been a sex worker and lost friends on the streets. And slowly this installation begins to make a lot more sense. I remember a moment, in London, years ago. I knew nothing about Quimbanda, or the nature of these spirits. And I still have no explanation for why I reacted the way I did. It was the first time being confronted with a few drawings of such pontos and I suddenly found myself overwhelmed by a profound all-encompassing sadness. There is no rational explanation for the intense emotions I was overcome with, why it drove tears into my eyes. But it may have been the vague notion of a thousand sad life stories never to be told. Today I also know that, despite all, these are proud spirits, who have their own rules. I pay the shrine a few more visits, lighting or re-lighting candles. Now there is no sadness here.
We get back in touch a few months later. Angela sends me two paintings and through a lucky circumstance I also get a copy of her Tantric Brute Grimoire. I start following her work more closely. Finally there is someone in the esoteric art scene determined and not afraid of crossing the border to modern art, passionate about pushing the limits. Her works are raw. Her brush strokes are thick and dynamic, her artistic expression sometimes bold, other times complex in detail or even playful. She is one of the most prolific artists I know. The fleshy tones, aggression and weird compositions of her paintings and other creations strike a chord with me. Despite the pain and struggle involved I find them strangely beautiful and inspiring. Liking her work is “acquired taste” as she puts it. If you have not heard of her or seen her work before, please be aware that her art is not for the faint of heart. If you are sensitive to graphic content or gore you should not proceed. There is a lot of pain and violence and passion involved.
In May this year you participated in the Meta.Morf art biennale in Trondheim, Norway, where you performed the third part of your ‘Death Shrine To The Holy Whore’ series. How did it go? Did you recover well?
It was an interesting experience and I felt a very open-minded environment for the work. Normally I have so many issues performing in mainstream / alternative venues due to health and safety, or I cannot get Arts Council funding for my type of work with the real bodily risks involved. My work is dangerous physically and controversial, meaning few places are open to my performance concepts. It was nice to be involved in a supportive environment that understood the concepts of the work and accepted them. I also was happy to perform on the same line up as musicians I admired such as Ze’v, a key figure in the early industrial scene, and for my piece collaborate with Cotton Ferox. Cotton Ferox‘s work I was aware of through the White Stains album of Crowley sex poetry they collaborated on with Genesis P Orridge. I thought working with them, even on an improvised performance, would add for me to the interest of this project.
I often plan my performances for months in advance, the amount of preparation work after the original conception of an idea is draining. So for like four months before a piece all my energy goes into planning thinking and realising. Though the problem is, as my work is not staged in the literal sense, all the planning I do or meditation or research towards a performance, cannot shape the outcome of the organic sate of the ritual. Often nothing, even with all this prep work, turns out as I planned or thought it would visually, the work takes on a life of its own outside of myself and my ego or restrictions placed upon it as an artist.
When I perform I reach an entranced, focused state and I often do not remember an actual performance or what it felt like, as I work outside of my body. For months I am terrified of the risks concerning my work but in actual practice I distance myself or these thoughts from the work. The Norway performance was similar to my previous performances. I cannot remember a lot of the hour-long ritual, I placed nails ripped in my arms, masturbated and pinned over a hundred roses with hypodermic needles to my vagina, but I remember nothing in that state of consciousness. I think it takes me at least though, from these acts, two months to recover. For most of the time I am gentle and treat my body well, but physically this kind of work is draining and intense and scars are like wounds, an occupational hazard. This is why I can only physically do these types of rituals, two a year max. It’s not something that can be staged every month or week, like most – even transgressive – body art pieces that I see. I also do not believe in repeating this type of work more than once. What I strive for and do believe in are transgressive, spiritually enlightening experiences that push the self to true limits or mortality. The work is for real concerning real risk, like Abramovic’s early work and a true vessel for my exploration of sex, death and human fragility as an artist.
Could you tell us even a bit more about the concept behind your performance art and what kind of actions it involves?
I am currently working on an ongoing set of pieces concerning sex, death, sacred sex work and the human condition. These performances are all installations based around exploring these concepts. So far there are four pieces of performative installation works, or extreme body art, in the Death Shrine to The Holy Whore body of work. I plan on continuing this work and already have the ideas for the next two pieces planned out. When I find a venue, I plan on continuing this ritual, then exhibiting all the combined extreme performative rituals as a final film. So far this project is already three years in the making. I am looking at the final piece of work being complete in around ten years min, it’s an ongoing piece of major work. The project has mainly involved extreme body art and sexual acts regarding ritualistic transgression. I like to think of these pieces as a human self-portrait or, as Francis Bacon executed in his paintings, a portrait in flesh of the Human condition. The project has involved many actions regarding sex and death, including my labia being stapled shut, anal / vaginal full penetration, burials under earth, nails being inserted in my arms, with masturbation afterwards and a two-hour cutting ritual with my whole body covered in cuts by a scalpel.
Do you sometimes feel discomfort showing yourself naked – and perhaps vulnerable – in front of an audience consisting mostly of strangers?
I think as artists we always show our vulnerability to the audience, whatever medium, a performance artist just uses the medium of their own body rather than a sculptor with clay or a painter with paint and so on. I really see no difference between any of these art forms as all expose the artist’s fears and abolish their egos or work outside of themselves. All art is exposing a part of the artist’s self that is deeply personal and private, in whatever medium to strangers. This is what art is for, most of the time and to be honest, I try to work outside of myself or my ego. I do not think of myself or consequences, like, what others think. My body is a vessel to make art and the whole thing is greater than myself or my own insecurities or worrying about my body image or what others think.
Would you say these live rituals change you in some way?
Of course these rituals change me in some way, as my main motivation is not to perform theses acts as art but as a heightened personal spiritual experience and to abolish my ego to a higher spiritual understanding through the work or understanding of sex, death and my own fragility as a human being and mortality.
Below follows a video from Angela’s Torture Garden performance. Warning: do not watch if you are not able to comprehend nudity or physical violence in art!
Performance art is not everything you do. You are also a sculptor, painter and essayist. And besides this you are a part-time sex worker. How does all of this tie together in your life and art?
I have worked on and off as a sex worker from age fifteen onwards, the first stages of sex work done around drug addiction and circumstance. Recently I decided to return to sex work for two years only as part of my sacred sex work art project. I wanted to have a positive, none exploitative view of sexuality and working in the sex industry. I also wanted to look at sex work differently, as regards using it in sacred sex work and ritual context. I wanted to explore the sex industry as an example of human condition and use it in my art and writings regarding transgressive extremes, sex and death. I felt that partaking in sex work for two years, although currently I am now not working in the sex industry, enabled me to make authentic art regarding the aforementioned subjects.
What experiences do you collect when working with clients? Do these experiences reflect in your art?
A lot of my sex work is collected within my art as a reflection of the humble human condition and human fragility or my own mortality. Working as a sex worker also allowed me to work outside of myself and ego in that, by accepting everybody, you learn to abolish the ego or your own restraints around things like mortality and then, when all these things are broken, you can finally, through this destruction create something else outside of the self that is valid and new.
A short word on your sculptures. You reference Louise Bourgeois and the work of Rachel Kneebone, who’s porcelain sculptures are currently being exhibited opposite bronze sculptures by Rodin. As contrasting as this may occur, the sculptures also have something in common. Both evolve from organic structures, human bodies or single body parts assembled to form something more complex. Your sculptures too are complex creations that appear organic and are assembled of myriads of smaller elements, which are more or less defined in form. Could you tell us a bit about these objects and what they mean to you? Are the mentioned artists an inspiration?
I think even though I admire Kneebone’s work and her figures are sexual and surrealist she isn’t close in relation to my own work as her work is too perfectly formed and more classically sculptural. My work is far more of the flesh, raw, sexual and organic, so closer in relation to Louise Bourgeois. My sculptural work is a continuation of my performance work and painting all is organic flesh and bleeding ripped. My sculptural works are again portraits of creation, sex and death and all the fears attached to being human.
Which other artists inspire you?
Artists like Marina Abramovic, Ana Mendieta, Herman Nitsch, Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois, Joseph Beuys, Matthew Barney, Cecily Brown, Gina Pane, Orlan, Valie Export Nan Goldin, Tracey Emin, Joel Peter Witkin, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Cosey Fanni Tutti to name a few. But many artists inspire me, even ones that aren’t connected in context to my own work.
Its been great to meet or see some of these artists talk or explain their work in context. Recently I saw Abramovic talk and she totally lived up to my expectations as a humble great artist, like Gilbert and George. These artists are totally real and just go out and make art to believe in against all odds. I like to go to free talks at places at the white cube, it’s a great none stuffy environment and I always find it inspiring to hear artists explain their work and experiences. It’s great that these people become accessable to some extent. This I find inspiring; these artists who have struggled and pushed the boundaries of their visions and still remain humane and down to earth. (part edited)
Your paintings and other art carry references to the magical tradition and folk-religion that is Quimbanda. E.g. you mentioned your work with different Pomba Gira spirits and you pay them daily offerings. Would you mind telling us a bit about your worship practice? And how do these spirits influence you in your life and creative process?
My practice privately is that I have a traditional Quimbanda altar with statues and traditional offerings and pontos. I light candles each day for dead friends from the streets in remembrance, it’s just a daily ritual that I do. Most friends were sex workers who died of stabbings, HIV, Ods etc. The Pomba Giras and Exus are said to traditionally be the spirits of the streets, so it fits. I use the imagery and rituals in a more conceptualised way to merge in with my art but my art is not based upon a traditional spiritual practice, although my altar at home privately is more founded on traditional beliefs or practices regarding the religions of Vodou and Quimbanda.
Are the Quimbanda spirits the only spirits you are working with? Are there other spiritual systems that would be of relevance to you?
I am mainly interested in all grounded spiritualist practices and connect also to the shamanic aspects of religions such as Vodou and Santeria also.
You receive different reactions to your work, from praise to ignorance or actual offense and you are subject to an array of rumors and fantastic ideas regarding your person. Some imagine you at the center of a sex cult. People, and often males in particular, are offended by the obscene and graphic contents. Some occultists have problems with your blending of esoteric contents and folkloristic working manners with modern art…. How do you deal with such biased criticism? Do you encounter any other weird rumors about your person and what is your answer to them?
Well I have never said that my performances are traditional occult practices, nor have I encouraged others to self harm or repeat my work. I have always been very clear to explain that this is my individual path and take full responsibility for my decisions regarding my practice. Nor have I ever encouraged women to be abused working in the sex work industry. I know that all these things hold dangers and would never encourage anybody to do the same as myself unless they really believed this path was for them. I personally have had great spiritually enlightening experiences working with such extremes and it has given me a lot back as an artist and awareness of all aspects of human fragility etc. I have become empowered in abolishing my ego and working in these extremes. Though I know obviously some people would not gain or be destroyed by such actions or a life.
In short my work, my experiences or my art are not suited to everybody, but just because of this I do not see why I can’t express myself and use my own body in my work as I chose. How others view my work is not my responsibility and people will take what they want from the work, positive or negative, good or bad, that’s just the way it is when as an artist you place work or ideas in the public domain. You also become, by working in the open, a public figure. So even though I am not famous in the mainstream but because I am known by many in the art /performance / underground and occult world, my work and private life become public property, to be judged by complete strangers and people who have no intimate knowledge of me in real life.
I do think though that when you aren’t gossiped about and nobody is interested in you that’s when you should worry. Any interest or discussion of the work, good or bad, is better than none. I have heard several rumours spread by people who don’t know me in real life that I was starting a sex work cult with bald women working as whores for me, with them giving me all their money and I was also getting them to do cutting rituals with me. It’s all really stupid and when I hear middle-aged men are spreading such rubbish around about me I question their true intellect. Other rumours include I was setting up a suicide cult etc.
Some of these rumours are kind of serious or hurtful to me as I would never abuse another human being or try to control the more weak. I do what I do with my own life, though I would not force or manipulate anybody else. This is different, as it’s my own choice. I am not setting out to harm anybody else.
Obviously my life is going to be gossiped about, as it’s not typical and my work threatens most men, due to the harsh and sexual content. For example my performance work is accepted less because it’s from a woman and my work is a threat to the nurturing, soft sensual image of the female stereotypes, which are deemed in art / occultism / society as acceptable. Though, more and more, as I develop my art, do I not care what people think and I think that if I did take notice and think about such things I wouldn’t be around now, making the work I do. I would be hiding under a rock somewhere, muted of my distinctive voice. But to me life is too short to care what other, usually insignificant people think about you or your work. I am pretty thick-skinned about this and no amount of uninformed opinions or judgements or jealousy on me or my work will stop me creating the work that I want to do.
I have one more question on mind, which concerns outsiders, who do not know anything about religio-magical traditions or who may have reservations. Can they still understand your art? What would be a good approach?
Well I make art, I consider my work fine art. It’s not a religious cult or philosophy but anybody can understand human or religious symbolism. For example crucifixions are a constant subject matter for artists, from Francis Bacon to a recent Tracey Emin exhibition show I attended. The last adventure is you. We all have our own mystical and religious experiences and none are more valid than another. There is no right or wrong way to experience religion or ritual, it’s a very individual thing. Unless we are placing something, be it art or work, in context of something historical, like say for example traditional hinduism etc., where for centuries a certain legacy and rituals have been specifically in place. I feel art and mysticism crossover, and art and religion are to some people one of the same. We can all of course, no matter what background we are from, relate to being human, sex, death, pain, loss – the human conditions – these are constant themes for us all that are not only restricted to an elite, or people with a background with philosophical and mystical books or traditions. I may have read and researched a lot of mystical traditions and philosophy, so my work can be seen as maybe elitist or highbrow. Though, besides these elements, I feel I make work that can also relate in its human aspects to all types of people from all backgrounds. After all we can all feel, can’t we.
What are your plans and wishes for the future?
To continue with my creative practice and to keep pushing boundaries and making ART… I am currently working on a new body of work, one piece is a huge sculptural bed installation, more paintings and editing my ritual films. I hope to exhibit my work at some point, but until then I will keep on producing art and expressing these parts of myself. I also have a few performance ideas I am working on.
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions!
For more about the artist, her work, links and purchasing her art visit the website at www.angelacarolinedwardsart.com