It’s a rather wet and drowsy Thursday. A message comes in summoning me to Manhattan’s Soho district. The reason? The opening festivities of this year’s SuperFine! Art Exhibition–a rather low key, unobtrusive, yet refreshing art show held as a precursor to the Frieze Art Show. The person doing the summoning? None other than the notable multi-disciplinary artist and doyenne of “Art For Change” Indira Cesarine – perhaps the truest and most ardent personification of a powerful, chameleon-like renaissance woman to be found anywhere on the globe.
(Featured Image: “LIFEFORCE ENERGY” 2018 Neon and Resin Sculpture by Indira Cesarine)
A leading influential figure in the art world, Cesarine has a storied 25 year career in the industry as an artist, gallery owner, fashion photographer, Editor-In-Chief, and advocate for various noble and life–affirming causes–including her longstanding contributions to providing artists, particularly female artists, with a reputable, controversial, and game-changing platform that is as commanding as any great art organization one might have heard of. Her steadfast advocacy famously includes the rights and protections of female artists to not only be represented in equal measure to their male counterparts, but to foster the growth of the works themselves to become statements of empowerment for all women (and men), which includes a demand for them to be seen, discussed, and priced equally to male artists. On entering the exhibit, I spot a statuesque, gold-locked beauty in a stunning and stand-out blue dress holding court and greeting viewers in the event’s main booth. One instantly senses that this woman is indeed a powerhouse, firebrand creature. It is Cesarine, and her artwork is being exhibited alongside work’s by controversial international artists Sarah Maple, Fahren Feingold, Tina Maria Elena Bak, Annika Connor, and Cabell Molina, in a show titled “The Female Gaze On Love, Lust, And Longing”, at the booth by The Untitled Space gallery (which, by way, is also owned by Cesarine).
A graduate of Columbia University with a triple major in Art History, French, and Women’s Studies, Cesarine also studied art and photography at Parson’s School Of Design, International Center Of Photography, School Of Visual Arts, The Art Students League, and the New York Academy Of Art. Her extensive career – beginning with a solo exhibition while still a teen at the Paul Mellon Art Center – includes high profile gigs as a fashion photographer for the likes of top model agencies including Elite, Ford, IMG, and publications including British Vogue, French Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and GQ. But it is art itself that has been the lifeblood of this woman: this sun goddess. As a multimedia artist, Cesarine’s work spans painting, sculpture, photography, video, and printmaking; and her work has been exhibited internationally at innumerable art galleries, museums, and festival’s including The MET, CICA Museum, The Museum Of Contemporary Art San Diego, Art Basel Miami, Cannes Film Festival, Sotheby’s, SCOPE Art Fair, and so many more. Her work as an artist has also been celebrated in international publication’s including Italian Vogue, Artnet, Vogue, NY Times, Vogue, W, Juxtapoz, Art Forum, Blouin ArtInfo, CNN… the list is endless.
Cesarine is an absolute and consummate experimentalist in all her work. When speaking to her, one not only gets the impression that this cunning, deceptively stoic, yet incredibly astute Visualist is with her gleaming and steely eyes dissecting every crevice of your facial structure to find its foremost emotional point (for it is that which she is most interested in, as well as what her own work is most about; making you deeply and viscerally feel something), but that she is also bestowing on you certain otherworldly power’s which can only come from someone who has broken barriers in a male dominated world not once, not twice, but time and time again.
We sat down with the fascinating artist:
You have had a storied career as a respected artist, amongst other duly worthy endeavors. At what point in your life did you realize you wanted make art your life’s work. What influenced that decision (a particular person, work of art, or experience)?
I started studying art from a really young age and was always fascinated by it. When I was 14 years old I went to Parson’s School of Design’s intensive summer program to study painting. I really fell in love with the process and creativity of making art, and used to stay up all night painting–I was totally obsessed with it. I went back the following summer for their photography program, which was equally inspiring.
Throughout my school years, I put a major emphasis on creative courses, art history, studio art, photography, printmaking etc. Being an artist and creative was just always my life path. I knew what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be even when I was in my teens. I recall in high school telling people I wanted to be an artist, a photographer, and maybe own my own art gallery. When I was sixteenI had my first solo show and when I was seventeen I started working as a photographer professionally… my entire life I have been creating. I don’t think I was ever influenced by someone else to be an artist, I think it was the only choice that was right for me. There was a time when I was graduating college that I debated going down a more traditional path, going to grad school etc; but I decided to give my creative career two years and if it didn’t work out I would go back to school and get a law degree like my mother; but that never happened…
Much of your creative output as an artist has been in an effort to empower, encourage, and advocate for women and bringing to the forefront a conversation about equality, particularly regarding female artists having same type of platform as their male counterparts. What spurred the decision to want to devote some of your work as an artist to drive forward change in this way?
I personally have had many challenges thrown my way throughout my career… one of them was being taken seriously as a female photographer and artist. I recall when I first started there were literally almost no women working as photographers and few top female
artists. I was faced with a lot of gender discrimination and had to work 10 times harder than my male counterparts–but I was very persistent and didn’t take no for an answer. I was literally told by an agent the fact that “I didn’t have a penis, 50% of clients in New York won’t even see you.” The photography (and art world) were totally male dominated industries and women were completely sidelined, often dismissed completely. I found that in Europe and the UK, they were a lot more open to working with women so I spent a lot of time oversees so I could continue to work, and had to travel a lot to keep things going. I also was faced with a lot of uncomfortable situations with male agents and clients that I don’t even want to think about…
At the end of the day–I draw from my own personal experiences and try to fight for what I know is right. No one should have to get on an airplane and travel to foreign countries to get work because of their gender… But that’s what I went through and I did it for 15 years. I used to go to meetings and show my portfolio and literally just get dismissed with facetious remarks like, “I have NO idea why we aren’t working with you”… when you know exactly why. I was constantly blocked, banging against a brick wall. I think one of the last straws was when my agent in Paris dropped me because they took on another female photographer–and you know you can only have 1 female! That’s how it was–there would be 10-20 male photographers on the books and 1 female. Most agents (and galleries) didn’t represent any women at all.
I honestly think going through that made me not only tough as nails, but also determined to fight for change, for female empowerment, and gender equality. When I first launched The Untitled Space gallery back in 2015 and talked about our feminist program, I think a lot of people didn’t take it very seriously, but in the last few years between the #MeToo movement, #TimesUp and Women’s March etc, I think a lot of people have woken up to the misogyny in our culture and the fact that things need to change. The corporate world has had a lot of initiatives for many years in place to prevent discrimination, but it is far more challenging in the creative industries where everyone is freelance. I think after a certain stage in my life, I took a look around me and just said you know what, I can do better than this. I’m an educated woman, and I need to use my abilities to do whatever I can to enact change, rather than sit and wallow in my misery. I don’t want future generations of women to have to go through what I went through.
You are a noted feminist artist. What, in your view, does that actually mean?
Well first and foremost I identify as a “female artist” and my work is directly influenced by my gender. What does it mean to say I am a feminist artist? I use my artwork to challenge the status quo, as well as tackle stereotypes and double standards related to gender. I address women’s history – which has often been overlooked, and draw from historical narratives as well as my own personal experiences in an effort to directly engage the female point of view on subjects. For me it’s about using my artwork and exhibitions as a way to provoke conversations and debate on subjects that matter to me. That’s how progress is made, it has to start with awareness. No everyone may like feminist or “female-centric” art as I often like to call it, but at the end of the day it represents a large portion of the population!
Your work spans painting, sculpture, collage, video art, photography, and so much more. Where do you find inspiration when coming to work on a piece. Do you go somewhere specific? Is it reflective, or is it something in the everyday?
I am drawn to work thematically. I tend to work across a lot of different mediums to express an idea or concept as in depth as possible. I will often start exploring an idea in one medium, such as a photography or painting and then get inspired to explore the idea or imagery in other mediums such as printmaking or sculpture, and just keep going until I feel like I’ve got it. My work is well suited to an installation environment that frames the concept and brings everything together. One of the most important parts of that process is always having an idea that inspires me, and then taking off with it. I like to investigate themes from all angles.
Regarding the female gaze, much of your work focusing of how one views the female form and what one might categorize as beautiful. You push the boundaries and expectation of what one should pay attention to when viewing your work on the female form. Why is this so important to you, and what are some to the stereotypes and boundaries you wish to break or bring to the forefront?
The world we live in is ripe with stereotypes and double standards of how women are expected to behave. Despite the sexual revolution of the 60s, women are still judged for being sexual beings, whether it’s how many partners they have or don’t have. Women are judged if they don’t get married or have kids. They are judged for aging… agism is a serious issue for all genders, but it is particularly bad for women. There are just so many double standards women are faced with and boundaries due to gender–it is a very long list…
Are you working on anything at the moment that you can tell us about?
I recently had an exhibition titled “the Female Gaze on Love, Lust & Longing” opening at Superfine! Art Fair. I am exhibiting along with 5 other female artists, and presenting my new “Goddess” series featuring the renowned dancer Katherine Crockett. I am also working on a book of my photography, as 2019 marks 25 years since I was first published, so I think it is good timing to do a book! I am publishing a lot of the work online as well. It is all very much a work in progress, as a lot of the images have to be scanned. Aside from that I am also working on the next group exhibition for The Untitled Space, which opens in June, “IRL: Investigating Reality”. That exhibit will feature contemporary artists exploring what “IRL” or “In Real Life” means in today’s digital world. I have several other projects in the works, including my artwork for HERFLAG 2020.
Speaking of HERFLAG 2020, can you tell us about those works, and what the experience meant for you personally?
I was really honored to be selected to represent New York State for the nationwide HERFLAG 2020 project. One female artist was selected to represent each state that ratified the 19th Amendment. We are each making a stripe for a massive flag commemorating the centennial of women’s suffrage. For my stripe, which is 18 feet long, I painted 8 portraits in India ink of women from New York State that most influenced the 19th Amendment being ratified, including Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, among several others. I actually just finished all the artwork and there will be a ceremony in the capital city of New York (Albany) this July, where they will sew my stripe onto the flag. It was a great opportunity to be a part of a historical project that recognizes the work of women who paved the way for equal rights. I was really inspired to paint the suffragist portraits. In the end I may keep going with it and paint more to continue the series. I have always been influenced by women’s history and it was great to have a project that aligned so closely with my own artistic vision.
Some of your work has also been featured in many charitable and human rights endeavors. If there were a cause right now in our current times that you wished to use your work as a sounding board for, what would that be and why?
I have been working recently to support Planned Parenthood, and am on the committee for their NY fundraiser, “Spring into Action” on May 1st. PPNYC is currently fighting the Domestic Gag rule, which would prevent them from participating in Title X, the nation’s only family planning program. I think it is extremely important for there to be affordable options for women’s health and as we all know Planned Parenthood has been under attack for the last few years. I’m also a supporter of the Coalition for the Homeless and have donated artwork for their annual fundraising exhibition, Artwalk NY. I have recently started working with Many Hopes, which is a non-profit that raises funds for girls education in Kenya. They rescue abused girls and have a school that has had phenomenal results, with some of the girls graduating to become lawyers who are seriously enacting change in their communities. They believe in educating local children to solve the problems that charity alone cannot. Lastly, I am actually in the process of launching my own initiative called Art4Equality which will raise funds to directly impact gender equality in the art-world and creative industries.
What single most important piece of advice would you give emerging artists today, male or female?
Believe in yourself! Don’t worry what other people think about you or your artwork. You should make art because you believe in it, you can’t live without it and it matters to you. I always tell people if everyone likes your artwork than it probably isn’t very good! Don’t be afraid to be different. It’s better to find your own style and voice rather than to try to emulate others, as being unique is what makes an artist stand out.
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