As I walk into the Creative Debuts exhibition in Shoreditch, titled ‘Empowerment,’ I am welcomed by women. Actual women, photographs of women, sculptures of women, paintings of women — all types of women. On the left, there are photographs of black females taken in 2017 but made to look as if they were taken decades before. On the right, I see a face made out of silicone. Tucked in the corner like hidden gems, there are photographs from artist Helena Cardow’s Sustain Series.
The young artist’s work has become popular with a growing social media following, but this is not her full-time job. She works for a femtech company that specialises in kegel trainers, devices designed to train pelvic floor muscles. “The people I work with, they’re really supportive… one of my co-workers had tickets for the show anyway,” she says.
This is the first time the 23-year-old has been included in an exhibition. She submitted her work after she noticed Instagram posts by Creative Debuts (which celebrates emerging artists and designers) about the event. It hosted the exhibition with feminist activism group Nasty Women London. She heard of them because of the success of their first show in September 2017, which saw hundreds of visitors waiting in a queue that trailed down the road. Helena decided to have a “half-year resolution” to get back into producing art.
“I hadn’t done a lot of art or anything creative while I was [at university for four] years. I finished uni and I had all this spare time when I wasn’t at internships, and be like ‘I should really get back into painting.’”
“That coincided with when I was scrolling through Instagram and came across the submission. And so I was like ‘well, it’s fate’.”
“’Empowerment’ was trying to fix the focus away from all the negative politics around Trump and ‘nasty women’ and that whole comment. And making it about the women celebrating female artists and just how women are doing great.”
Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman” in the final presidential debate for the US elections in 2016 — not long after stating that “nobody has more respect for women than me.” The jarring remark spurred on several protests and movements against his consistently sexist comments.
“There is so much out there that is — even if it’s not set out to be — it ends up being just men so it’s important to have a space where we can be like ‘okay, we’re actually going to make our mark on this’.”
Helena’s photographs from her series, which she took in Lagos, Nigeria, is “all about putting women in focus, especially women of colour”, which she thought complemented the theme.
She also admired other women of colour in the exhibition, including Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark, who created the silicone floating head sculpture which was used for the banner of the event.
“I met so many artists there… and so many other women as well as gender fluid people who were of colour, who were creating works that were featuring people of colour. That’s why I think it’s quite important because they are works that you wouldn’t see if you went to the National Gallery or something. It’s trying to put all those different representations of people about things of the world.”
She also admires other artworks from the exhibition for their interpretation of what it means to be a woman.
“You know the saying, the bigger the hoop, the bigger the hoe and how that’s become a whole meme thing. I personally know so many friends who are obsessed with their hoop [earrings] and they always laugh at that. And one of the artists there had these massive golden hoops that were like almost as tall as a person.”
A role model of Helena’s is Lorna Simpson, an African-American photographer and multimedia artist. Simpson uses image and text to challenge society’s views on sex, race, history and culture, often in regard to black women. “I don’t think it’s quite similar in style to mine because I don’t really use text, but I just really love her work. It’s so simple, but so striking,” Helena explains.
“It’s always the case with any sort of minority group where you have the Lorna Simpson who’s dealing with race and drawing attention to that. I think there is a space for that but then also not every work by a female artist necessarily is dealing with feminist issues. And sometimes, there is an artists who just happens to be a woman. But I do think it’s necessary to have both because, you’ve got to have some balance.”
Helena is positive about the future and is currently “snooping around for any opportunities that are going” to expand and showcase her work.