Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, who we follow on Instagram affects us. It often happens unconsciously, redefining how we view ourselves and others with or without our consent.
Consider an Instagram following consisting of a majority of celebrities, influencers, models, and fitness gurus. Viewing the posed and calculated pictures of one famous woman after another perpetuates the notion of an ideal femininity: slender and toned bodies, no body hair, lighter skin tones, and soft facial features.
If we take a step away from such profiles, we will find a very different version of femininity. There are artists using Instagram as a primary platform for visibility, and whose work conveys a very clear counter-narrative to the pervasive beauty standards so deeply entrenched in our societies.
There are artists whose work challenges gender inequality and society’s impositions on the female and the feminine. No specific qualifications characterize the “ideal woman,” she doesn’t exist. And femininity is not determined by a balance of sexuality, sensitivity, and beauty that were once considered to make a female less feminine. It’s high time that hegemonic “feminine” standards are ousted by the reality––correction, realities––of what it means to be a woman.
Marlene Juliane, an illustrator based in Cologne, Germany, is one of those artists. The women featured in Juliane’s art portray the multiplicity that is inherent to being human, yet ignored in the age-old attempt to constrict the representation of women. Juliane speaks to Beirut Today, sharing insight on her art and the women she draws.
What “tags” would you give your art? Does it fall under the general umbrella of feminist art, or would you like any specific labels to categorize your work?
My art has always been about faces and bodies, especially those of women. For me, these are the most interesting and fun aspects to draw. So, of course, I began by drawing feminine figures when I first started to dig into the digital illustration field. It’s boring to always draw the same type of women, so I started to experiment with different body types and the different appearances of women in general.
I consider myself a feminist, but my primary goal really was not to create feminist art. I think that sort of happened on its own, by virtue of my drawing different types of women, posting them online, and then people feeling empowered by them. Maybe it’s automatically feminist art because I am a feminist? If that makes sense at all?
Anyway, I think this shows that I find it difficult to really label my drawings. There are many different ways in which people perceive them, and I think that’s cool. I don’t want to dictate how my art gets interpreted by giving it labels.
Your illustrations are always surrounded by an intimate and private feel to them. Would you say that your art targets this intimacy of what it’s like to be a woman? Do you think that the women in your pictures represent only the private life of a woman, which is usually shared with other female friends or partners?
I’m happy to hear you say that they have an intimate and private feel, because that’s the visual imagery I often want to transmit. I like to create this feeling of a personal encounter to create a more “familiar relationship” between the viewer and the figure.
The women in your illustrations, in many ways, defy the standard beauty norms and stereotypes that are so deeply ingrained in our society. You especially use body hair and nudity to evoke a counter-narrative to traditional femininity. What message do you hope this technique will transpose?
First of all, one of the most fun parts to draw is details like body hair, birthmarks, spots, and dark circles under the eyes. I feel like it gives the women and girls I draw more personality and more deepness.
I don’t want to “shock” or “provoke” with it, even if some people do kind of feel provoked. I think that’s really interesting because these qualities are pretty normal. It just feels so uncommon because people are not used to seeing images of women like this. It’s the same thing with nudity. A nude woman in a sexual way is a very common image, but nudity of women not related to sexuality, as it is in my drawings, feels unusual, even though it’s not.
I don’t have a strict purpose about messages that I want to send through my art, but I think that one message could be that untraditional femininity is just a normal thing.
In fact, I’d like to know more about why the naked body is so important in your art. Is there a particular reason why the women in your illustrations are often portrayed as nude or partially nude?
It’s simple: I like to draw bodies, not clothes.
I know that you sometimes base your illustrations on actual people in your life. How do your friends respond to seeing a similar version of themselves on your Instagram page?
I think that the best way to answer this question is to ask them directly, so I sent my friend Alena this question and this was her response:
“It’s exciting to see which aspects of me are getting taken over completely and which ones get changed or illustrated slightly differently. You automatically search for similarities and differences.”
I really like to illustrate my friends, and it often helps me draw the right proportions and implement my ideas in the drawing because then I can tell them “let me take a picture of you in this position” and stuff like this.
You’ve been drawing for a few years now. In what ways has your art evolved during this time? If I could get a bit more personal, do you think that you, as a woman, have changed as well because of your art?
I think that the most obvious aspect that changed is my improved technique, which is pretty normal when you begin draw almost every day––(sometimes, you take a break for a few weeks because you have no ideas or inspirations). My lines have become clearer and I have a better understanding of how light and shadows work.
At the beginning I mostly drew woman inside their rooms. Then, I was more into portraits with plain backgrounds, and now I’m starting to get back to the roots again with women lying in their beds and stuff like this.
And yes, I think a few things about me changed, too. At the beginning I was more insecure about sharing my drawings, now I’m more confident in showing them. You get a bigger audience by doing the whole social media thing and talking about my art, like I am doing right now.
Do you have any big projects or exhibitions coming up soon?