Las Vegas’ Erotic Heritage Museum is a sex-positive exhibition space, operating with an ethos that sexual pleasure is an intrinsic aspect of the human experience, and that celebrations of human sexuality should be made available to all. So it makes sense for Irish-born, London-based artist and activist Clare O Hagan to utilise this unique space for her upcoming solo exhibition, Embracing Women.
Embracing Women features a series of some fifty drawings and prints created over a period of two decades. Based on life drawing studies, each piece explores female sexuality through the lens of O Hagan’s personal feminism. Vibrant colours, contorted bodies, and same-sex female couples feature heavily throughout the exhibition, which O Hagan described to BUST as something that “not only explores the female experience but examines notions of sensuality and desire without self-censorship."
“I’m acutely aware, as a feminist, of the restrictive and commodified depiction of women’s bodies in both advertising and pornography,” O Hagan explains. “I really felt compelled to create work that rejected the stereotype of women’s subordination as erotic. I wanted to construct a broader view of a woman’s experience of sexuality.”
In a post-Weinstein, #MeToo era, the timing of Embracing Women couldn’t be more poignant, and neither could the location. Across the street from the domineering erection that is Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, the Erotic Heritage Museum showcases progressive, sex-positive activism. On Martin Luther King, Jr. day, an enormous poster featuring the words of the First Amendment was displayed across the roof, a bold reminder of the right to freedom of speech to anyone who might happen to be surveying the museum from Trump’s golden monstrosity in this time of political turbulence.
It also feels appropriately defiant to exhibit a three-month exploration of the erotic female against a backdrop of Las Vegas superstar residencies including Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull, whose aggressive lyrics describe having women "like Miley Cyrus, clothes off, twerking in their bras and thongs [...] face down, booty up." Many of O Hagan’s works are explicitly sexual, featuring intimate moments shared between two women. When describing her work, O Hagan references Georgia O’Keefe, saying that “there’s something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore." Sorry, Pitbull.
Growing up, O Hagan attended a convent school in Ireland and describes her childhood as one where she “had barely seen herself naked," so once she arrived in London to start an Art Foundation course, the unabashed nudity of her first life drawing class came as a bit of a shock. Once the initial embarrassment dissipated, the enjoyment kicked in, and it remains in full force today. “It’s a life affirming act to sit, study and draw the naked body,” O Hagan says with an infectious enthusiasm. “So much is revealed in its landscape. Drawing the female nude opened up a space where I could explore the domain of desire. Migrating and merging drawings with different printmaking processes resulted in a series of joyous, erotic and bold scenarios.”
Embracing Women highlights the important distinction between women being sexual, and women being sexualised—the revolutionary notion of female pleasure without a man. O Hagan brings the uncensored beauty of female sexuality to the foreground, reminding us that there’s nothing shameful about it.
And when it comes to men, some of the most defiant work in the Embracing Women is in the form of a remastered series of digital artworks whereby well-known paintings of women, by men, are overprinted with images of male nudity. O Hagan acknowledges the prevalence of the male gaze and the historical objectification of women. It’s a tongue-in-cheek criticism of how the most famous works of art featuring women have been produced by prolific male artists with no understanding of the female experience whatsoever.
Embracing Women is a timely cultural commentary. Twenty years of work by O Hagan has culminated in a brave exploration of what it means to be a woman and indeed a sexual being in 2018. She challenges conventional notions of sexuality. It can’t be argued that empowered women empower women, and it’s clear from her work that O Hagan is, and does, just that.
You can see Embracing Women at the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas from 1st June through to 31st August 2018.
all images by Clare O Hagan
More from BUST