Art Crush: Ann-Marie Manker’s Symbolic Rainbow

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Ann-Marie Manker with a mold of her husband’s baby teeth. Photo by Karley Sullivan for BURNAWAY.

Atlanta Art Crush is an interview series bringing to light individuals who are making interesting contributions to our city. Look out for more photo portraits and profiles with our latest heartthrobs coming soon.

Re:Focus a photo exhibition on view at Swan Coach House in Atlanta through October 27

Ann-Marie Manker dons a cheerful cotton dress, striped with blue and pink, to our meeting on the sunny patio of Octane in Grant Park. I point out her attire during the course of conversation, in which she describes being highly color-oriented and slightly obsessive over aquamarines and fuchsias. She gives her frock a quizzical look when I make the connection, promptly dismissing the comparison.

She is the type of person who could point out the difference between eggshell, taupe, and sand-colored paint chips without hesitation. Yet, the blues and pinks of her dress are not quite the same as the blues and pinks she feeds upon artistically. She loves macaroons for their cloudlike density and pastel palette.

Manker’s works convey the visual immediacy that bright colors only help to provide, where images like rainbows, balloons, and critters are both eye-catching and seemingly safe.  Large themes, underlined by dangerous notions, float to the surface by the lightness of their symbolism. Her last major show, Softcore War, at Whitespace in 2010, played on the fantasies of the afterlife that female suicide bombers might have.

Her newest solo exhibition, Under the Rainbow, opening at Whitespace tonight, is a maturation of Manker’s use of current events to reveal the masculine and feminine dynamics of violence and sexuality. Concentrating on the recent incarnation of extremism in Somalia, Manker shows that oppression and warfare are often culturally symbiotic, with women bearing the former and men conducting the latter. She takes the power away from each of these acts by conflating their gender roles. She alludes to acts of violence, particularly sexual violence, as committed by women, seen through a sheen of hazy rainbows and witnessed by fuzzy creatures. In a society where violence is the only available form of power, Manker allows her women take as much of it as they want.

Grace Thornton: I read the In The Studio interview that Jiha Moon did with you.

Ann-Marie Manker: Oh, yeah! It’s been a while.

GT: I thought it was really interesting that she mentioned the word “trend” a bunch of times and really wanted to get you to talk about it. You seemed like you didn’t see where she was going with it.

AMM: Yeah, because she was bringing up fashion. I think it was just because my model happened to be a twenty-something year old who would dress a certain way, which she picked up on. What’s connected to that is, for my subject matter, I want to use young girls. You know, teenagers, twenty-something year olds, because they embody most the issues that I’m exploring. I happen to teach at an art school and I use a lot of students. They’re art students, they’re going to look a certain way, have certain haircuts, wear certain clothes. Sometimes I style my own models to just wear very basic black and clothes that are clingy because I’m working with the figure and I don’t want the figure hidden so much. There can be a girly aesthetic to the clothes they’re wearing and the environments they’re in because it’s their fantasy world portrayed in the work.

GT: But it’s not your mission to say, “This is fashion, this is what’s hip.”

AMM: No! No. Jiha and I have similar tastes. We like a lot of cute and colorful things. When we’ve talked, and I’ve visited her studio, it seems like we have a lot of little, cute things that we surround ourselves with.

GT: The way she described your aesthetic, it didn’t seem like she made as much of a parallel. When she talked about trends, she was referring to Softcore War, so connecting current events and mimicking what was on TV with the war going on.

AMM: I had, specifically, read a New York Times article about the increase in female suicide bombers. That intrigued me for a number of reasons. In my head I start to play out scenarios, like, what could a young girl be fantasizing about or thinking of that would propel her to carry out an act like that? Coming from my head, as someone who has no experience with war, from a Western point of view, I immediately fantasized about all these things that might be in the afterlife. I’d rather be surrounded by clouds and animals and rainbows up in the sky where everything’s happy—as a way to get past the fact I’d have to blow myself up.

Ann-Marie Manker at her desk. In the background are vintage Niagra Falls postcards that serve as one of her source material/ color inspirations. Photo by Karley Sullivan for BURNAWAY.

GT: The bigger vision usurps the act of violence that they have to do.

AMM: And the increase was happening because maybe the girl lost her family and there was revenge to be carried out. Or maybe their life was so horrible and they were being so mistreated that it was a way to escape. Women across societies aren’t enabled to do certain things, aren’t able to participate in the same activities as men. To then call upon women to be a part of something that’s normally a man’s job is empowering. But the irony is that it’s just empowering them to kill themselves. A lot of these girls would get caught because they would apply heavy makeup on the day they were going to kill themselves. I guess they wanted to look pretty in the afterlife. People would notice them because they had all this makeup on in the street.

GT: Do you know if they were permitted, by the group for which they were self-destructing, to put on the heavy makeup?

AMM: I’m guessing that they just did it. What’s also creepy is that if the girl was going to chicken out and not do it, there was someone with a remote control elsewhere to press the button for them.

GT: Even the one act of autonomy they get is not autonomous, if they decide not to do it.

AMM: Maybe their way to chicken out was to try and get caught by wearing the makeup. At that time, I wanted to portray this femme fatale using her feminine charms or prowess to draw in the victim, which was specifically to portray a would-be suicide bomber.

GT: Why do say would-be? Because this is your fantastical version of it?

AMM: Yeah, plus they haven’t actually done the act. It’s pre-act. I take measures to completely emasculate the war by putting them in these soft environments with pale pastel colors. Bombs are like balloons, which can also be sexual or phallic, but soft. Even if there are references to explosion, it is exploding balloons or colors. I put animals in there for comfort or companionship, or to act as that little voice in your head telling you to do it or not do it. In my work I have to have dualities—someone who’s empowered but also a victim. This thing is cute and fluffy but dark and insidious. That’s what I wanted to carry over into this show.

In Somalia, or, Mogadishu, they banned television, gold teeth, music, and would lash women for exposing their ankles. My current work is this play on the dual role—masculine and feminine, anima and animus. Relating to pop culture, I think of Black Widow from the Avengers movie. She put herself in position where she seems like she’s caught or she’s the victim. But she’s crossing that line to get what she wants.

Ann-Marie Manker in her studio. Photo by Karley Sullivan for BURNAWAY.

GT: Would you say that your work is more combining the masculine and feminine, rather than the feminine overtaking the masculine?

AMM: I try to combine them all in one character. In some of the images they look like they could be vulnerable, victimized or downtrodden, but they’re about to commit an act. I’m trying to weave insecurity and empowerment into one image. Before it was more “Yay, I’m empowered!” This time I’m crossing some weird boundaries, even with sexual references.

[Manker pulls out a postcard for her Whitespace show]

I have this rainbow symbol, but I also have clouds—and at times I’ve formulated the clouds into an amorphous cloud monster, he’s like the animals telling them to do things and maybe controlling them. When I did this piece, it’s almost like [the rainbow is sexual fluid dripping from her face]. She’s got [pubic hair] in her hand. It’s crossing that line to get what you want. That’s her trophy.

GT: It’s also pretty funny because of the old wives’ tale that if you masturbate you’ll get hairy palms.

AMM: Oh I didn’t know that! That’s perfect; that adds a whole new layer to it. I like my work to have multiple layers. I mean, even to me there are, because it’s all coming from my brain, it’s not just one thing. Back in the day I used to hate talking about my work. It was definitely a lot more cathartic or personal. I didn’t like to give up the secrets [laughs]. I think my work has a lot to do with control, and not enjoying the loss of it.

Ann-Marie Manker holds up a possible addition to one of her new sculptures. Gold teeth are banned in Mogadishu. Photo by Karley Sullivan for BURNAWAY.

GT: Especially considering that you have a very feminine aesthetic. You’re making things that are feminine and being in control of those things…

AMM: Because I feel vulnerable. More so when I was younger, but not so much now. I like to fantasize that I could be this ninja who’s in charge and in control and strong and powerful but the sad thing is I’m so weak. I’m completely weak and vulnerable. I have little muscle strength. If somebody came up to me and really wanted to do some damage they would win.

Christian Siriano on view at SCAD FASH in Atlanta through October 9

GT: That makes me think of this…there’s this thing I’ve been reading about recently, a movement called the Teen Girl Tumblr Aesthetic. They took the site down, though. Do you know about Tumblr?

AMM: I opened an account but I have yet to tumble.

GT: Well, it’s not only on Tumblr, but Tumblr has the most unified example of this specific aesthetic. One of the things it does is take an art “object” and “extends it onto the body of girls both on and offline.” Girls take images and quotes—there’s a lot of Sylvia Plath quotes—and pictures of girls who have scribbled a journal entry onto notebook paper then taken a picture of it. So that’s the artwork, but it also encompasses this idea of having an online persona. And they’re being artists by uploading these things, but they’re also curating their lives.

AMM: I’m curious what kind of imagery goes along with these journal entry snippets.

GT: There’s a lot of taking the feminine aesthetic and kind of blowing it up and emphasizing it, taking it to a point of absurdity. Not in a negative way, just to say “You think that girls like glitter, and pink, and hearts? Well, we do. And I’m going to have a full face of glitter and have heart stickers on me and bedazzle my nails because I want to do it.” So it’s kind of mocking the feminine aesthetic…

AMM: But embracing it.

GT: Yeah.

Ann-Marie Manker with a mold of her husband’s baby teeth. Photo by Karley Sullivan for BURNAWAY.

AMM: I’ve had conversations with a lot of young artists about the idea of being a feminist but celebrating feminity. Because there was such a rejection to it decades ago, and now they’re owning it. There’s a safety in owning it now, because you don’t feel threatened or you feel a little more able than you used to in expressing yourself.

GT: The first waves of feminism were more about borrowing the masculine identity for ourselves and that’s how we got power because it’s the only way we could. Taking on masculine attributes even if they were false and only later were we able to reclaim our femininity.

AMM: But it also reminds me of a connection to a highly saturated visual, digital culture. When you like color it’s hard not to crack out on it. Even though I’m not putting glitter all over my face or anything, I wouldn’t mind lying in a pile of it. It’s so beautiful. It could be just aesthetics. But I’m sure it’s different for each person that’s putting it out there. 

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