International Women’s Day is a day of celebration, reflection and action, and on March 8 we come together to recognise the achievements of women, to address the barriers that perpetuate gender inequality and to amplify women’s voices and visibility. Assembly Label takes pride in extolling the work of women in our community and this month we are honoured to welcome artists Caroline Walls and Lilli Waters to our Artist in Residence series. Working across different media, both Caroline and Lilli are interested in representing female bodies and capturing experiences of womanhood in intimate ways, and their work is on display in Melbourne stores this March.
“My language is a visual, sensual one, and a camera is a medium with which I bring ideas to life.” In a few words, fine art photographer Lilli Waters renders a portrait of herself as a woman with the power to turn threads of imagination into evocative images; a woman with her own language. “When I make art, I feel like it’s the closest thing to reaching the divine,” says Lilli. “It’s like sitting in a pool of pure liquid gold in my mind, my happiest of places. It makes me feel ecstatic to be alive and my brain starts firing like lit-up fireflies. It’s a deliriously euphoric place to live.”
Photography by Tasha Tylee
Born in a counter-culture community in Wytaliba NSW, Lilli’s early home was a place where nature had a vivid presence in daily life. “Everything I have lived through comes out in my work in one way or another, so in that sense I consider it autobiographical,” she says. Her rural upbringing planted the seed for themes Lilli would go on to submerge her work in. One theme is water, which Lilli has always been drawn to and which manifests itself in underwater still life collections and photographs of female figures floating or wading in rivers and pools, like ethereal Pre-Raphaelite models. “I assume this is because I swam and bathed in the river in the bush on a daily basis as a child — we had no running water or electricity. Often, I wake yearning to be close to flowing water where I feel most at home.”
Another recurring theme, which recalls Lilli’s Artist in Residence work The Road Before, is the female form. Lilli’s large scale photographs immerse female figures in romantic and sometimes haunting landscapes that traverse remote Australian environments, yet are also redolent of mythical realms inhabited by goddesses condemned to live on earth. “Both the physical and emotional landscape of being a woman is all of these things — we are full of romance and desires, and yet our internal worlds often feel like navigating the unknown wilderness, with danger lurking out in the landscape,” explains Lilli. “My work offers a contrasting portrait of women, both strong and vulnerable. These women are in harmony with and thrive in their surroundings, they are nourished by them. It questions our relationship with nature, ourselves and ideas about female identity through unsettling, otherworldly scenes.”
By offering a critical feminine gaze, which alludes to “the conundrum of being in a woman’s skin”, Lilli’s practice finds a way to express physical agency and ease in a society that objectifies women. The women Lilli represents are typically “strong, more curvaceous, fuller female figures” and she is interested in rethinking notions of beauty, bodies, power and vulnerability. Of her models she says, “These women contradict stereotypes of feminine frailty; they appear to be birthed into nature, or perhaps birthed from nature”. Rather than being helpless or exploited, they are heroic and offer an expansive expression of the feminine, and Lilli is the first to admit she is in awe of how their bodies interact with the environment she places them in.
Where Lilli has power over how she portrays the female experience, it’s nature that shapes her landscapes. “I pick the route and the destination, but it is never what I thought it would be, or it is more than I imagined,” she says. “This is the beauty of working with the power of nature — it feeds you unpredictable, magical and mysterious energy, which can never be recreated.” Lilli’s need to capture evidence of her surrounds and turn the ephemeral into the forever stems from her childhood. “If I was witnessing a painfully beautiful sunset and there was no one around me who seemed as overwhelmed by this visual, I felt like it was a torturous waste. Hence I am now a photographer.” Lilli’s art practice is also tangled in family history and a childhood she describes as anxious, traumatic and abusive, and offers a way to lean into periods of darkness. “I come from a long line of strong women activists and environmentalists who suffered at the hands of men, and so if I am going to make work, it is important that it explores these themes and holds meaning for others when they look at my photographs. There is always some kind of beauty in the darkness… the darkness doesn’t have to be only the fear that comes with the human experience.”
Over time, Lilli’s practice has established relationships not only with her subjects, but perhaps herself, too. “Photography allows me to express the vast and at times difficult emotional landscape in which I inhabit — beauty, pain, love, longing, angst, rage, fear, desire, dread, hope.” Photographing women in nature, she says, is a labour of love requiring a well of energy. “My relationship with my work is one of deep love and anxiety. Sometimes it feels like a passionate affair, other times I can’t stand the thought of it.” If shooting a photo series is the hurricane, the calm after the storm is Lilli’s time alone in the studio. In the post-production phase Lilli heavily manipulates her photographs in an almost meditative state, embodying all of the worlds she is trying to reach and create. This, says Lilli, is “the arousing and electrifying process of transcending images into their best light... to prepare them to be released into the world and have their own life”.