After 'Olympia, 1863', 2023

After ‘Olympia, 1863’


As a woman I always feel uncertain when facing a reclining female nude. Which actual woman would do that? In that rigid position with a smile, permanently covering their pubic hair? As a non-white woman, I wonder which character in Manet’s Olympia I can be associated closer with, the white prostitute, or the black servant? Or both? However, as a photographer, I can relate to Manet’s position better---the person with the authority to narrate. It was with all these questions, doubts, and uncertainties that I decided to re-stage Olympia, as a way to clarify and calibrate.

The restaging turned out to be first and foremost a material study of the painting. To do it I worked with a team of people: a professional theatre designer, a textile artist, a florist, a fashion designer, a botanist, a makeup artist, a large-format camera operator, two photography technicians and a commercial photographer expert in lighting. Together we unpacked every detail of the painting, from the shininess of the curtains to the colour and length of the fringe on the shawl, to the edges of the pillows, and to the brutal directness of the lighting. It is surprising to see just how much of the story is already told in its setting and embedded in its beddings.

After the setting it was the sitting. My models and I practiced and practiced the utterly forced and uncomfortable reclining position --- we had to put a door under the bed sheet so that the bottom didn’t sink. It pains to see how much the body needed to sacrifice for aesthetic enjoyments. Of course it was the look that made the painting. I felt that I was almost inhabiting her body, and her look. Sitting there gazing at my own camera, I learned to look at the world while being looked at with all that frankness. I have never accepted myself so plainly before.

Yet that was not all. In order to match the species of the bouquet, my ‘floral team’ discovered that the central flower was certainly a peony, the blue flowers next to it could be hydrangeas while the flower in her hair was no doubt a hibiscus. All were from China. Now I can read Olympia as a Chinese person. Peonies are the oldest cultivated flowers in China, adoring our gardens for two thousand years while also used as medicine. In 1787, the first tree peony was shipped from Canton to London under the instruction of Sir Josephs Banks. In the same year, the doomed ship Bounty set sail to Tahiti with the mission to collect breadfruit seeds and seedlings before transplanting them to Jamacia to feed the slaves on British sugar plantations, also under the instruction of Sir Banks. It was with this realisation that I took our bouquet apart and re-photographed the flowers with the aesthetics of traditional Chinese flower paintings. The B&W photographs are my humble pictorial re-claiming of Manet’s painted flowers.

Now there is a lot of certainty when looking at the modernity painted in Olympia by Manet. A modernity that places women, prostitutes, flowers, and slaves on the same level in the same picture. Yet the gaze endures, just like the stubborn hibiscus that refused to open on my shoot day. For that I had to use a lily, probably also from China. 

After ‘Olympia, 1863’, 2023 again was the accumulated result of collective wisdom.  I worked closely with the professional theatre designer Lara Booth to design the set. The fabulous fashion designer Janny Ye created, and hand made my outfit while lending us the male model’s outfit from her collection. Mark Upton at The Urban Flower Firm helped to identify the flowers and created the bouquet. Dr Alan Elliott from Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh lent his knowledge to help me understanding the botanic history planted in the painting. Natalie McKay was the makeup artist. The award-winning photographer Paul Floyd Blake operated the demanding 10 by 8 inch camera. My friend Rafaël Biosse Duplan sourced the first silk scarf for me to use in the place of the cashmere shawl in the original painting.

My colleagues at the School of Arts and Humanities, University of Huddersfield booked one of our studios for three weeks for me and provided technical support throughout the set building and the shoot. My gallery, Messums.Org heavily invested in the project by exhibiting for the first time as part of my Three Easier Pieces exhibition.

And finally, my dear friend Thomas Dukes posed with me.

I thank you all.