Artist spotlight: ‘ironing out’ with Jade Montserrat

Ahead of her performance at Steakhouse Live Festival, I had a talk with performance artist Jade Montserrat about her piece, Communion. The performance speaks to vanity, and the fixation on preening and smoothing hair. In it, she allows her hair to be flattened with an everyday iron, exploring allegories within terms such as “ironing out” and “flattening”, and what they mean when applied to culture and histories. We discussed what being “preen” and “fixed” meant growing up and how these experiences shape her work.

gal-dem: So how did this journey start with you?

Jade Montserrat: I guess it best to start with where I work from which is Scarborough in North Yorkshire. I live in a really remote area in North Yorkshire. In fact, I’ve lived there all my life. It runs on generated electricity, with no neighbours for a few miles. So it’s quite isolating. It’s like a microcosm of the world in a way. I suppose living out here is a kind of creative journey in itself.

So was it this isolation that lead you to explore yourself as an artist, your identity, your creativity? Was your practice formed out of this isolation?

Absolutely. Well, I suspect that all children are creative, and that it’s something you are taught out of or unlearn. And I think the amazing thing about children is their resourcefulness and play. I think my creativity came out of those two elements, in isolation, because I had to keep myself company. But at the same time, as all children do, you want be adventurous and inquire.

And one of these inquiries was about your cultural identity?

Definitely. I now had a heightened awareness of cultural identity imposed upon me.

This clearly influences your work. Your show, Communion, raises questions about your own hair, and this idea of “preening” or “fixing” your hair.

Yes. I think, as a child, your outward appearance is mostly decided on by an adult. Your parents – they make decisions for you in terms of how you look a lot of the time.

No one really knew what to do with my hair, at all, not a clue. When I did start going to other hairdressers, one hair dresser put my hair in big curlers as you do with white hair to create big curls. My mum was pretty aghast because it was like suddenly I had Barbie doll hair. They made me look like something I wasn’t. But my grandmother, she said, “I’ve never seen your hair look so good”. It fit something that she knew. And then I went to my mum’s hairdressers, and they cut it like Will Smith.

Oh no!

And I just don’t remember seeing any material or anything on television or in film, showing me what my history was, or what to do with my hair, or anything to do with any way that wasn’t white.

And so these are some of the experiences that influenced your piece, Communion? Talk to me about how this is explored in the show.

So, I lie on a table, undo my plaits, brush my hair out. Then I lie down naked. Then a performer irons my hair. It was really emotional for the last performer. They got really upset by it and stopped the show.

Wow.

But I hope that we can take out some of the feeling and that it can just be interpreted as an action. I’m not precious about my hair, I’m just worried they will miss my hair and iron my face. I hope that the audience and the other performer can think less about my body, the performer’s body, and to think about everybody and the kind of histories we’re ironing out. I’m saying that my body can reference other bodies that can be ironed out in history. I want to ask who those bodies are and reveal some of that, and not erase and flatten history.

Communion is being performed at Steakhouse Live from Friday 14th to Sunday 16th October. For more details click here: www.steakhouselive.com/longer-wetter-faster-better/jade-montserrat/

Communion forms part of a body of work relating to a larger project, The Rainbow Tribe. You can check out more of Jade’s work: jademontserrat.com

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