Street art is a male-dominated scene. Not only is a culture of hooded men creating art at night, but it is also in the arguably masculine need to territorialise a given space.
Los Angeles-based street artist Deedee Cheriel admits she still struggles with the machismo the medium demands. “Banksy did a popular piece for a show in LA of a dog pissing on a wall. The majority of street art is like that, it’s like writing your name on the wall. It’s very juvenile, it’s very dry,” she says.
Although a growing number of female artists such as Swoon, Princess Hijab and Bambi have become established in the street art world, Cheriel says it is still difficult to get noticed as a woman.
“It’s a very male-dominated world and it is hard to get in on. I sometimes get jealous when there’s another street art show with another ten guys exhibiting, but I think the nature of street art is very masculine.”
Cheriel first started painting street art in 1997 while living in Chile after the fall of Pinochet. It was seeing a nation express their freedom from political oppression on public walls that first influenced her to become a street artist.
“Public art is more of a populist form and it has more of a political agenda,” she says. “People get to see your work as you’re making it. They come up and talk to you and show you their reactions. It’s much more accessible to people who wouldn’t necessarily go into a gallery.”
Despite working in a politicised and typically male genre, Cheriel admits there is a femininity to her work, which draws strongly on nature and folklore with influences from punk and Hindu imagery.
In her first solo UK exhibition, which focusses more on her studio work on wood, Cheriel explores what she calls “the spiritual solution” - the sense that we are always looking for something external to fulfil ourselves.
“In western culture so many things reinforce the desire to want something outside of yourself, like a really posh car or a nice place to live. We’re always thinking what is going to fix us and make us feel better,” she says.
Cheriel’s narrative work is populated by animal heads which she paints onto human bodies and engages in everyday activities like bedtime reading or sunbathing. Her most recurrent image, a roaring bear, is linked to her own experience of feeling trapped by material goods when she gave up smoking, she says.
“When I quit smoking I couldn’t think straight enough to paint. So I kept painting this bear and it became very therapeutic, and I realised that much like the hungry bear I was totally fixated on wanting to have a cigarette.”
She has also painted the bear’s head onto the Hindu goddess of money, and puts her interest in Eastern art down to her father’s Indian heritage. A recent visit to her family in India inspired her further after she witnessed how much time they spent cooking and talking to one another.
“I realised so much of my life was spent on a hamster wheel of working to make money to exist and it sort of takes away spending time with family.”
Although Cheriel says she is not anti-capitalist, she does enjoy “pondering the other side”. But I wonder how she finds selling her work on the commercial art scene? “It’s tough, every time you make a body of work you have to question what you’re really doing it for. You have to ask what you’re doing, what you’re making work about, who you are, and what you want to say.”
If there is one thing that Cheriel is clear about however, it’s her want to make art to inspire a future generation of women to do the same. “Just because women have a right to vote doesn’t mean that women have an equal voice. I definitely think of myself as a feminist, I would like to inspire younger women to make art.”
Little Spirit and the Infinite Longing runs until 12 May at Pure Evil Gallery, 108 Leonard St, London EC2A 4XS; 020 7729 2866. Curated by Coates and Scarry.
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