Nude Self-Portraits Trace A Journey To Reclaim Pleasure After Sexual Assault

Rowan Renee reclaims their body in a gorgeous series of photos.

Warning: This article contains nudity and may not be appropriate for work.

Rowan Renee

What I remember is laying on the bathroom floor,” Brooklyn-based artist Rowan Renee wrote in 2015. “I might be four, or five, or six years old. It was always in the bathroom.”

As a child, Renee, who is gender non-binary, was abused and molested by their father. Renee’s mother and grandmother were also victims of sexual assault. “Is this story not yet tired of rewriting itself?” Renee continued. “Obedient daughters and wives. Women taught that to speak out means to be shunned, brutalized or killed. Women taught to hate their bodies as much as the people who ravage them ... Women who are abused and set out to find what lays beyond it, like me.”

Renee’s father was eventually convicted of lewd and lascivious battery of a 13-year-old boy and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He died while incarcerated. Five years after his death, Renee began to explore the physical and psychological traces years of incest and abuse left behind, using their camera as a guide.

For the series “Bodies of Wood,” Renee photographed their partially nude body in various positions of power and submission, tension and release. In one image, Renee sits naked on a kitchen counter alongside a sink, clutching the edges of a stained glass window. The dilapidated domestic space surrounding them recalls the work of Francesca Woodman, whose photos explore how women’s bodies can simultaneously evoke presence and absence.

Rowan Renee

In another, Renee again lies naked amongst fragments of splintered wood, their face shielded from view. The image is reminiscent of the spirit of Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, who placed her body in nature in order to envelop herself in the primordial elements of the universe ― responsible for the life and death of all things.

Mendieta’s spirit looms over Renee’s project. As a woman who was subjected to violence at the hands of a man she loved, Mendieta plummeted to her death at 33 years old, after falling from the window of the apartment she shared with her husband, artist Carl Andre. Andre, who was heard fighting with Mendieta just before her death, and was found with scrapes across his face afterward, was charged and eventually acquitted of her murder.

“Women who are thrown out of windows, like Ana Mendieta,” Renee wrote.

With their series, named after a Carl Andre quotation, Renee reclaims their body, formerly a site of pain, imbuing it with the potential to experience pleasure. In the process, Renee proves a nude photography subject is neither vulnerable or powerless by default, giving their body a tangled mess of agency, rage, forgiveness and desire.

Read HuffPost’s interview with Renee below.

Rowan Renee

This series grapples with brutal violence within a family unit. Can you talk about your decision to address these issues in an abstract visual language? Why did you opt away from more direct representation?

One of the questions I often ask myself is: How do we represent violence without perpetuating it? While incest is a particularly brutal kind of violence, I don’t think the brutal moments are actually the most effective to represent it. For one, depictions of brutality are always at risk of being fetishized. And if not fetishization, they still elicit such strong reactions that they can eclipse the nuance and the deep contradictions that pervade the violence that occurs within the family.

Brutality is the sensationalized moment, but it’s only the beginning. For me, it was more important to focus on subtle, unsettling and deeply psychological responses. There’s a profound realness to the way trauma stays with us long after the traumatic circumstances are over. In that sense, I wouldn’t say my images are abstract. They reflect the longer acting and quieter aspects of trauma that do not typically hold the audience’s attention in mainstream representations.

How did you decide to incorporate your own body into the images? How do you see the relationship between memory and the body?

In the historical role of testimony, brutality is difficult to communicate to people who have never experienced it. My body was essential to this project because no one else can testify to my experiences. Trauma survivors often talk about how memories come up first as physical responses. When people experience trauma they enter a dissociative state. If the trauma is chronic, dissociation becomes a daily survival mechanism that can literally reshape the neural pathways of the brain.

That’s all to say that the relationship between memory and body is a complicated one. The body may communicate things the mind is not ready to consciously accept. The mind may physiologically change in response chronic abuse and begin to see the world differently. Sometimes the process of externalizing memory, in writing or in image, becomes a process of witnessing one’s own memory. Distance can be a space to build compassion for one’s own experience.

What do the words “Bodies of Wood” mean to you?

“Bodies of Wood” is a quote from Carl Andre about sculpture. He says: “Wood is the mother of all matter. Like all women hacked and ravaged by men, she renews herself by giving, gives herself by renewing.” Andre is also believed to have murdered his wife and artist Ana Mendieta, although he was acquitted of the crime. I mention Andre and Mendieta in the zine/personal essay that accompanies “Bodies of Wood,” and I basically call out Andre’s words as a hollow fantasy that men use to justify violence in aesthetic terms. The zine was how I brought a more literal narrative about my childhood in relation to the imagery. [Editor’s Note: The zine can be read here.]

Rowan Renee

Where are these images shot? What drew you to these spaces?

All of the images were shot during a five-week artist residency on a houseboat in Sausalito, California, called the VAR Program. The boat used to belong to Alan Watts and Agnes Varda, and was decked out with much of the original decor. I often worked on the boat because it was so strange and evocative, interacting with particular areas or pieces of architecture that resonated with me. Other times I went for meandering bike rides along the Marin Coastal Reserve. The outdoor shoots were much riskier, because they inevitably involved me taking off my clothes while alone in the woods, often very close to active trails.

There’s one image that I took in a parking lot on the way back from one of my walks. It had been raining and the sun broke through the clouds in a beautiful way. After some deliberation I decided to do it, but I would leave my underwear on. There’s obviously a bit of fantasy in that logic. Of course I know that underwear would do little to protect me from an awkward encounter or a physical threat. But, I think the actual precariousness of my body was necessary to capture that feeling in the image.

You describe your photographs as “solitary performances for the camera.” What does this mean to you and how does it differ from sitting for a portrait?

When I talk about my process for producing these images, I often describe being in dialogue with both the camera and my unconscious. I didn’t think of the process purely in terms of constructing an image. Instead, I think about channeling a specific moment, place, and state of mind. In the language of “mindfulness,” I sought to capture a moment of total presence.

The photos also deal explore tensions related to gender-based violence and victimhood. How does posing nude for the camera, a traditionally feminine and submissive role, feel for you? Do you find it objectifying, empowering, healing? What is the relationship between subject and victim, in your opinion?

Working with the nude female form in these images is a sleight of hand. The context of incest adds conflict to the desirability of the body in the minds of most viewers. They are confronted with the discomfort of having to hold two opposing truths, that the body shown has been violated and is speaking openly about violation, and the body shown is desirable. And I think that speaks more accurately to the aftermath of trauma.

Victimhood has a way of removing agency from individuals and pathologizing adverse experiences, setting victims of sexual violence into a category where they are meant to unfairly carry the burden of shame, and are expected to be “broken” by their experiences. I don’t think of my body as submissive in these images, I think of it as confrontational, transgressing the taboos that would rather not see me or acknowledge the resilience, strength, and empowerment that can be claimed from the position of “victim.”

Rowan Renee

In a statement, Aperture described how the images represent a journey to rediscover pleasure after violence and trauma. How, if at all, did creating these works affect your relationship to physical pleasure?

Through “Bodies of Wood” I began to understand what it means to experience artistic inspiration. Something happened where I became uninhibited and was able to tap into a fundamental life force. While I was working on “Bodies of Wood,” I felt a profound joy. That feeling was connected to the feeling of freedom. But it also was connected to the feeling of my craft. I had developed a fluency at making images, and I could wield it with power and confidence. The experience of creative genesis was a source of pleasure in this project. Being able to access that part of me builds wellsprings in every other aspect of my life.

Creative expression is often associated with therapy and healing. Was creating this work a therapeutic process? If not, how would you describe its effect psychologically?

There have been many therapeutic aspects to making this work, but I think the one with the most implications for social change is the process of breaking the silence. The taboo in our society is not the incestuous act — it’s common and the perpetrators are frequently protected from consequence. The taboo is talking about it. As long as incest is something that cannot be openly discussed, we will see this kind of violence continue to be used as a tool to control behavior and dominate.

Can you share a reaction to the series, whether positive or negative, that stood out to you?

As part of the weekend-long program at Aperture, we collaborated with The Voices and Faces Project to host a testimonial writing workshop for survivors of gender-based violence and other human rights abuses. One of the writing exercises was to look at “Bodies of Wood” and react to a single image with a piece of writing. Hearing the participants’ stories was like witnessing creative genesis.

It was also an exercise in relinquishing control of interpretation. I was surprised at how the writers in the workshop landed so close to my original inspirations, while still inflecting the images with their own experience. It was as if the images had tapped into the collective unconscious and that was legible in people’s responses.

Rowan Renee
Rowan Renee
Rowan Renee
Rowan Renee
Rowan Renee
Rowan Renee
Francesca Woodman