Once Upon A Time...
a woman gave birth to an egg-shaped stone. It was imperfect and irregular, but she loved it, believing it to contain the magical secret to life. One day, she decided to break open the stone to see what was inside. As it broke in half, it glistened. No ordinary stone, but a quartz crystal geode that had taken thousands of years to grow. Curled up inside was a tiny naked woman — her child. Like a gnome or fairy, the woman appeared both young and old. As the human opened her big brown eyes and looked up to her mother, cautious, yet curious, she crawled out of the egg, and began to dance to the beat of her mother’s heart, pulsating in her mother’s hand. The child’s skin was made of night and day, and covered in stars, and as she danced her soul into being, shadows danced across the walls.
… But like all women born out of a broken fairytale, later in life, love was to be both a blessing and a curse.
“Vulnerability is the strongest state to be in. How boring would it be if we were constantly dominant or constantly submissive?”
- FKA twigs
It was a new moon, but it was nowhere to be seen, as if it had vanished entirely from the sky like a dream. Whilst in London, sitting in the bedroom I grew up in as a child, now an adult, having outgrown my body and the room, the unchanging landscape of white walls began to shrink and something flickered in front of me like a portal into another world. It was then I saw a Goddess sat on a throne in an ancient temple, her crown shaking as if stems of straw flowers were growing out of her head. Possessing a body larger than life and dipped in gold, she ruled over miniature priestess doppelgängers who danced beneath her. Like a heartbeat or an oncoming orgasm, she breathlessly sang ‘Suck me up, I’m healing for the shit you’re dealing,’ as her fingers poured white fluid into a dancers mouth, mother’s milk. It was as if she were the past, present and future all at once. An online Goddess embalmed in the realm of the Internet, made immortal. Millions follow her, carrying her around on the underground as an ephemeral talisman. But when the video stops playing, the sacred Goddess becomes a human being, just like you or I. Nonetheless, she casts her spell and is worshipped by many — this is the cult of FKA twigs. We watch with desire, believing that, in this world or the next, we too could master something that for a moment might make others believe we were half-human, half-god.
In FKA twigs’ music videos, vulnerability is an intimate spectacle. Although arguably embraced by mainstream, ‘pop’ culture, the work of this British artist (who is of English-Spanish and Jamaican descent) seeks to stir desire and unease while interrogating and decentring ideas of self, sexuality, gender, and race. Reincarnated through her music videos, twigs’ hyper-sexuality challenges our sense of taboo, as she inhabits various personas to reflect an unfixed, unbound ‘self’. A fictive reverie of sound, movement and imagery opens a Pandora box of erotic and intimate acts, played out alongside darker aspects of sexuality and violence. Her performances, seen as sites of female creativity, self-expression and exploration, can be evocative, unnerving and transgressive, simultaneously exposing and exploring the myriad roles a woman can play. In this way. we might liken her work to the Serbian and German performance artists Marina Ambromović and Ulay, whose naked bodies clash violently in the 58-minute performance Relation in Space, 1976, disturbing dialogues around gender and power dynamics, whilst challenging notions of a separate ‘self’. Or in the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta’s three and a half minute performance Untitled (Blood and Feathers #2), 1974, recorded on Super-8 film. The film shows Mendieta standing naked on a sandy creek in Iowa, murky waters flow behind her as she pours blood over her body before falling face-first to the ground. Rolling back and forth, she covers herself in pure white feathers. As if slaughtered in a ritual sacrifice, she stands with her body covered in blood and feathers. Mendieta stares directly towards the camera, her half outstretched arms are bent at the elbows like a bird-woman with clipped wings. She appears both helpless and defiant. Imbued with a dark ritualistic sense of magic and power, this work directly relates to the specific ritualis of Santería, and indigenous conceits of the Earth. In Mendieta’s own words, ‘My art is grounded on the belief in one universal energy which runs through everything; from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy.’ In 1961, when Ana was aged twelve and her older sister Raquelin fifteen, their parents sent them from Cuba to America, via Operation Peter Pan — a mass exodus of 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors during Castro’s ascent to power in the years just following the revolution. During her first two years in America, Mendieta was moved between refugee camps, orphanages and foster care. Her works are often haunted by a sense of displacement and exile and, conversely, belonging. Exploring identity, gender politics, death and the horrors of male violence, among other things. Referring to her transition to the medium of film, she stated ‘[…] I wanted my images to have power, to be magic’, still timelessly relevant, they do.
Pain and pleasure tattoo themselves into twigs’ imagery. In ‘Hide (4 of 4)’, 2012, twigs appears androgynous, with a red heart-shaped anthurium flower covering her vagina. Her hand repeatedly moves towards the flower but contact is never made. Her movements gesture towards touch and the act of foreplay with the flower’s small spadix acting as a penis. In ‘Papi Pacify’, 2013, a man inserts his fingers into twigs’ mouth and appears to choke her, though her gaze suggests it’s consensual — for her pleasure. In ‘Pendulum’, 2015, a close up of her mouth pans out to reveal her tied up by her hair in shibari, like a ballerina in a box. In ‘I’m Your Doll’, part of the EP M3LL155X, 2015, a disturbing scene, has twigs’ head attached to a blow up sex doll that is raped by a man until she deflates. In ‘Glass & Patron’, 2015, she is pregnant and her hands crawl across her belly like an ‘incy wincy spider’, moving towards her vagina as if to masturbate. She ‘gives birth’ to various colourful silk fabrics, before playing homage to Vogueing. Recently, in collaboration with 645AR, in ‘Sum Bout U’, 2020, she created the concept to play an OnlyFans cam girl — a sexual virtual chat experience in which women are paid and given gifts by viewers. She performs several personas in a range of futuristic cam girl-wear styled by Matthew Josephs. More than simply objectifying herself, her ideas challenge how we view the lives of others through the creation of an immersive multi-sensory experience. It is a daring performance as she slips in and out of different costumes, each characterising a unique sexual fantasy. She’s playing with hybrids, performing as FKA twigs and an online sex worker. Like identical twins, we cannot tell them apart.
In ‘Soundtrack Self: FKA twigs, Music Video, and Celebrity Feminism’, Kirsty Fairclough suggests ‘[twigs’] willingness to engage audiences in her own self-ambiguity and complexity presents a challenge to normative femininity in a post-feminist regulatory environment, and in a mainstream media culture dominated by simplistic and reductive versions of female identity and sexuality and it’s here where twigs appears to present a disruption to the norm.’ The patriarchal tradition of reducing women to the virgin or whore, depicting them as one-dimensional figures, perpetuates the limiting binaries of objectified or self-objectified subject. By these terms, women can never be truly free. It would be reductive to deny the complexities and nuances of what it means to be human, in turn denying our humanity. In ‘Diary of a Song,’Song,’ twigs talks about creating the final track on the album ‘Mary Magdalene’: ‘I just had some surgery. I had fibroids in my uterus. I was in a period of deep healing and rediscovering my sexuality. Mary Magdalene helped me ground myself in who I am.’ Her album Magdalene, 2019, engages with speculative narratives of Mary Magdalene. ‘For centuries Western Christianity depicted Mary Magdalene as a former prostitute, a narrative that began in the sixth century.’ Yet, Modern scholars argue that she was a powerful and important figure, and now ‘regard her as one of Jesus’ most prominent disciples.’ Whilst discussing her creative process, twigs conjures her own telling of Magdalene: ‘The original story is that she was a prostitute filled with sin but then it came out that she had a really amazing and extensive knowledge on oils and she was a healer. She was in many ways what we’d call a doctor now. I think that duality really excited me, that is my archetype.’ How we think about the past and our relationship to it is shifting. We’re used to stories and archetypal figures that denigrate and suppress women, rendering them historically uninspiring, their stories lifeless. Recuperating and reimagining iconoclastic and archetypal figures allows a revision of history and therefore a woman’s place within it.
In ‘Cellophane’, 2019, inside a veil of curtains, twigs walks towards a stage, her cape reminiscent of a scene from The Bodyguard, in which Whitney Houston performs ‘Queen Of The Night’, surrounded by a fan-crazed crowd. twigs peers through the curtains and removes her masquerade-sunglasses from which dangle pearl teardrops. Dropping her cape to the floor, an ominous audience we never see applauds as she walks onto the stage. The audience settles; she looks around, orchestrating further applause by dropping her clothes. This intimate act of undressing is evocative of the 1940s burlesque striptease ‘The Dance of Desire’ by Miss Kalantan. twigs walks enigmatically across a glass-mirrored floor in platform stilettos, a balancing act in itself, and dressed in an embellished costume like a belly dancer, with a small piece of blue teal draping like a fallen loincloth. As she grabs the pole, her movements simulate sex. Her internal fragility is revealed, ‘Didn’t I do it for you?/ Why don’t I do it for you?/ Why won’t you do it for me?/ When all I do is for you?’ Lying on the ground, gymnastically extending her legs into splits before collapsing orgasmically, the mirrored floor connects us to the mythical figure of Narcissus. This mirroring is less egotistical, rather an act of defiance, of falling in love with herself, nurturing the ‘self’, and reclaiming her body through dance. She ‘flies’ through the air acrobatically, pole dancing in a spellbinding display of contortions. The skies open, revealing something flying above her. Struggling, she attempts to climb towards it. At the top, she meets a masked, winged creature that flies towards her. As it hovers, its mask breaks open, revealing her face beneath it. Pushing her stiletto through the sphinx-like creature, whose face now mirrors her own, twigs falls through herself. Icarus-like, she has flown too close to the sun, defying the laws of nature. As if falling through a nightmare, she plummets into the underworld, landing on a red clay womb, where healers crawl out theatrically in masks, covering her body in clay — she’s being reborn. The tragedy ends with an omen: ‘They’re watching us/ They’re hating/ They’re waiting/ And hoping/ I’m not enough’. An echoing, perhaps, of the abuse and racism she suffered whilst dating actor Robert Pattinson. As she rises to sit, holding herself, whilst breathlessly quivering, in her vulnerability she is more than enough.
In ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, Benè Brown explores ‘human connection — our ability to empathise, belong, [and] love.’ Working as a social worker for over ten years, she came to realise that connection is why we’re here. Focusing on the idea of connection, she began to research and gather stories. Brown noticed that shame unravels connection. Shame, she argues, is ‘the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?’ Underpinning this is the question, ‘Am I good enough?’ From her research, she discovered, ‘there was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it […] They believe they’re worthy.’ What they had in common was a sense of courage. She refers to the original definition of courage, derived from ‘the Latin word “cor”, meaning heart […] courage was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.’ Brown also found these individuals ‘had a compassion to be kind to themselves first, and then others,’ having connection ‘as a result of authenticity, [as] they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were.’ In ‘Cellophane,’ twigs demonstrates the courage to be vulnerable and imperfect. Confronting the fear of self and other in a sacred act of sharing. When she is most shamelessly and unapologetically herself, we in turn connect with her truth.
In October 2019, twigs travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, taking part in a sacred moon dance ceremony with spiritual healer Queen Afua and ‘womxn’ live at Afropunk, with twigs later leading ‘womxn’ to Blue Flame Lounge, historically the city’s first black strip club. As Clarissa Brooks writes, twigs’ illuminates the power of Black ‘womxn’ for whom ‘Healing [is] a cultural practice,’ shedding light on her own process of healing in connection. In the video, we first see pixelated shots of twigs performing before the frame changes to show Queen Afua leading the ceremony. She’s adorned in a white feather headdress, shells and fine fabrics, surrounded by ‘womxn’ onlooking or dancing with her. The bodies of ‘womxn’ dance and spin, clothed in white fabrics, they evoke a trance like state of whirling moonflowers and emitting light. They dance in a circle of ‘sacred geometry,’ infinite, continual and binding force that represents ‘divine feminine energy.’ ‘These movements are based on the first movements from the first healers from the beginning of civilisation. ‘Whatever movement you make is perfect because it’s your language,’ says Queen Afua. In a filter of blue-night-sky, light falls like moonlight onto the women’s skin as they dance in ecstasy. Entranced in the moment, deep in focus, laughing with joy, their palms touch to send gratitude sky-bound. Close-up shots inhibit our gaze. This inability to witness the whole image adds to a feeling of mysticism — of a secret. It connects us to a resurgence of interest in Goddess movements and ancient healing practices. Though Goddess Religions are thousands of years old, their histories and cultural practices vary worldwide. Goddess worship claims a space, outside of patriarchy, to celebrate the matriarchal and focuses on ‘divine feminine energy’ as a source of knowledge and power.
Later, ‘womxn’ are shown dancing in Blue Flame Lounge. Kaleidoscopic filters of purple, red and green fluctuate quickly amid changing shots, stimulating excitement as ‘womxn’ celebrate each other’s gifts. On the floor, twigs twerks in the splits with a dancer, who afterwards is adamant she needs to have a stripper name: twigs says, ‘Bambi.’ ‘I’m fucking with Bambi,’ the dancer replies, demonstrating female solidarity and inclusiveness. Women uplifting other women are a powerful light. It is the erotic Audre Lorde refers to. Here we witness, ‘this real connection […] so feared by a patriarchal world.’ In ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,’ Lorde writes, ‘As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community, there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.’ In her interview with Brooks, twigs comments, “I found it incredibly powerful to see womxn admiring and encouraging each other to dance and celebrate all different expressions of femininity and the female form.’ In ‘Uses of the Erotic,’ Lorde states, ‘The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.’ She asserts, ‘For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives.’ The erotic has been maimed and denied its power, ‘misnamed by men [as pornographic] and used against women.’ Reclaiming the body as site by which women express themselves and their sensuality is an empowering act of freedom and defiance. ‘For the past few years I’ve been curious about [my personal traumas], and actively trying to not only heal [them] but also set free the ancestral traumas I carry with me,’ says twigs. Here, twigs’ and ‘womxn’ are reclaiming the erotic, their bodies, their histories and their lives. The erotic becomes a revolutionary source for healing. In the prologue to Storytelling, Self, Society, communications and folklore scholar Sunwolf recognises the importance of the ancient tradition of telling stories as a vital and healing practice. She cites West African folklore, in which healers ask the sick, ‘When was the last time that you sang? When was the last time that you danced? When was the last time that you shared a story?’ Through these channels, the body purges and draws out what is inside in a magical feat. The body is a storyteller and a healer, and ‘The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of our deepest knowledge.’
In ‘The Spirit of Dancehall: embodying new nomos in Jamaica,’ Khytie K. Brown discusses dancehall as a reactionary and liberating act of collective healing. Despite having gained independence from the British Empire, Jamaica still lives in the aftermath of the transatlantic slave trade and colonial rule, as witnessed in the debilitating and enduring consequences of poverty, and through Christian morality, which inscribes itself on the body — a religion inherited from slave masters and missionaries. Brown describes a dancehall scene in which ‘… bodies writhe and collapse into a complex of skill, erotic, and sensual energy.’ She argues, ‘there is a blurring between the sacred and the profane and the dancehall space becomes an alternative ritual space.’ Out of context, Dancehall is often and egregiously attacked as a solely sexually objectifying dance form, but it’s important to understand its cultural history, which can offer insight into how the once marginalised body can become an erotic site of creativity, empowerment and resistance. Brown also, references Beth-Sarah Wright, who sees Dancehall as an old and powerful ‘spirit possession’ that ‘transforms the body from solely an object of desire to a spectacle of ecstasy.’ Ecstasy as the drug of love.
How quickly ‘love’ can curdle to abuse. Since the #MeToo Movement, there has been a resurgence in awareness and reportage of sexual abuse worldwide. The continual de-humanising and destructive acts of abuse and violence that continue to be played out upon women’s bodies should never be the burden of women, and yet it is often women who are blamed or held responsible. In 2020, twigs courageously became yet another woman to speak out publicly about abuse. Filing a lawsuit against actor Shia LaBeouf, she ‘accuses him of “relentless abuse,” including sexual battery, assault and infliction of emotional distress.’ However, she states, she does not label herself a victim. In her first TV interview since filing the lawsuit, on CBS This Morning, interviewer Gayle King asked twigs the question: ‘why didn’t you leave?’ She replied, ‘We have to stop asking that question … I’m not going to answer that question anymore. Because the question should really be to the abuser: why are you holding someone hostage with abuse? People say it can’t have been that bad, because or else you would’ve left. But it’s like, no, it’s because it was that bad, I couldn’t leave.’
Moving from the personal to the collective. In 2020, Black Lives Matter protests took place around the world, following the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer. Addressing directly the racism still shamefully alive in Britain today, twigs’ recent collaboration with Headie One and Fred Again, ‘Don’t Judge Me,’ 2021, co-directed with Emmanuel Adjei, has a sense of real-time urgency. FKA twigs sits in an opulent room, lifting her head, sculpted in canerows — her eyes confront something unseen. Light and water flicker and fall like tears across close ups of the American artist Kara Walker’s masterful 13-meter-tall sculpture Fos Americanus, 2019, described by Walker as an ‘allegory of the Black Atlantic.’ Dancers lie on the floor as if washed up on the shores of the fountain. A noose hanging from a tree and a shark leave you to imagine the brutality and horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and its aftermath. Dancers resurrect and rise from the floor, almost as if their bones have been snapped back into place. Trauma manifests itself in the bodies of the dancers as their movements contort, as if they are being attacked. Fear, rage, and sorrow disturb the bodies. The infliction of violence by ‘an invisible oppressor’ visibly overwhelms the bodies in a violent struggle, as they protest for their lives. Black activists and pioneering cultural figures surround the fountain. In an ethereal plea, twigs sings ‘Don’t judge me, take care of me/ Don’t judge me, take care of my heart.’ Her movements fuse, dancing in combat, but every time she moves forward, an invisible force beats her back and she flies through the air. Headie One walks through the streets of London rapping personal anti-racism lyrics, ‘I didn’t choose to be me, so why discriminate me?’ In the final scene, he witnesses a black man on the ground being handcuffed and pushed up against a wall. No one else’s there and a soundscape of a policeman’s overheard walkie-talkie plays out. Only a human without a soul could be unmoved. The video explores the experience of being Black and British in the modern day and represents a shared ‘struggle against an invisible oppressor — propagated by cultural, systemic, and structural biases […] often hard to see and even harder to overcome.’ You don’t need to take a life to destroy a life. Discrimination can be deadly. Racism can be insidious; it can be overt and covert too. Thematic links are drawn between past and present, where both sculpture and song address issues of racism in contemporary society. Where a ‘miasma of conflicts racial, economic and cultural […] still lodge themselves in our collective gullet, thanks to the rise of white nationalism, xenophobia, fundamentalist violence and a poisonous populism which has everyone mouthing off thoughtlessly at once.’
In the afterlife of heartbreak and trauma suffered to the body, for twigs, learning pole dancing was an act of metamorphosis. ‘Practice,’ 2019, directed by AnAkA, reveals an unseen image of twigs, one of sweat and struggle and striving for perfection — of ambition and relentless hard work. It deconstructs the beauty myth, which exists through the idea of her as an effortless idol. But the act of self-mythologising is also an important part of her storytelling. ‘Sad Day,’ 2020, directed by Hiro Murai, shows her mastery after having spent three years learning the Chinese martial art of Wushu under the guidance of Master Wu. Echoing the lyrics ‘never seen a hero like me in sci-fi,’ we see her in a sword fight battle, flying through the air with co-star Teake, before the ‘star-crossed’ lovers kill each other. A woman of colour, she becomes the sci-fi hero she never sees, so others can see themselves in her. ‘As an Artist my vulnerability is my key and I’ve learnt to find a lot of strength in that… that’s kind of my super power.’ The blending of fact, fiction and fantasy allows narratives and structures to be interrogated, challenged and re-imagined in a process of healing. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes, ‘Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.’ He refers to ‘love’ as a state of being that encourages risk and the courage to dare to grow — vital for evolution. When humans are authentically themselves, the alchemy of ‘self’ inspires others to be true to who they are. Music, at its heart, is an offering. It connects us. One of the first sounds humans hear in the womb is the beat of their mother’s heart. It’s therefore no surprise that music has the power to comfort, heal and uplift the soul. When woman plays God — Artist and Creator — she gives birth to new worlds. As a mirror she reflects what resides within us all — however complicated. It’s our humanity that connects us. Her story is hers — when shared it also becomes ours. We too can dream of the moon and the stars and defy limits. Let us not fear the erotic that lies within us, for it’s a manifestation of love. Love of self, and of others, starts from looking within.
When we collectively heal, collaborate and explore our imaginations, we too can become limitless beings who can change the world.
Holly Parkhouse is a London based writer. Her work is interdisciplinary, specialising in art and design. She holds a Foundation Diploma from UAL, Wimbledon, a BA from Exeter University, and an MA from the Royal College of Art, where she is an RCA Alumni. Her essays, poetry, and short-fiction have appeared in various publications. In 2020, her poetry was long-listed by What More? Productions.
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