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Naomi Wallens’ Provocative Critique Of Societal Pressures Of Female Conformity

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Naomi Wallens is a contemporary artist based in London, critiquing a range of themes from societal injustices, conformity to empowerment and love, making her way into the arts as a self-taught artist in the iconic realm of London’s street art with guidance from fellow street artist HUTCH.

As great street artists do, after dark, she would emerge with spray cans and stencils as her artistic alter ego SHYGUY. Embracing the streets as a boundless canvas to evaluate her subject matters in graphical motif’s.

The desire to explore and experiment sparked a new era for the artist marked with an extensive new body of work narrating the pressures women face within modern society.

Artists apply emotions to provoke discussion, which ultimately makes their works unique. Wallens’ exercises this method thoroughly, as we witness the artist pushing her emotional frontiers to be the theme and muse in her statement pieces.

Naomi Wallens

I’m known most for creating unorthodox products of visual story-telling that fight and challenge societal injustices and champion empowerment and love.

Naomi Wallens

In 2018 in her first solo exhibition titled, ‘Behind Closed Doors’, saw the artist cast her bum as a sculpture as a personal representation of empowerment and rebellion.

The exhibition was well-received, making her known for her provocative work and carved a pathway into the art world, attracting collectors and enticing Saatchi Gallery’s attention also going on to showcase her work as part of Their Startnet art show.

Wallens’ work encompasses the magnetism of street art with a symbolic intent and may seem unorthodox by society’s nature, and some may even consider it a contradiction. Nevertheless, Wallens’ bold aesthetics are “art food for thought”, as the artist raises awareness of the trials and tribulations of being a woman, mother and societal inequalities by turning them into eye-catching artwork to inspire and make others rethink society’s preconceptions.

In this interview, we learn more about Naomi’s creative process, inspiration and what’s next for her as an artist.

Q: Hi Naomi, for those who don’t know you, can you please introduce yourself?

A: So, I’m a multidisciplinary artist working with painting, sculpture and, more recently, photography. I am self-taught as a street artist, and this is where I began my journey into art under the tag name; SHYGUY. I’m known most for creating unorthodox products of visual story-telling that fight and challenge societal injustices and champion empowerment and love. I think that the exciting thing for me about my art is that I am not defined by a medium.

The Reflection: Whitecross Street
Naomi Wallens AKA (SHYGUY)

My art very much starts with the story, drawn from my own experiences, and I enjoy choosing the best medium to tell that story or the medium that interests me to work with at that time. It feels important to tell stories that are truthful and honest, and I enjoy selecting the medium to work with that best fits with that message or story, always with heavy street influences – this, in turn, has become my signature style.

Q: How did you get started on your artistic journey, and what have your most memorable moments been so far?

A: My way into art was quite non-conventional, in that I had academic schooling and then followed the pre-conditioned path into the corporate world. It was later on, after a series of difficult life events, that I began to do what I loved and started painting again. The streets called out to me as a prominent starting place as it felt like an inclusive space without rules or judgement.

I created an alter ego for myself; SHYGUY allowed me a safe space to unlock my passions and begin telling my stories. In the early days, I was fortunate to spend some time with Hutch, a street artist that I had always admired, and he helped me create some stencils from my early concept work, and we took to the streets together. This time was invaluable for me as a street artist.

Painting again felt very freeing and became exciting and hopeful. I was able to examine all emotions that I was carrying and portray them as pieces of art. I began to see people’s reactions to my work, and this gave me inspiration and motivation to continue.

A turning point for me was being introduced to Beautiful Crime, an art agency and gallery set up to publicise a new genre of street and urban art. They represented some artists that inspired me, and I was so happy that they saw potential in my work. They launched me in my first solo show, which we put on together in 2018. It was called ‘Behind Closed Doors’.

My most memorable moments so far have always been on the occasions when my work connects to someone else in such a way that they feel able to share their own brave stories with me, usually of their own accounts of experiencing social injustices. These are always special moments for me that I hold close.

Naomi at The Saatchi Gallery
Q: Can you tell us about your creative process?

A: My process is constantly evolving, and it always starts with the story. And I work it out from there, the crux of what I am trying to say or feel passionate about.

This can come from a feeling at the moment, or something that has been developing in my thoughts for a while, being triggered about something relating to my own journey, or seeing an injustice directed at someone else, or being inspired by another person’s journey that resonates with my own. I write lots of notes and thoughts down, and I make many sketches.

This can come from a feeling at the moment, or something that has been developing in my thoughts for a while, being triggered about something relating to my own journey, or seeing an injustice directed at someone else, or being inspired by another person’s journey that resonates with my own. I write lots of notes and thoughts down, and I make many sketches.

The development stage sometimes takes days, weeks, or even months. At some point, there is a moment where the idea clicks and becomes so clear in my mind, and then I have a huge urgency to create the piece whilst I am still riding in that moment.

I’m not an artist that works on several pieces at one time, so once I start on a piece – a bit like some people that once they start a good book or a Netflix series they can’t stop until it’s finished – I work through the nights until it is finished. The process isn’t planned or certain, and therefore it leaves me the space to enjoy the creative process and not be restricted in my expressions.

Q: Your work explores the nuances of societal pressures of female conformity and its impact on women to feel connected to themselves. Can you tell us the motivation behind this?

A: I’m interested in conformity as a whole in society, and my own story certainly where I have felt pressure as a woman and a mother to look and behave in a certain way, stay in my place, be good, be grateful and strive for society’s approved goals in life.

It is challenging to move away from a path of social programming and cultural conditioning and re-program ourselves, especially when socially, on the surface, your life looks just fine.

My work also examines the effects this has on our mental health, the ‘shame’ surrounding this and the toxicity of following a journey, not of your own design. My motivation comes from the hope for a meaningful and lasting change in society, where conventions are rethought, and outdated ways of thinking are made better.

Q: What are you trying to achieve with your work?

A: When I create a piece of art, I feel that I have a voice and can say something meaningful to me. It excites me to tell a story that I feel passionate about and make something that I am proud of.

I think deeply about society injustices and try to find ways to communicate them in a way that others can connect with. It is a real challenge to take such complexities into a conversation, and if I manage to get close to that, I feel a real sense of achievement. I also love hearing feedback of other people’s interpretation of my work and why they connect with the piece.

Q: What was the first piece of art you created that cemented your path as an artist?

A: I think the first body of work that I created that had such an emotional public reaction was when I painted ‘Heavily Compromised Series 1’ on White Cross Street, EC1. My work at this time was largely autobiographical, and I introduced characters into my work, which usually originated as a self-portrait photograph.

Heavily Compromised

The character in this piece is the Compromise Girl, who is burdened and saddened at trying to be herself in a world constantly trying to make her something else with the ultimate aim to please others. The Compromise Girl is wearing a wedding dress and writing lines ‘I must compromise’ on a school-style blackboard.

I loved painting this piece and went back to visit it for weeks afterwards to read people’s comments that had been written next to it. People really connected with this piece and completely ‘felt’ it, and I think this started to get me known, and the heart of this piece is still very closely aligned to many of my new pieces.

Q: Covid put the art world on pause for a while. Did it influence your practice in any way?

A: I think lockdown forced the white noise of life to get turned down in some areas and forced us all to notice more about the world we live in. For me, it gave me a chance to see some of the world’s ills more clearly and some of the injustices and behaviours that had started to appear as ‘normal’ and part of everyday life. I felt compelled to make a new body of work following George Floyd’s death, a trilogy of striking photography art pieces.

I made one of the pieces, titled; ‘Race for Beauty’, to show my solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and reference a film that came out over lockdown called ‘Misbehaviour’. Which addresses both feminist and racial issues surrounding the true story of the 1970’s Miss World contest One of the other pieces titled; ‘Save Yourself’ was heavily inspired by the book written by Glennon Doyle called ‘Untamed’, which came out over lockdown and resonated with me and my journey. It explores the joy and peace we discover when we stop striving to meet others’ expectations and start trusting the voice deep within us.

I chose the medium of photography as I wanted to align my medium with the messages, appearing on the surface as glossy photographs that you could find in a fashion magazine, but on closer inspection, telling a deeper story depicting subjects at odds with their glamorous appearance.

I was very fortunate to be able to showcase this body of work at the Saatchi Gallery in the short window in between the two lockdowns which was both physically and emotionally challenging, and for me I will always remember the feeling I felt after finishing these works which was very much a hope for a new beginning.

Q: In your first exhibition, ‘Behind Closed Doors’ in 2018, features sculptures cast from your own body. Can you tell us why you chose to use yourself as the muse?

A: I often use myself as the character or the subject in my work, as I can push my boundaries as an artist in doing so and often put myself in a place that isn’t comfortable. I feel it is this place that allows me to create my best work. The sculptures that featured in the ‘Behind Closed Doors’ show were cast from my bum. The bum stands as a symbol of both rebellion and empowerment to me.

Rebellion against social conformity and empowerment to live a life of your own design, unapologetically and guilt and shame-free. To be seen and heard for who we are and where we are going. To quit being good and start being free. The freedom that comes from these sculptures permits others to share their messages of freedom. I now paint commissioned bums for other women, using my sculpture and decorating it with their design, usually their tattoos that feature on their bum, or we work together to design a tattoo or message personal to them.

Naomi Wallens’ Exhibition at Saatchi Gallery, Kings Road. Part of the Start Exhibition.
Q: Can you tell us about your exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, how you got the opportunity, and how it made you feel to showcase your work there?

A: The START art show at The Saatchi Gallery was an amazing experience. I remember feeling emotionally overwhelmed on seeing my body of work for the first time all hung on the walls of The Saatchi Gallery.

Every piece of work is a piece of you and your vulnerability as an artist. Your journey has a message that you feel passionate about – and a large body of work altogether was powerful for me to see for the first time. Being an artist not coming from within the art world, it was very special to meet like-minded people, be alongside some incredible artists and have the good fortune to bring a body of work together to feature at the beautiful Saatchi Gallery.

The show is open to any artist to apply to the START selection committee. The part that will stay with me forever was hearing people’s reactions to my work and bravely sharing their own stories with me. It inspired and encouraged me to make more art and keep telling stories.

Q: Having completed successful exhibitions, do you have any unrealized projects you would like to produce without existing constraints?

A: I would love to bring together all my passions of music, street art and fashion together, and would love to collaborate. I loved Stormzy’s Glastonbury set with his messages referencing racial inequality, injustices in the criminal system and the knife crime crisis – aligning with Banksy and what he stands for. They collaborated on his stabproof vest outfit.

Naomi Wallens

I also enjoy making installations and set designing. I’m inspired by artists who use music to tell stories, such as Miley Cyrus, Jay Z and Lady Gaga. Fashion and different artistic creators such as Alessandro Michele or Alexander McQueen. Public figures who are advocates for diversity and better representation like Edward Enninful and Naomi Campbell.

Women who live their lives and have fought for their freedom, such as Glennon Doyle and Chanel Miller – So collaborations with other Artists that I align within a broader sense through music, fashion and literature is the kind of projects that I dream of being involved with.

Q: What next for you as an artist?

A: I am in the concept stage of working up my next body of work – called the ‘Good Girl’ collection, which will be a sequel to the photograph art trilogy that I created over lockdown. It will explore my interpretation of what a modern-day ‘good girl’ looks like, reference my studies of female conformity, and refer to other ‘good girls’ that I am inspired by.

This collection will feature at The Riverside Studios for three months from January 2022, thanks to The Art Hound Gallery, who will be taking my work old and new to display at the exhibition, exploring women and power with the signature Art Hound undertones of rebellion and punk. In addition, I am launching a range of ceramic Ice buckets in the shape of my bum – so I am currently painting them and working on their launch.

Q: Lastly, what does art mean to you?

A: Art is my love and life; it isn’t work to me. It’s something I want to be doing each day until the end. I’m a passionate advocate for making art as important as all other subjects taught in schools and changing the archaic ‘subject importance’ hierarchy that is taught.

As someone who was advised at school not to pursue art as ‘it isn’t a recognised subject’ and indeed ‘not a career’, and watching my children be party to the same messages in society. I feel the positive outcomes of Covid has forced many to imagine more harmonious and healthier ways to live, work and learn.

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©2021 Naomi Wallens

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