17 November 2023

Afra Eisma & The Imagination as a Political Space

By Abigail Ronner

Work by Afra Eisma. Image courtesy of the artist and No Man's Art Gallery (Amsterdam, The Netherlands).

drip drop boobie spider was one of the highlights of Netherlands-based artist and activist Afra Eisma’s recent solo show at The Tetley in Leeds, which closed last month. The fabric spider’s silken legs lined the walls of an otherwise traditional room with elegant wood accents, all eight of them meeting in the center of the ceiling at a shiny cluster of blue, purple, and green tubular breasts with elongated nipples, which dangled like a voluptuous light fixture. Eisma’s work is often large and brightly colored, textured, and playful. She builds magical worlds, creates memorable, woven, puppet-like characters (many of whom resemble Gumby, America’s iconic clay figure from the 1950s, or friendly alien cyclops with svelte figures, hands like forks and dazzling red nail polish), and seeks to engage viewers with their own imaginations – a place she believes to be not only universal (we each have one, of course) but deeply political. “Imagination has the possibility of carrying hopes and dreams,” Eisma tells me for this profile. “It’s this beautiful space where we all come together.” That’s something that’s been occupying her mind lately, she says. “The imagination as a political space and what that means.”

Afra Eisma in her studio. Image courtesy of No Man's Art Gallery (Amsterdam, The Netherlands).
Work by Afra Eisma. Image courtesy of the artist and No Man's Art Gallery (Amsterdam, The Netherlands).

Eisma’s art is deeply rooted in intersectional feminism and giving voice to the female experience. She uses textiles and crafting techniques (like aggressive stitching to convey anger) to create awareness around and space for the trauma that women endure daily in a patriarchal society. She’s particularly focused on violence against the female body. Her exhibition at the Fries Museum in The Netherlands in 2021 was titled, your silence will not protect you, a line borrowed from Audre Lorde’s book of the same name and housed in the following passage of Lorde’s essay, The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action:

"My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences."

In the exhibition, Eisma created energetic, tactile worlds of color to create a safe space for her viewers to relax and exist in. Safety is something she herself seeks whenever she feels alienated in daily life, which is often. Her inspirations, such as Lorde, bell hooks, and Ursula K. Le Guin, also give her a sense of hope – another part of what she seeks to create with her work. Hope and a safe place for viewers to process their own personal traumas… but only if they want to. Her art, she tells me, “is dealing with heavy, darker topics, but because it's so colorful and bright and fun-looking there’s a way that [the darkness] can be there, but it doesn’t have to be there.”

Afra Eisma, "Warrior Garments" (2023). Image courtesy of the artist and No Man's Art Gallery (Amsterdam, The Netherlands).

Warrior Garments, one of Eisma’s works on display at Untitled Art 2023 with No Man’s Art Gallery, embodies this duality perfectly. Here, Afra takes inspiration again from Lorde, who writes famously about the uses of Black women’s anger, by taking what Eisma calls her own “anger speech” (a living narrative she keeps about her anger related to her personal traumas as a woman) and writing it onto intentionally feminine, silk-like fabric which she then sews into dresses. Eisma envisions herself donning these “power garments,” which are accompanied by a heart-shaped javelin, as her alter ago in order to face challenging things in life, like trauma or violence, that her normal self doesn’t want to face. "It's about wearing your anger,” she says, “because when you wear your anger, you allow yourself to feel it, but you can also take it off." Eisma, who is also a dedicated activist, tells me that when she engages with social justice and fights for things like equality or labor rights or ending violence against women, she “would love to be seen as an angry princess.”

She mentions how viewers see the symbolism in her short-hand scrawled across the dresses and immediately intuit the anger, trauma, or violence that they’ve felt in their own lives. And yet, children will approach the garments from a place of innocence and dress-up, in awe of the frill and lace and silk–the costume of it all.

This tension between safety and pain is a hallmark of Eisma’s work. Even her drawings, which are also on display at Untitled, and which she considers to be her most intimate works to date (it will be her first time ever showing them publicly) are shrouded in a silk-like fabric – an added layer of safety between the viewers and her raw emotions. For these smaller works, Eisma uses the sewing machine to “draw” with thread on the top layer of fabric, attaching it as a cover over the original drawing she rendered from an instant spark of inspiration onto paper. For an artist who works in large-scale textiles that require intensive planning and complicated patterns, Eisma is quite shy about her drawings, which she feels are a direct connection to her psyche.

Afra Eisma, "Boobie Spider." Image courtesy of the artist and No Man's Art Gallery (Amsterdam, The Netherlands).

Like her renowned predecessor, Louise Bourgeois, who appears as an influence in Eisma’s work and whose iconic spider sculptures seem to be directly referenced in drip drop boobie spider, Eisma’s art engages viewers with dark subject matter and yet where Bourgeois often forces viewers to confront pain directly – whether hers or their own – Eisma is intent on creating fun, wacky, tactile worlds of brilliant color that uplift viewers while also helping them to feel seen in the darkest parts of their personal experience.

Despite having graduated from art school less than six years ago, Eisma’s career has skyrocketed. Having just finished a slew of exhibitions ahead of her presentation at Untitled in December 2023 year, she’ll be flying directly from Miami to Finland for an upcoming solo show. Simultaneously, she’ll be showing what she calls, more experimental work, at a dual show at No Man’s Art Gallery where she’s represented in Amsterdam. Eisma is a hardworking artist who is as dedicated to her practice as she is to her activism. Artists, Eisma believes, have a duty to create work that opens others’ eyes to injustices they may not be aware of. Her own art, she hopes, allows for new conversations to be had or “to open doors of possibilities” where people might finally realize it’s okay to talk about something they previously thought was taboo. “Artists always question,” she says. “With these kinds of urgent matters in the world right now, it’s our duty to think about these things and maybe art can make it more digestible and give the power of hope.”

Abigail Ronner is a NYC & Asheville-based journalist with an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. As a contributing writer for VICE she covered arts and culture in New York for many years, interviewing luminaries such as Errol Morris and David Salle. Her article on the Federation of Black Cowboys ran as a cover story for The Village Voice. Her journalism has also appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Galerie Magazine, Highsnobiety Magazine, AnOther Magazine, Narratively, and elsewhere.