Opening on the evening of the 7th of September, Magical Woman is an upcoming exhibition at Paper Mountain in Northbridge, aiming to facilitate the crucial conversation about representations of romance in film and popular culture. The exhibition displays the artworks of six women and non-binary artists, providing a platform for those who are traditionally objects of representation to explore representation in their own terms. The co-curators of Magical Woman, Aaqil Sumito and Sophie Nixon, have carefully chosen works that offer a nuanced take on what it means to represent and to be represented.
Recently, I sat down with Aaqil and Sophie to discuss the process through which Magical Woman came into being.
Grace Huffer: Firstly, I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about the premise behind Magical Woman in general?
Aaqil Sumito: Magical Woman is a platform for six emerging artists to explore representations of women and non-binary people in popular culture, particularly through the lens of romance, taking the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) trope as a starting point.
GH: Can you elaborate on the MPDG trope a bit and give some examples?
Sophie Nixon: Think 500 Days of Summer, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, and Garden State.
AS: [The MPDG] is a cis-white woman who’s quirky, and isn’t in control of her emotions or the way she interacts with men. She’s an idealised projection of the male-gaze.
GH: So she doesn’t drive the film’s narrative then?
AS: No, absolutely not.
SN: The MPDG is there to support and uplift the central male character, to enrich his life and make it better. There’s a dynamic between her being infantilised, void of personal agency or authentic expression, but also existing within a role of a mother at the same time, fulfilling the emotional labour that a man can’t do for himself.
AS: It’s really important to note that the exhibition takes the MPDG trope as a starting point only. That trope is only a representation of cis-white women, and we encourage the artists to move beyond that and to look at the total lack of representation of non-binary people and people of colour.
GH: How did you go about finding artist for the exhibition? I noticed that you have chosen to include six artists, rather than presenting a survey of a single artist’s work.
SN: It started off with a gathering of friends over a year ago, and then it quickly began to evolve into something a more serious. When we were trying to find spaces, we encountered some issues with male-dominated spaces, and it only really motivated it us to do more, and to be more critical. The process of finding artists began with a conversation about representation of women, particularly in regards to the MPDG trope, as a means to platform our frustrations.
AS: Co-curating the show as a trans person of colour, I thought a lot about the premise of this exhibition from my own perspective, which has a lot to do with why we moved beyond the MPDG trope. It’s really important to have diverse perspectives when producing a show like this, because often people who are cis or white won’t realise the limitations of work they are bringing to the table, unless someone points it out to them. It’s really important to acknowledge the misogyny within the MPDG trope, but that’s not the be all and end all.
GH: I also noticed that you included a large range of mediums, could you talk a bit about why you chose to do that?
AS: Diverse ways of responding is important to us, both within your own experience and the work that you make physically or materially. Moving beyond standard ways of making . . .
SN: We are trying to avoid passive viewers.
AS: Encouraging people to engage with ideas, and trans-disciplinary exchanges. This exhibition is equal part for the artists and for everyone else that engages with it.
GH: In her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ Laura Mulvey argues that in traditional Hollywood films, the spectator narcissistically identifies themself with the gaze of the active male character, rather than identifying with the passive female characters, towards whom the gaze is directed. What kind of relationship do you wish to develop between the viewer and the artwork?
AS: Say if it’s a cis-man, who isn’t necessarily engaging with feminist or queer discourse on the same level that we are, I’m willing to make them a little bit uncomfortable, to make them think about it. Some of the works in the show are quite overt in their critique, but there are some works like that of Sam Huxtable, that are much more about their personal experience.
GH: Can you describe Sam’s works a little?
AS: Sam produced a photographic portrait series called REAL DREAM, and it explores one-dimensional representations of trans people in wider popular culture and film. Sometimes a romanticised narrative about medical transition, sometimes a supplementary character to be sympathised for their trauma and drug addiction (think Dallas Buyers Club)– very negative representations. It’s celebration of trans people through portraiture, using signifiers of glamour.
SN: It’s a subversion and reclamation.
AS: It’s a positive and optimistic representation from a trans person’s perspective – and that’s not very common. The portraits are digitally layered photographs, a simple reference to the depth of the subject matter, allowing them to exist as they are, without fitting into one-dimensional narratives. Sam carves out a space for the subject to exist that is purely celebration.
I hope that our contribution to this conversation, through Magical Woman, is the first iteration of many, we’re simply allowing space for the conversation to happen. While I’m really nervous, I’m also excited.
Magical Woman is a free exhibition that will be shown at Paper Mountain (Upstairs at 267 William St, Northbridge) from the 8th – 23rd September, with an opening night 7th September 6pm. Magical Woman is supported by Healthway, promoting the Drug Aware message and Youth Arts WA Propel.