The Femen were at first, in 2008, three, then four, young provocative Ukrainians determined to denounce, strongly and loudly, the subservient role of women in all sectors of their society, the ravages of prostitution, the lack of freedoms, and Putin's stranglehold. There was no lack of subjects of discontent in Ukraine.
Insolent, endowed with a great sense of humor and extraordinary talent, these four young women, without a penny in their pockets, made themselves known in a few weeks. On the European, then the international scene. How? By staging one or two spectacular actions--risky, and executed under the eye of photographers drunk on the odor of sulfur.
Who else can boast of such a feat? A footballer with an outrageous salary?
Who are they targeting? Women and all democrats on the planet who love, equality and freedoms (the plural of “freedom” is more realistic than the singular). To which we must add the world’s oppressed minorities. In all, if I am counting correctly, one or two billion people.
What do they get in return? Beatings, injuries, prison, trials, fines, insults, a precarious existence. Yet above all, masterfully-orchestrated global notoriety.
What are they selling, these Femen? Nothing. Ideas, so nothing but wind. Yes, but ideas of freedoms have a very long life. They have been fermenting since the dawn of time and sneak in everywhere, like viruses, even inside the most locked of dictatorships. And like viruses, ideas of freedoms contaminate those who get close to them.
What means do they use? The only ones at their disposal that they can use freely. Their bodies, of which they make weapons, spaces and vehicles for publicity. These warriors fight naked, hence their slogan "Naked War." Naked or just dressed in black panties or jeans. You can understand why photographers have made them into icons, stars, images that hide reality (they are richly-funded, under the authority of a guru; rumors, as usual). What is certain: They are young, they are sometimes completely naked, they convey, written between their breasts, slogans that make the majority tremble, they organize fast demonstrations, sometimes completed in a few minutes, and which always take your breath away. What a windfall! Newspapers and magazines have jumped at the occasion! They have devoted whole pages to them, illustrated with the most revealing nude photos, of course! As for the slogans that cover their bodies, even the illiterate could understand them; ditto for the nudity, the gestures of the arm or the neck, the crown of flowers on the head, the revolutionary posture—all constitute a universal language.
Their tactics? To burst, like commandos trained by American Marines, into a very public place, and to commit what seems like sacrilege. They entered Notre-Dame-de-Paris cathedral during Mass, the naked breast, "the charming breast that plays with fire" (to quote the poet Valery), to tap on the cathedral’s bells. Or worse, in the Church of the Madeleine, a young French Femen mimed before the altar the abortion of the Virgin Mary, using a bloody calf liver representing the fetus of Jesus. Fervently anti-religious, the Femen have everywhere broken crosses, demonstrated in front of mosques, Arab embassies, and Christian religious organizations, to protest the Pope’s renewed condemnation of abortion, despite its having been legalized in many Catholic countries.
Their most famous photo? No doubt that of the four Ukrainian pioneers, sculptural blondes completely naked. On the bust of one of them standing upright, the middle finger of the left hand raised, is written "Fuck Putin;" the three others, seen from behind, sitting on their heels, offer the spectator, as if they were trophies, their superb round buttocks!
Today, the Femen, who exist in eleven countries, have demonstrated in almost all Western capitals, but also in Rabat, but also in Tunis, which is much more risky than in New York, where street spectacles reign.
So how did twenty-two Femen go naked into eternity?
I finally talk about it. But first, I had to do what the major American dailies taught me: Recall the history of the Femen (the Latin word that does not mean “Woman” or “Femininity,” but “thigh,” the source of the French word, “femur”). I also had to highlight their phenomenal skill at increasing and maintaining their celebrity, a flame that continues to thrive and never fade.
So when the most famous of feminist photographer invites twenty-two of them to her studio in Paris, and proposes to photograph each one separately, they immediately understand that this artist is offering them a first-class ticket to eternity.
And on Saturday, 21 October 2017, in Paris, the opening day of the exhibition "Naked War," I met some of them in the beautiful gallery Xippas, at 108 rue Vieille du Temple (Marais district). Twenty-two large-format portraits, in color of course, plus an excellent 22-minute film directed by Sophie Bramly. We learn about how a photographer works, what type of preliminary discussions she has with her artistic director, how they decide from which style to draw inspiration. In the end, it was the Chinese posters under Mao Tse-Tung. We discover also the number of people-- makeup artists, hairdressers, assistants and accessorists, who surround and serve this professional perfectionist.
The twenty-two photos exhibited are exactly in the political lineage of this photographer: Perfection in staging, makeup, choice of accessories, framing, light, velvety skin. And insolence, provocation in the pose. Or in a gesture, a slogan, a detail that catches the eye. And the eye is fixed, sometimes freezes on their bloody sex.
Two portraits particularly captured my attention: That of a young Egyptian girl, petite, small-busted, as if compacted under the weight of tradition, completely naked, sex partly shaved, and around the breasts a slogan written in Arabic. I imagine the courage she must have had to liberate herself from the very heavy burden of past submissiveness, to brave it, and to assume the risks, perhaps mortal.
The other is that of a French woman, voluminous, with opulent breasts, and every millimeter of her body, a body at peace like that of Buddha, is covered with splotches of multicolored paintings. And whose shaved head is surmounted by a tiny tuft of hair arranged Sumo-style, and variously colored. I found it difficult to tear myself away from this portrait, the most eloquent of all. The most self-asserting.
A few days later, I went back with my friend Rosie, at the beginning of the afternoon, to see the portraits and the film in a moment of calm. I learned a lot from the interview with their spokesperson, Inna Shevchenko, and from the photographer's reflections about why she chose this theme of work, and how it fits into her own oeuvre.
I did not tell you the name of this artist, because surely you’ve recognized her.
Yes, that’s her.
Translated from the French by Diane Joy Charney.