Across the arts, we are entering a new age of pleasure. Specifically, women’s pleasure. For so long it has been absent across Western culture and art history where the male gaze has dictated the narrative. But now Janelle Monáe has declared the beginning of a sexy summer. An unapologetically queer and femme kind of sexy. They declare “if I could fuck me right here, right now I would do that”, a bold celebration of their own body and sexuality. They’re not the first to do it, but it is refreshing to see queer femme sexuality embraced so openly in the mainstream. For Monáe, the sexual liberation of their new album takes place in the context of a universe liberated from patriarchy. As Heven Haile writes in a Pitchfork review “Janelle Monáe takes us to the promised land.”
Below are some of our favourite artists centring femme pleasure in their work.
Vaginal Davis has been creating provocative art since the 80s, termed “terrorist drag”. Her pieces often shock the audience and subvert expectations of what is considered art – recounting explicit stories of Berlin sex parties on stage, or shouting “I want hot sex!” and “I want love!” in GB Jones’ film The Lollipop Generation (2008). Like Angelou, Monae, and Beyoncé, she refuses to be a passive recipient of men’s sexuality.
Jenna Gribbon is queering the meaning of the word “muse”. She paints her wife, musician Mackenzie Scott, usually partially or completely naked. Sometimes Gribbon’s bare legs are shown entwined with her wife’s. In Bed with Mirror (2022) shows Scott nude in bed, blindfolded facing a mirror. She’s not interested in the male gaze, the paintings do not reflect a power dynamic but a relationship built on reciprocity. She told Vogue “I wanted my work to be visibly pleasurable, to reflect the pleasure I feel in what I’m making.”
Katherina Olschbaur creates wild erotic oil paintings filled with women, angels, and animals. Sometimes her figures are combinations of the three, like her sexy minotaur with her legs in the air. But pleasure isn’t always so straightforward. Sexuality and desire retain their complexity, even in her mythological scenes. Her curator, Allyson Zucker, places her work “in this forbidden territory, within the suspension of reality and fantasy, between pleasure and pain.”
Sola Olulode paints joyous moments frozen in time. They are a celebration of queer love and intimacy, in all its forms. She explains “Too often these relationships are forced into being hidden as if there is something to be ashamed of. I want to normalise seeing images of queer people being affectionate.” Whether that’s sharing a dance at Notting Hill Carnival in And You Sabi Do The Dance Well (2019), or making love in Let Me Drown In the Depths of Your Love 1 (2022).
Monica Kim Garza has been compared to Gauguin stylistically. While Gauguin painted voyeuristic images of Tahitian girls from an outsider’s perspective, Garza takes inspiration from her own life. She paints confident women enjoying themselves – having a drink at a bar or receiving oral sex. She doesn’t paint with any agenda except pleasure: “It is what it is, and it ain’t what it ain’t. I’m a pretty chill person, and my work, for me, is inspired by life, not conceptual ideas relating to movements. But art should be free for interpretation, so that’s what it is.”
These artists present femme pleasure outside of the limits of the male gaze. It may not be the be-all-and-end-all of liberation but it offers a glimpse of what is possible. Long live pleasure!
Girls Talk About Sex is a platform for women and non-binary people to share their experiences and opinions on sex and relationships.
Listen to The Age of Pleasure by Janelle Monae on Spotify or Apple Music.
For more on Jenna Gribbon, Katherina Olschbaur and Sola Olulode, visit their artist pages.
Avant Essays are short(ish) opinions on art, written by anyone with an opinion on art. Have something to say? Get in touch.