Ceramic artist Eliza Hopewell discusses the importance of being naked, subverting the male gaze and the need for honesty on social media
“To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself”
– John Berger
“Everyone gets 10 inches,” says Eliza Hopewell, with a wry smile. Beginning as an alternative to presents for close friends, Hopewell has since built a hand-painted plate business over two years, bought by the likes of the Rothschilds, Bella Freud and Soho House. We’re sitting in her (former) studio in Camberwell and a tangle of paint, ceramic plates and sketches line the tables. Before the heater is switched on, the air is so cold that our breath unfurls like smoke. “It was only after I’d been selling them to friends of friends for a few months,” she notes, “that I wondered, ‘can I be the kind of person who has a good craft business?’. But I thought fuck it. It just sort of preceded me.”
Hopewell’s unapologetic plates are tightly packed vignettes of colour and twisting female figures that smoke, scowl, shave, masturbate, menstruate, swim, recline and everything else in between. The subjects are typically naked and central to the South-East-London artist’s practice: “My whole ethos is freedom and nakedness is a huge part of that. But it’s complicated, as my work takes on a lot of those ideas of classical nudity and objectification in older paintings and I don’t want to reinforce the male gaze. I’m painting naked female bodies because I want to show them as they are, and don’t want to shave off bits of fat or hair or period blood. But we do still live in a world of female objectification, a place where the naked female body is seen as more beautiful than a male body. Inevitably, I’m playing into the marketability of the female form and I would like to paint more men. All bodies are beautiful to draw, they’re so fascinating.”
I ask whether she is encouraged by recent progress in gender equality, in certain parts of the world, and whether this will increasingly make her work less scandalous? “Feminism is super mainstream at the moment, which is great,” she replies, “but it’s also made me question the relevance of my plates. So much has changed and showing a girl on her period, for example, is already less controversial than when I started. The artist Lisa Yuskavage said that ‘If you’re showing people things that they like and want to see, then you’re doing it wrong’. I don’t want to indulge people.”
For Hopewell, who trained as a painter and printmaker at Glasgow School of Art, the initial reason behind her commissions was egalitarian: “Old portraits in the National Gallery are made up of aristocracy, people who can afford to have these commissions done. I liked the idea that you could have a plate of yourself looking grand as fuck – that was exactly the same as what someone like Kate Moss had. That you had one even though you live in a council flat and went to the nearest state school and you’re on the dole.” However, the business model soon became too physically demanding, financially light and had strayed too far from the original concept. “At first it was fun, contrasting kitsch decorative things that you would find in your grandma’s house, but once it was just commissions over and over again, I was no longer pushing any boundaries. I was painting pictures of families fully clothed and wasn’t getting paid nearly enough for the amount of time they took, sometimes as much as 15 hours. I was reluctant to bring the prices up for a long time because I believe in art being accessible and didn’t want to make it into an exclusive club, but I’ve always been treading this line between a craft business and a fine art practice.”
I note that many artists grapple with issues of self-worth, particularly when it comes to costing up their labour in a market that either devalues or hyper-inflates their work. She nods, “it’s also a lonely career choice, I’m literally on my own 90% of the time. Plus, at the start, I saw it as narcissistic to declare ‘I have this vision and I will put it out into the world’ – like the world needs to know. I’m a real accidental businesswoman and incredibly disorganised. Believe me, behind the scenes it’s a bloody nightmare!”.
Our conversation turns from the physical act of making to the online world, a space in which she is clearly in her element. I suggest that a large part of her rapid success has been down to her use of Instagram. Using the platform to not only showcase her work, but dance to The Slits, engage in debates on cultural appropriation and openly discuss mental health and relationships has clearly won her a lot of love in the digital age of cynicism, falsity and vacuity – “It’s natural to me, I’m the least private person ever. It’s also about being unapologetic, being totally who I am and as aggressively myself as I can possibly be. Today, honesty is almost a political act.”
Social media and the internet generally, we agree, has provided safe spaces for the previously persecuted, but also created splinter cells of arrogance and ignorance. Hopewell states that “Internet wokeness has increased suddenly and the echo chamber quality of it worries me. Yes, we can do the gender theory fast – in the space of four years my perspectives changed drastically – but in practice I think it naturally takes humans a lot longer to change their behaviour. There’s a real gap between what people think they should say and how they actually think. The internet encourages public shaming and all the finger pointing makes people extremely paranoid. I sound like a Daily Mail reader right now, but there’s a bit of a left-wing lynch mob that goes around virtue signalling.”
“I’m keen to be honest on social media, so I’ve been doing a lot of undoing recently. I’m trying to be open when I say ‘sometimes we don’t know things, sometimes we get things wrong – that’s ok!’. I want people to think deeply about their politics instead of following a status quo of how things should be said. It’s okay to have had ideas and acted in ways that are racist, sexist or homophobic as long as this something you are now working to overcome. Dismantling racism isn’t about repression, it’s about becoming conscious of your learned behaviours from a systematically racist society and learning to undo them.”
When I ask her what’s next, Hopewell pauses briefly before looking out her window at the clustered ash trees, “I’m tempted to totally change track. At the moment all I want to do is paint trees, I never realised how beautiful they are. It’s only in the last couple of months that I’ve had the time and space to think about other projects. I’ve suddenly got these days off where I get to come into the studio and make what I want. It’s spooky and it’s hard – ‘oh fuck what do I want to say?’. I haven’t had that feeling in a while and it’s anxiety inducing, but also incredibly exciting.” Whatever she does decide to say, I have no doubt it will be joyful, direct and honest.
Photography Lauren Maccabee