It Turns Out Your Nail Art Could Start A Conversation About Feminism
The Debrief: yep, you can make a political statement with your nails
The ritual and routine around beauty has long been a way women have communicated with each other, from the hair salon to the manicurist's chair, where life, love and everything in between has been therapeutically unpacked for as long as we've been grooming ourselves.
Artist Phoebe Davies might be the kind of woman who 'has my makeup routine that I do and have never been able to get into the idea of enjoying beauty regimes for anything', but it was the realisation that other young women can get a kick out of bonding over beauty, particularly nails, that brought her to create her project, Nail wraps: Influences. Working with a group of young women from a pupil referral unit in South London, Davies uses the process of applying nail wraps to find a way of opening up conversations with young girls about gender and feminism via a ritual they already knew and loved. 'They were about 14, 15 and 16, and had been excluded from school for behavioural reasons, or they might have an unsteady home-life and been out of education for a while', Davies says of the original group with whom she devised the project.
Working with the girls to find out what drives and inspires them, Davies would then set the girls the task of finding women who fit those goals with their achievements and put these women's images on sets of nails wraps, which the girls would apply to participants at pop-up nails bars, which have appeared at Arts events around London as well as Birmingham's Fierce festival and most recently, the Women of the World Festival at Cambridge junction, while talking about the achievements and impact of the women pictured on the nails. In the several sets of nails that Davies has now created with numerous groups of girls, women including journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed reporting in Syria, British author and women's rights campaigner Marie Stopes and founder of the Everyday Sexism Project Laura Bates have appeared on nails and had their praises sung by the girls applying them at the pop-up nails bars.
During the initial workshops for the project, commissioned by South London Gallery, Davies says 'I was really interested in looking at how the girls responded to discussing issues around gender. They would speak really openly about race but not gender'. She continues, 'they didn’t necessarily see it as a strength or a positive thing to talk about gender issues that effected them, and there were lots, with some of them being in vulnerable positions, potentially with domestic violence in their home-lives and communities, and there were some chats that were really tricky to navigate', she explains.
Noticing the girls' dedication to beauty, Davies hit the nail on the head, so to speak, when she realised that this was a way she would be able to coax the girls out of their comfort zones. 'Every week they would come back with different, really detailed acrylic nails', she explains, 'In our conversations they’d be doing their nails and reapplying their falsies, and it was definitely something that was a habit, so I thought, OK, this is something they really engage with and we can look at how we can start conversations about gender on their terms'.
'So we started designing nails discussing what we thought was a positive female role model, and what that meant', Davies says. 'The first set we did, we looked really personally at women who inspired us, so Rosa Parks was on there, and even my Granny was on there'.
The real key to the project though was having the girls work with participants to apply the nail wraps and discuss the issues surrounding the women on them as they did so. 'We got training from WAH Nails, Sharmadean Reid was really supportive, and the girls sat behind the desk and they did the audience’s nails, while they also hosted the conversation with that person'. It's the conversation that is the crux of the whole project, says Davies, who says she's an 'absolute stickler' for getting the girls to think about 'what do you want to talk to them about? How can you engage them?'. In the end, the nails themselves aren't so important, it's 'that you’re creating an active site for discussion that's not led by me going, “this is my feminism”, it’s led by the girls, it’s theirs'.
Since beginning the project back in 2013, Davies has found herself working wit a broad and diverse range of girls. 'The youngest we’ve spoken to are 13-14, and there’s others I worked with through Clean Break, who are an organisation that works with women who’ve been through the criminal justice system where we’ll have people up to 45, 50', she says.
'The most exciting thing about this is that the girls so passionate about talking about why they want these women on the nails', Davies says, asking 'what does it mean to have all white women in their 40s who all went to university as role models? What does that mean to us and is that interesting? Probably not'. Instead there've been women involved in mental health work, founded charities, started businesses, pioneered in education and much more. More importantly, with their images as nail art, and their achievements lauded as it's applied, the project shouts loud and clear about it means for anyone to become one of those women.
Find out more about the inspiring women on the Influences nail wraps here
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Folllow Laura On Twitter: @LauraFleur
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