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Sexuality and feminism in illustration: a conversation with Melissa Jaram

Jul. 3, 2019
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Photos by Hannah Sommer

Melissa Jaram is a London-based artist whose work represents the woman’s body in a new way that challenges the male gaze and pushes boundaries. She spoke to us about her practice, her early years in China, and where she finds inspiration in her everyday life. 

Speciwomen: Who are you?

Melissa Jaram: Melissa’s PA. She’s too famous to answer these questions. (I’m kidding. Hi! I’m one of the many artists living in SE London.)

Speciwomen: How did you first get into art?

MJ: I think it’s just an innate thing that I was born with, which was always encouraged by my parents. I was born in China to an English dad and Chinese mum, and we lived in a hotel for seven years. Back then in the early ‘90s, China was still very much third world and had just started developing, so my brother and I were mostly confined to playing inside the apartment. That meant that we spent a lot of time watching movies, drawing and painting, and getting creative with how we entertained ourselves. Perhaps that’s when my artistic nature was really set in stone.

Speciwomen: What are your favorite materials to use?

MJ: Definitely gouache paint. I recently switched to matt emulsion as an experiment but then started using gouache again and it was pure heaven. I wanted to cry, it was so nice! It was like breaking up with the love of your life, having a fling with a rebound, and then getting back together with bae. Haha!

Speciwomen: Where do you draw the most inspiration from?

MJ: All the weird old things that humans leave behind like stories, sentimental objects, folk art, and religious artifacts. The British Museum, Hunterian, and Wellcome Collection are all places I like to wander around when I’m looking for some kind of inspiration. I feel like history is loaded with stories and lessons, and anthropology really interests me. If you’ve never looked at Asafo Flags, Google it now! They’re these amazing applique flags that are still integral to the culture of the Ghanaian Fante tribe today. If I’m ever struggling with color, I’ll look through them and subconsciously take all of it in. 

Speciwomen: Where do you prefer to work?

MJ: Anywhere with a constant flow of tea. I actually just moved into a new studio, which I’m sharing with three amazing artists: Assa Ariyoshi, Chris Harnan, and Jack Felgate. When you’re sharing a space with other people you really admire, you end up in the right mental state for being your best creative self. It’s about community above all.

Speciwomen: What does your practice mean to you?

MJ: It means continuous learning, and I think that’s so important. A lot of the work I make is highly intuitive and things operate on a subconscious level, but for it to have meaning I need to be constantly learning about things and forming opinions. My practice gives me the freedom to learn about and research a variety of topics and subjects, all of which I’m hoping will make me a better person. 

Speciwomen: Who is your work for?

MJ: It depends on the project. When I get commissions, then the work is for my client and whatever they intend to use it for, and there’s usually a lot of back and forth on tweaking the design. When it’s a collaboration, then it’s for a shared passion. When I’m lucky enough to be making work for myself, it’s for myself. It’s my way of communicating, figuring out the world, or just simply expressing whatever emotion I’m feeling at the time, and it’s always a big bonus if other people can relate to it or learn something from it.

Speciwomen: Your work advocates for body positivity—where did that stem from?

MJ: How many of us have felt like we weren’t good enough due to body consciousness? I would expect it would be [around] 99%. And women have historically suffered more when it comes to this due to sexual politics. A really good book to read is Ways of Seeing by John Berger. He says that “women constantly meet glances which act like mirrors, reminding them of how they look or how they should look. Behind every glance is a judgement.” He then goes into detail about how the male gaze influences the way that women ultimately see themselves. Once you realize how much of a cultural construct that is, you then have the power to change it. The female nudes that I produce [celebrate] a variety of body shapes and the subjects’ ownership of [their bodies]. If a subject appears sexual in any way, then that sexuality belongs to her and not to the viewer. It’s definitely a conscious thing.

Speciwomen: What do you want to achieve with your art?

MJ: I sometimes get DMs from girls telling me that my drawings make them feel better about themselves, and that really motivates me to keep making work… It’s very