Re-elaborating womanhood as a subject: an interview with Cristina BanBan
Nov 08, 2023
Over the last years, Barcelona-born and Brooklyn-based artist Cristina BanBan has become increasingly recognized for her large-scale paintings depicting exaggerated portrayals of the female body. Inhabiting a transitional space between figuration and abstraction, BanBan’s oeuvre offers the possibility to re-think womanhood as a contemporary subject through the dialogue that she constructs with art history. While inspired by preeminent figures such as Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning, and Lucian Freud, BanBan proposes a more nuanced, emotionally-driven expression of being a woman painted by a woman, where agency and empathy play an important role.
If womanhood has been one of the most controlled subjects in the history of painting and portrait, subdued to the biopolitics of a patriarchal society, BanBan belongs to a much-needed new generation of female artists whose works attempt to offer new ways to occupy the discourse.
In this in-depth conversation about her latest show at Skarstedt, London, titled La Matrona, BanBan shares insight on her practice with eazel. The exhibition demonstrates her increased tendency towards abstraction, and experiments with the disruption of space and time, an emotionally-charged choice of color, and the interruption of the gaze. As intimate as it is powerful, the show displays a complex representation of the female body as a physical and psychological subject, touching upon the personal, while simultaneously becoming universal.
Valentina Buzzi (VB): In Spanish, the title of the exhibition, La Matrona, means midwife. The term originates from Latin, more specifically from ancient Rome, when mothers of the household were ideally strong women who could assist in the family's advancement. In Celtic mythology, matrona would refer to goddesses. How does this etymology unfold within your exhibition?
Cristina BanBan (CB): Spanish is my mother tongue, so I often filter my paintings through the lens of the Spanish language and culture. I think that the ways my figures present themselves throughout the exhibition illustrate all the various meanings of matrona. They are strong and self-assured, nodding to the power latent within a matriarchal society, or one in which women play a prominent role in general. Sometimes, they strike classical poses that allude to the matrona as a symbol of goddesses. There are also moments of tenderness and care, which I think speak to the maternal element of the word’s origins.
VB: Womanhood is a fundamental theme in your practice and becomes multifaceted across your body of work. Which particular aspects did you decide to investigate within this exhibition?
CB: In this show, I was specifically thinking of my own physical and mental struggles, which are very much grounded in the day-to-day realities of being a woman. While the women in my recent paintings are strong, they are not effortlessly so. This adds a new and exciting layer to the theme of womanhood in my work. Over the years, I’ve also noticed a juxtaposition between the personal and the universal in my practice, which I focused on while making the paintings for La Matrona. I think of my figures as universal beings, because although I use myself and my friends as starting points, the core of the works is not strictly portraiture. At the same time, these figures are imbued with my own emotions, increasingly taking on my own appearance, even in subtle ways.
VB: The exhibition text elaborates on the connection between the meanings of matrona and women’s representation throughout art history. It specifically points out a comparison with the infamous Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) by Pablo Picasso. What is your relationship with the historical representation of women?
CB: Throughout art history, the female nude was typically painted by a man for the consumption of the male gaze. As a woman painting other women, I almost completely reject the idea of the gaze. I am trying to flip the art historical narrative on its head, and part of this effort stems from a stylistic dialogue with artists I admire, such as Pablo Picasso or Willem de Kooning.
VB: In your unique compositions, women are opulent yet aerial, dancing across the canvas. They are monumental goddesses, but they remain uncaged in their stillness. It seems, in a sense, that despite the abstract setting, time is not frozen, but flows across your paintings. Where do you imagine your characters to be?
CB: I’ve been increasingly intrigued by the idea of removing my figures from any fixed sense of time and place. My earlier paintings were a lot more narrative than the works in recent shows like La Matrona. These days, I’m not as intent on grounding them in one particular setting. Instead, I’m more focused on women as figures in and of themselves. I’m inspired by everything: my friends, my daily experiences, and music. It all flows into the paintings in one way or another.
VB: Compared to your earlier paintings, specifically works presented before 2021, you seem to be diving more and more into abstraction. Is there a particular reason behind this direction?
CB: I wanted to see how far I could push myself within the confines of the same subject matter, and living in that liminal space between figuration and abstraction is an exciting challenge. De Kooning’s paintings of women were a big inspiration in this regard because he handled that dichotomy really well. No matter how abstract his work may seem at first glance, De Kooning never really let go of the figurative aspect in his paintings. He managed to maintain this sense of figuration with such deceptive ease. Since the core of my work is the female body, I always want the figure of the woman to be on the canvas – I want to see how it can be stretched and obscured while still retaining its essence.
VB: In the paintings presented in La Matrona at Skarstedt, your characters’ gaze always seem to wander somewhere beyond the canvas, almost never directly looking at the viewer. In Tres Mujeres (2023) for example, their eyes are sealed by brushstrokes. Could you elaborate on the reasons behind this representational choice?
CB: It’s a two-fold decision. One element, as I mentioned before, is the desire to shift the narrative around the female nude. I believe denying the viewer the opportunity to meet the sitter’s gaze is an effective way to do that. But the eyes also give so much away in terms of how a person is feeling, or what they’re thinking about. I wanted the viewer to hone in on their own emotions through the experience of viewing the painting, not by reading into the subject’s feelings.
VB: In this exhibition, different chromatic palettes unfold across the various paintings. What inspires your choice of color, especially the ever-presence of red, in various hues?
CB: The palette of this exhibition is darker than a lot of my previous paintings. That choice, and specifically the use of red, again goes back to my own struggles while creating this show. Nonetheless, how colors get incorporated into each painting is a largely intuitive and spontaneous decision.
VB: You mentioned earlier that you base your figures on yourself and your friends. Could you elaborate on how this inspiration manifests within your painting process?
CB: I typically use myself and those closest to me as starting points for my subjects. I take lots of photographs that I use as inspiration, and then when it’s time to sketch out the painting, I allow the figures to morph and change as I go, in line with what I am thinking and feeling. In that way, they become somewhat imaginary because they often lose the details that point to them being any specific person.
VB: Are there certain aspects you haven’t tackled yet in terms of womanhood? How do you think your work, in terms of representation of women painted by a woman, can contribute to the wider conversation on contemporary perspectives on portrayals of women?
CB: I think my paintings lend a sense of freedom to the contemporary depiction of women. Because they don’t meet your gaze, they retain a lot of power over the interaction. I like that these women in some ways define themselves. It is important to acknowledge a sense of agency in contemporary conversations about womanhood. I have lots of ideas for future paintings, but I want to let my intuition flow naturally to decide what comes next.
La Matrona at Skarstedt in London is on view from Oct 9 - Nov 25, 2023. For more information, please click here.