Fernanda Beaumont Liberti is a Brazilian-born artist currently studying at the London College of Communication in Elephant and Castle. Themes including feminism, performance, body expression, and naturalism feature heavily in her work, and since moving to London in 2013 her interests have expanded to include ideas of longing, returning, ‘saudade’ or missing, and the way in which we relate to and imagine natural environments. Feeling most comfortable and at home in coastal settings, Fernanda’s recent work explores the sense of separation and connection that exists between the human body and the sea. Due to graduate this year with a BA honors degree in Photography, we were excited to meet with Fernanda to find out more about the ideas and inspirations behind her work.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you first became interested in photography?
Well, both of my parents liked photography but not in a professional way. My mum was very obsessed about taking pictures of me when I was a kid but mostly she was always very into fine art so when I was six we came to Europe for the first time and she made me go to all of the museums in Paris. She is very good at art history so she would give me tours around the museums telling me all the stories about the paintings and the painters, so she made it really fun for a small kid. My dad had actually quite a bit of photography equipment, but it was just a hobby as he would just take pictures of us when we went on holiday.
Originally I wanted to be a fashion designer. But then I realised that although I liked making clothes it wasn’t something I wanted to do every day for the rest of my life. One day my mum told me that I needed to figure out what I like to do the most and then turn that into a job, so that every day I could wake up and be happy that I’m going to work. And then I realised that I really like taking pictures and you know, the pictures I look at the time were completely horrible. But still, if I took one picture that at the time I thought was nice, that would make me feel really happy, and that feeling would stay with me for a few days. So besides being on the sea and eating ice cream, I think that was the thing that really made me happy at that time.
Why do you choose to mainly express yourself through photography?
Because I’m a shit painter and I don’t know how to draw! Haha! No, I like photography, I feel it’s accessible. And for me the biggest thing that attracts me to photography over painting and other mediums is that it’s a way of capturing reality. It’s a way of showing people your way. Of course, you can do that with painting too, but I like that a painting can be completely abstract and can just be something that doesn’t exist. But in photography you’re always capturing something that exists, a certain reality, even if it’s a constructed one.
Like many industries, the art world is still fairly male dominated. What has your experience been so far as a young female emerging artist?
In the UK gender inequality is still a big thing, but it’s not so bad as other countries. When I was younger I went to a Christian School, and I wasn’t really allowed to show my work so I always had to show something different to get my grades in art class. In the first two years I had this amazing teacher, but then she left the school. The new art teacher was conservative so I wasn’t allowed to show my photographs. And, when I was doing my foundation here in London, some of my pictures got censored and this was actually by a female tutor. It was a guy who was the only person who stood up for my work and defended it. I didn’t know him; he was one of the tutors but he wasn’t my tutor. He was just called in because he is a more established artist so his opinion was very praised. He said that I could put my work up at the exhibition, and if it came to it he would fight for me and help me.
In the end my female tutor came and apologised to me. She said that, in the end, I was right because everyone there that night was talking about my show, and then she gave me an award for best in show. So, I guess she had to bite her tongue in the end. It was interesting because she had a problem with the vagina in the picture. That was what disturbed her.
So, what do you find so compelling about the female form?
The female body for so many years has been seen through the male gaze. It’s either in a muse sense or it’s very sexualised. You, know, there’s this ideal body thing. I don’t think my work is sexual. I think it’s just beautiful and it’s natural. And that’s how I want people to perceive the female body. It doesn’t need to be sexualised. It doesn’t need to be erotic. It could be those things, and that’s okay. But that’s not what I want to focus on. I want it to be more of a political statement.
And what role does nudity play in your work?
I feel like growing up in Brazil was a very key factor for me to wish to challenge those notions. Everyone thinks Brazil is really open about sexuality, nudity etc. because of carnival, but actually Brazilian society is very conservative in general because, you know, it’s very religious. There is a lot of slut shaming (besides all of the femicide) so you’re only allowed to be ‘naked’ on carnival. If you have any type of body hair you’re considered an alien and absolutely disgusting. There is a big new wave of feminism, and there are a lot of young people trying to challenge those notions. But it’s still very hard. If you live in London, you can get away with having to cover up because it’s so cold and people don’t care as much. But in Brazil you’re going to have to get your arms out and wear shorts.
Men in Brazil also shave a lot, but still, if they don’t shave, they won’t be seen in such a bad way as women definitely will be. Also, topless is illegal. If you’re topless and you’re female in Brazil, people can actually call the police and they’ll come and tell you to cover yourself. This is the law. It’s very hypocritical because you can wear the smallest bikini, and that’s okay. But if there’s a nipple out then it’s a big scandal. So, it’s a bit strange. The female body is very sexualised in Brazil and it’s only acceptable if it’s used to sell beer or as an object for the male gaze. However, the moment a woman takes ownership of her own body she faces all types of scrutiny so this is something that I wanted to challenge.
Your Corpodysmorphia project deals with the issue of body dysmorphia. What were the driving forces behind this work?
I felt like although I was never properly diagnosed I suffered from body dysmorphia for many years of my life. Because I was very disconnected to how my body really looked when I was growing up. My body felt like a different entity, I was very big but I couldn’t see it. For me it wasn’t a problem but it was for everyone around me. From doctors and teachers to peers and my parents. For everyone it was a big problem, but it wasn’t for me. But, you know, if everyone keeps telling you that you’re wrong, then eventually you’re going to believe so yourself as well.
That must have been very difficult as a child.
Yes, I was bullied a lot and it didn’t help that I was so interested in the fashion industry. I wanted to be a designer so this is what I would see: skinny, white, tall models. And you know, I used to go to Rio fashion week and I would feel very uncomfortable because I felt I could never fit in with those standards, although I really wanted to. The models in Brazil mostly fit the Eurocentric ideals of beauty.
The project came about because nature plays a big part in my work. And especially now that I live in London. So for me, that project started with the idea that when we get so disconnected from nature, when we’re in the city so much, we stop recognising ourselves. So the body dysmorphia is sort of a result of this. I feel that when I’m in nature I don’t care about how my body looks. I just feel completely like myself, and I love how I am. But then when you’re in the city you need to fit in with all these expectations about how you’re supposed to look and how you’re supposed to present yourself. So for me it was about this creature that got so stuck in the city that they just couldn’t recognise themselves any more.
But then I think the work has evolved to mean different things. I did some of it in Epping Forest, in Berlin and Cuba, and I feel it’s open to interpretation. It’s interesting for me to see what different people take from it.
And when did you start to accept yourself outside of the pressures of your family and friends and your doctors?
People always think that it’s a slope and that you come to the peak and accept yourself. But it’s not like that. It’s up and down. You know, some days you look at yourself and you’re not satisfied and then I have to look in the mirror and say to myself, ‘No, you are beautiful just the way you are.’ I went to therapy and that helped a lot. But I remember two things that really changed my perception. My mum used to try to encourage my friends to help me lose weight. And then one day she said, ‘Oh, she’s so pretty. But don’t you think she’d look prettier if she lost some weight?’ And then for the first time in my life someone finally stood up for me and said, ‘No. She’s beautiful and perfect just the way she is. She doesn’t need to change. She doesn’t need to lose any weight’ and I’ll never forget that. It was the first time someone said it was okay to be who I am.
Did that change your mum’s attitude towards your weight?
Yeah, it did. Because it was also the first time someone told her it was okay. It’s really hard on a parent as well that everyone, you know, especially if you’re a mum and you’re a single mum, people are always judging your parenting. And she knew that I was healthy – I went to so many doctors – but even when I was getting exercise the basketball teacher would approach my mum and say, ‘How did you let her get to this stage? You need to take care of your daughter.’ So as a mother she was worried and she was viewed like she was neglecting me. So, it wasn’t fair on her either.
The second experience was when I was really into this boy and it didn’t work out. We broke up and he moved back to where he was from. And then he got another girlfriend who had a body like mine and I felt like an idiot. The whole time I was seeing him I felt so insecure about myself but then when I saw him with this other girl I realised that he didn’t care. It was my issue. I was projecting my own insecurities onto him. I used to have in my head the idea that if I lost weight I’d be happy, and that I’d be able to wear this and go to the beach and do all these things. And then something just clicked in my head and thought, ‘What if I never lose weight? I’m never going to live in the way that I want to live. I’m never going to do the things that I want to do.’ So then from that day I decided that it had to stop. That’s why it makes me so happy to see today the body positive movement because it’s so important for girls to know that it’s okay to love your body just how it is.
Some of your photographs include man-made objects featured in stark opposition to natural environments. What’s the concept behind this approach?
Moving to London made me think a lot about the artificiality of things. Growing up in Rio, even though it’s a very big cosmopolitan city, nature is so embedded on everything. You’re never more than twenty minutes/half an hour away from the rainforest, or from the beach, or from somewhere that is completely wild. And living in London, you know, when you see the parks they always have a fence around them, and I think that’s quite funny. Even the nature is very polished, very constructed. It’s very clean. It’s not wild. So, I think it’s sort of me trying to come to terms with this caged nature. And also playing with ideas of wanting to be somewhere else. And missing being in nature. You know, why’s the screensaver in our laptops the beach? Why do we have these images of idealistic places – the somewhere else, the paradise. How do you get there? Where do these places exist?
Your dissertation focuses on the relationship between coastal environments and the human body. How did the idea for this come about?
I love the sea and I feel that the place I feel at home the most is at the sea. My dad likes to fish a lot so I pretty much grew up at the sea. You know, we had a beach house, we had a boat so I grew up being in the water. There are pictures of my mum and she’s nine months pregnant and she’s in the water. My parents, they don’t agree on much. But they agree that they love the sea. So I guess this is one thing that the three of us have in common. It’s also where I feel most comfortable. And I love swimming. And when I’m in the sea I feel… I don’t know. I just feel I’m in the present. I feel calm. I feel relaxed. You know, of course, we all come from the uterus. We all come from being surrounded by water. I guess some people are scared of the sea, but then for a lot of people it also represents this motherly embrace. It represents being protected and being relaxed.
I have become interested in underwater photography and recently I bought an underwater camera and I’m starting to play with it. I went to Angola to see my dad last summer and he runs a diving company there so one of the guys taught me to dive. It’s absolutely crazy to think there’s a whole world under the sea. I was 20 metres under, and it was a very magical and surreal experience. That first diving experience was interesting because Angola is a country which has such a violent and strong history caused by slavery and colonisation. There still isn’t much ecological and environmental awareness and there’s a lot of rubbish everywhere. And even though it was beautiful, I was very conflicted about having such an amazing experience but feeling really sad about how many plastic bottles were there, things that had been there for many many years.
But, you know, something that I thought was really amazing is that I saw a pair of ladies shoes – an old pair of heels – and coral was formed all around it. And there were these little creatures living inside of it, so it was really beautiful to see nature reclaiming our rubbish and making it into something beautiful. I’m getting really interested in these ‘spontaneous’ human and nature collaborations.
You’ve travelled a lot throughout your life so far. Has your experience of other countries and cultures had any influence on your work and the subjects you explore?
Yes, definitely. I think travelling is very important because besides getting to know different people and how they live – that was always something I was interested in – it opens your mind to so many different things. I’ve loved travelling since I was a kid and I love putting myself in uncomfortable situations. I think as an artist it’s important to have new inspirations and make yourself uncomfortable. And I think that’s why many times I try to make self-portraits because that makes me feel uncomfortable. I think it’s about pushing your boundaries.
What do you hope to achieve with your work?
I always said that I never wanted my work to be the kind of thing you see in an exhibition and you go, ‘Hmm’ and then move along. I always wanted to create a reaction from people and create an experience that would touch people, or make them see something in a different way. Or maybe they would go home and they would think about it and reflect upon it. And it’s not just about shocking them. I want people to get something out of my work. So I feel that I don’t do my work just for me, but to try and help people see the world in a different way.
Are there any photographers or artists that you relate to in that sense?
There’s two exhibitions I’ve been to that I’ll never forget. The first one was Nan Goldin when she showed in Rio The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. It was just a black room with a slideshow, and the soundtrack was Bjork so you can’t really go that wrong with that. I remember just spending hours and hours and hours just watching it over and over and over again. And I went to that exhibition more than once. So I remember, for that moment, those pictures were my life – it was like they were my experiences and I just felt like I was in them. And I think that’s really important. The second one I’ll never forget is Laurie Anderson’s autobiographical exhibition in Rio as well. It was a very dark room and she built a city from shred pieces of paper – she built a little church and she built hills and little houses. And there were projectors all over the top, so every time the projector would change images the shadow would cast on the paper. It created completely different landscapes within the same model. And I remember also spending many many hours there, just sort of feeling it and being part of that show. So I really love photography, but I feel that just a photograph in a white frame doesn’t do it for me. I need something more. I need to sort of have an atmosphere as well. I love how art can make you feel and experience things that you might necessarily not have in your daily life.
Can you tell us about any future projects that you’re starting to think about?
There’s this idea that I’ve had for a few years. I get really annoyed and upset with the way the media portrays certain countries. And especially now with Donald Trump banning several different countries from entering the US. The far right and xenophobia is very high in the world right now. One problem I see is the way the media only values celebrities. I do love Kim Kardashian but I don’t feel like she’s my role model. She has accomplished some amazing things: she made herself into a brand and a business and that’s quite impressive in itself. But I don’t feel like most people can relate to her because she was always rich and she comes from privilege. Another problem is the way that feminism is presented. If you’re in the Western world, if you’re in Europe, you know, people think of feminism and, okay there’s the wage gap, but there’s also a lot of very superficial things, what some people call ‘white feminism.’ When you go to countries that are still developing you see that the women are so hardworking and strong. Although most times they’re in very patriarchal and very sexist societies, the women are the strongest. My wish is to tell these women’s stories.
So, although I think Kim Kardashian is great, I’m more interested in the old grandma that walks, I don’t know how many miles, every day to help her family and go to work. Obviously I wish she didn’t have to go through that, but I think we need to start valuing those things and praising those people that do good things every single day – that thrive in the face of so many obstacles. They’re the people who hold this world together. So my wish is to travel with my wife and record these stories because it’s an idea that we’re both very passionate about. This is feminism for me – building each other up. I really want to help to empower and give the recognition that a lot of these women around the world don’t receive. And show that yes, it is really shit and hard to grow up in some places and people face so many hardships in life, but there are so many people doing good in the world and they show every day what it’s like to be a woman and what it’s like to be a human being.
About the Artist
Fernanda Liberti is a multi-media fine artist working with collage, moving image, and photography. Her work has an uncanny, flamboyant aesthetic, which invites the viewer to immerse itself in the constructed realities that it offers. Themes such as feminism, performance, body expression, and naturalism feature heavily: from forests and waterfalls, to human bodies and surreal settings, her work is an attempt to understand our relationship to the ever-shifting environments in which we live, and to explore the roles and experiences of women in the twenty-first century.
Graduating this year, Fernanda’s private view will open on 24 May, and her work will be exhibited at London College of Communication in Elephant and castle until the 31st.