Serrah Russell’s collages are deceptively simple. Most are made from just two images, cut from the pages of fashion magazines or National Geographic, then fused together. Yet a powerful narrative emerges from the layers and juxtapositions, one that feels overwhelmingly about drowning, but with flickers of hope and clarity.
There’s water, yes, but the sense of going under comes from the fragments of women’s bodies colliding with other matter. A slender arm reaches from the depths of ruby colored cloth; bright red lips face a black abyss; a different set of lips –– slightly parted and larger than life –– meet a soaring bird carrying a small branch. Full faces are rarely seen. A single eye cut in the shape of a diamond floats above a cloudy blue sky; in another image the outer edge of an eye circled in black makeup is dissected by a mass of green branches; a woman wearing a black turtleneck lacks a head, it’s been dislodged by a bouquet of tall blooming flowers.
Russell began making the collages in 2016 after Donald Trump was elected president of the U.S. “Shocked and angry,” as Rusell writes in the introduction to her new book tears tears (Yoffy Press, 2019), she turned to her studio practice to channel her grief. Soon, she was “transforming each day’s experience into a nightly collage.” The work in tears tears is the result of reconstructing the news and the outrage, the sadness and fear, of the 45th presidency into a single collage 100 times in a row. The daily routine “became an act of meditation, a ritual for reflection and a place to speak,” writes Russell.
There’s a reason almost every collage contains slivers of women. The artworks “explore the stifled reality of being a woman in this political era…multiple pieces refer to a voice being minimized or diminished,” explains Frances Jakubek in an essay for tears tears.
In Russell’s words, “The votes were in, and I was told she wasn’t enough. And neither was I.” The collages became a life raft to sanity, a pursuit of understanding in the aftermath of an election that favored Trump over Hillary Clinton, who would’ve become the first female president of the U.S.
Toward the end of the book an an image titled “Swallowing up the light” covers two pages. In it, we see a young woman’s full face bathed in sunlight. Her shoulders are back and her eyes are closed; she’s standing before the sea. Her chin is cupped by a gentle hand. Surrounded by the blue of the water she appears calm, ready. “This work is for you,” writes Russell. “For those who cry, who rage, who question, who change…who endure, and for those who open up, when they have every reason to stay closed.”
– Sarah Stacke