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The Congress Woman By Tessa Laird

Tessa Laird, 2021
First published by Artspace Aotearoa on the occasion of When the Dust Settles

The Congress Woman, Peony (Paeonia sp.) is both an individual work, and part of a trio known as The Three Sisters. Like Russian dolls, that mini-series is nested inside the larger ongoing series jane says in which ikebana-inspired floral arrangements are photographed against eye-popping colours. These botanical portraits are ravishingly retro chic, but not just pretty faces. Flowers hold secrets – symbolic languages which can be read like code by would-be lovers – but also chemical powers to heal, harm, or intoxicate. Shelton’s artfully gathered plants possess medicinal qualities and speak to herstories of other artful gathering, by herbalists, wise women, and witches. Herbs and flowers that can bring on menstruation or induce abortion have been utilised for millennia by women controlling their own bodies.

Shelton’s most notorious work is the 1997 book Redeye, filled with lurid portraits of a particular niche of the Auckland art scene. Shelton is still photographing portraits, but her subjects, like Daphne, have morphed from people into plants, suggesting that plants are people too. Each floral assemblage represents a feminine archetype, traditional (The Witch, The Nurse) or contemporary (The Super Model).

The Three Sisters share a feature flower, the ‘Dinner Plate Peony’, in acknowledgement of Judy Chicago’s epic The Dinner Party (1979). While Chicago celebrated historical women through floral imagery, she was criticised for emulating patriarchal traits of rampant self-promotion and the attribution of collective work to a singular author. Similarly, the potential toxicities of jane says are pharmakon: the poison is also the cure. For how can women survive patriarchy without playing the power game? Indeed, The Justice is inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, while The Congress Woman pays tribute to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other women of colour elected to the United States Congress in 2019.

The Congress Woman’s flushed, dewy face sprouts from a squat vase which reads frontally as having two legs, adding to the flower’s personification. The shafts of wheat-like grasses that frame the focal flower could indicate labour or fecundity. But equally, the bed of kangaroo paws, crowded into the base of the vase, could nod towards the colonisation of the Antipodes, the towering wheat stalks symbolising crops which Anglicised the lands declared terra nullius.

The Three Sisters is a term borrowed from the First Nations agriculture of Turtle Island: corn, beans and squash thrive together like siblings, providing each other with shade, support, and sustenance. Pottawatomi botanist Robin Kimmerer sees the Three Sisters as a metaphor for “an emerging relationship between indigenous knowledge and Western science”. Kimmerer also considers the complementary purple and yellow of asters and goldenrods as a metaphor for seeing the world through these two lenses. Purple and yellow also feature in jane says, but The Three Sisters share a background of irradiated salmon, inspired by Janelle Monae’s sapphic anthem Pynk.

Through Shelton’s rose-tinted lens, we see the many shades of feminism as complementary rather than antagonistic. We see the marriage of secret knowledges and public discourse: The Party Girl and The Influencer are The Congress Woman’s pink sisters. While it is The Nurse who, appropriately, features the opium poppy, the pink peonies of The Three Sisters, particularly the full-blown bloom of The Congresswoman, recall the tall poppy syndrome, which disproportionately affects women in power, while discouraging other women from seeking it. Shelton’s portraits reclaim that power, taking humble floral arrangements and reflecting them at twice, even thrice, their natural size.