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Review: Patricia Francis’ The Art of Oppression at New Art Exchange

18 March 21 words: Alex Stubbs

Alex Stubbs checked out Patricia Francis’ The Art of Oppression as it premiered at New Art Exchange

Filmed during the national lockdown, Patricia Francis’ third documentary, The Art of Oppression, is a compassionate journey into the lived experiences of three female artists: Honey Williams, Ferzana Shan, and Ivana Puskas. Setting off on an insightful voyage into the artistic practice of the three women, Francis delivers a forty-minute film that raises the question of what it means to be seen and heard in a world that suppresses, and often rejects, the power of women’s voices.

Separating the film into two distinct parts, Francis endeavours to give space to the voices of her subjects. The first half of the film centres on the childhood experiences of the three women, mostly through their time at school. Using voice overs and narrative storytelling, each of the women offers us very personal stories of exclusion, racism, and xenophobia. Told alongside short clips and images of the women creating art, the woven nature of art and life is reinforced. By the second half, where Francis turns to a more traditional interview-style, the focus is on the social and political influences that have influenced the three artists.

Francis opens the door into her subjects’ artistic processes and, in turn, endeavours to build a broader picture of who her subjects are. Can these three women ever separate themselves from their art? More importantly, do they even want to? They are, after all, practicing artists, each exploring very different ideas surrounding race, gender, sexuality, and identity. Throughout the film, Francis makes clear that, as women, their identity is inextricably linked to their art making. “I would definitely say that my art was political, and socio-political,” Williams says in the film. It’s the connection between art and identity that is key: “It’s just because [my art is] of me - it’s begat from me - so it’s going to be.”

When each of the three artists reveal their work at the end of the film, it becomes vitally clear that this is a tangible process that has a profound effect on the artists themselves. A sense of relief is the consensus amongst the three women: “I’ve got across what I wanted to say,” notes Shah, “...so yeah, I’m relieved - I’m pleased - I’m pleased that I got to say it, because it’s really therapeutic.”

This is a film that is about so much more than just art. We can feel Francis’ maturity as a director shining through

Francis is also keen to remind us that these are artists whose experiences, shaped by their social and political struggles, have had a tremendous effect on their creative practices. “I’m tired of just racism and the lack of opportunity and having to try and start again all the time,” Honey tells us, and we can see her desire to disrupt the system in her expressive paintings of Black women. For Ivana, it’s the resilience required as a woman that has shaped her experiences, especially in the male-dominated art world: “You need to be really resilient in order to survive in the art world,” reinforcing the fact that for women, remaining resilient is a requirement rather than an option.

Though the film focuses on the art created by the three women - the final reveal is emblematic of Francis’ desire to root the film in art - other themes are explored. Francis gives the women the necessary space to share their life experiences, providing a deeper inspection into who they are outside of their artmaking. Perhaps the most powerful is the story of the women realising, for the first time, that they are different from others around them. Here Francis captures a deeply personal moment. It’s one that hopefully educates the viewer as much as it moves them emotionally.

For Francis, “The Art of Oppression is a film “about art that is made from an understanding of existing within a marginalised group.” Yet it feels as if this is a film that is about so much more than just art. We can feel Francis’ maturity as a director shining through. She navigates the risk of imposing her own voice with the tact and awareness of someone who knows what she is doing and is confident and secure in the knowledge that she has created something important. She disrupts traditional documentary film traditions with ease and exhibits an intuitiveness in her interview style that is carried throughout the film. Ultimately, Francis has crafted an entertaining and eye-opening film that is as honest in its inquisitiveness as it is playful in its aesthetic, and for that she should be applauded.

The documentary is available to watch again on Patricia Francis’s website

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