Natalie Papamichael’s work is at once inside and outside the academy. She defies easy categorization, making images that are striking, challenging and disturbing. John O’Donoghue profiles an artist whose work was recently shown at Shape in the City.
Natalie Papamichael has an international background. Her father is Greek and her mother French. They came to London during the The Regime of the Colonels in the late 60s when the political situation in Greece became too difficult for them to return. Papamichael was born just outside of London in the early 70s.
At school she found herself on the receiving end of racism. Her dark, Mediterranean complexion led to her being called ‘Paki’, and during her teenage years she developed an eating disorder and started drinking heavily. Rejection for a place at art college was followed by a stint as an au pair in Paris, then a rapid escalation of her eating disorder and alcoholism. Self-harming and hospitalisation ensued.
As a patient at l’Hopital Sainte-Anne – the asylum Antonin Artaud was admitted to in the late 30s – Papamichael started to paint a series of angel/devil pictures, like enlarged playing cards, typical art brut compositions which expressed her sense of herself as ‘good girl/ bad girl’. This series of Betty Boop figures with a bottle of wine in one hand and a rosary in the other would make a fascinating exhibition in and of themselves, a feminine perspective on the expectations society places on women, a theme she has continued to explore throughout her work.
Papamichael was eventually discharged from Ste-Anne, and returned to England. She went to AA meetings and started attending Saturday morning classes at St Martin’s in London. Marriage and motherhood soon followed.
It was now that she started to develop an overview about women in art. Her studies at St Martin’s and later the Courtauld barely touched on the mechanical skills an artist needs in terms of drawing and painting, but at St Martin’s she began to theorise her position, taking Virginia Woolf’s maxim “For if we are women we think back through our mother” as a personal credo. In a world where the likes of Van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso, and Francis Bacon dominate the landscape what about ‘art herstory’ as opposed to ‘art history’?
Her studies led her to create a series of works that culminates in her exploration of Artesima Gentileschi. Gentileschi (1593 – c.1656) is widely regarded as one of the founding foremothers of women’s art, the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.
Gentileschi painted a number of pictures featuring strong women from myth and the Bible and was herself a strong woman. After she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a colleague of her father’s, she prosecuted Tassi and won her case. At her trial she was subjected to thumbscrews and a gynaecological examination to determine if she’d been a virgin before Tassi assaulted her. Tassi was sentenced to a year in prison, but never served any time.
All artists look to history to inform their development. Papamichael’s early experience as a child of exiles, who experienced racism; early rejection by the academy; eating disorders and alcoholism; hospitalisation and more recently a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; and eventual entry into St Martin’s and the Courtauld; speak of a similar strength and determination she herself finds in Artemisia Gentileschi.
Papamichael’s “thinking back” seeks to challenge contemporary depictions of women, to open the field of possibility about what it is to be a woman and an artist, and to recover and articulate a past obscured by the one-sided view of art that still largely prevails today. Her way of seeing has not been distorted by the way she’s been told to see. In “thinking back” Papamichael has actually found a way to think forward.
Shape in the City was a temporary pop up gallery from October 2012 - August 2013 showcasing work from some of the UK's most exciting and eclectic disabled artists, alongside seminal works from Shape's own growing Disability Arts Collection. Click on this link to find out more about Shape in the City