Ambie Drew: The beautiful existence
Worcester-based Ambie Drew graduated with a first in Fine Art 18 months ago. Her work covers gender, identity, and - specifically - femininity in a digital era. In particular, she reverses the concept of the digital identity through re-constructing her digital self physically. In her looping, large-scale film installations, Ambie amplifies her “self“ through products commonly used in the rituals and processes in female beauty. We caught up with Ambie to ask about her incredible work and thoughts behind her practice.
Your work explores the fabrication of femininity, gender, and identity in the digital age – through the construction of a kitsch alter ego. Why and how did you choose an alter ego in which to express yourself and your work, and how did the alter ego develop?
AD: Growing up in the digital age has heavily influenced my practice. Ambie Drew was the username I had on social media sites such as MySpace, Bebo and MSN 10 years ago. It became a nickname that was only attached to my online presence. As a teen I spent a lot of time in my bedroom experimenting with makeup and costume to alter my appearance for fun, taking selfies on my webcam that I would manipulate in photoshop. They eventually got more bizarre as Ambie Drew became a character separate from me. She has always been at the forefront of what I created so eventually, I started to explore Ambie Drew’s existence when I began studying Fine Art at undergrad. I began wondering why I was so compelled to take images of myself becoming different people and what it meant concerning gender roles, identity and online existence. Every image of Ambie Drew are not true depictions but carefully considered constructions - Like The Stepford Wives, at first it seems perfect in every way, then strange and finally frightening and unsettling.
In works such as Ritual, you provide a clear connection between the everyday actions of a woman, and the circumstances surrounding them – in that women are “normalised” into believing that such rituals, eg makeup/beauty, are what they “should” be doing. How much has marketing and advertising pushed and then sustained this – eg through the latest makeup products, and persuading women that the latest product will be what they need in their lives?
It’s what Naomi Wolf coined as “‘The Beauty Myth’; it’s actually prescribing behaviour and not appearance.” The industry sets out contradictive, prescribed routines so we end up spending the rest of our lives attempting to achieve the unattainable. Products are constantly rehashed and recycled, others are just straight-up bizarre.
My most recent body of research is a library of all the strange beauty objects that get recommended to me through advertisements. Some of the products I purchased from Japan are torturous- they hurt to use and I also have very little faith that any of them actually work. Yet these companies manage to sell millions of these grotesque objects. The more these plastic, child-like tools mirror cosmetic surgery procedures and are advertised to achieve such results, the more they seem to sell.
How has Instagram in particular helped or hindered a social understanding of these issues? I’m thinking specifically of the Instagram pout, the Kardashian “look” and so on. It feels like we have a digital age which should be democratising and freeing the female aesthetic but ends up reinforcing it.
I have discovered so many amazing artists and creatives through Instagram and it can feel like a great place for representation and diversity, but even on a platform with this content comes a mass filtered, algorithm that forces specific images and adverts into our feed. We are constantly immersed in social media so we are drip-fed a certain ideal of what beauty and femininity are. This combined with images that are heavily ‘facetuned’ and edited warps our perspective and it becomes difficult to decipher what is real and what is superficial. To not be consumed by it is difficult but even to avoid it altogether becomes an almost impossible task. A lot of young girls and women use Instagram as a tool for instant gratification and validation and our visual appearance is the currency.
Further, one could argue that the digital age has democratised gender roles – in that we now have James Charles, Jeffree Star and so on selling and demonstrating makeup through massively popular YouTube channels. However, again, does this, in fact, create the adverse effect, in that it ends up reinforcing female commercialised ritual, just through a different type of source/channel?
I do believe that social media is helping the younger generation understand gender identity and expression, that femininity and masculinity are just social constructs. That ‘gendered’ interests like makeup can be fluid and also opens them up to bigger conversations surrounding gender, sexuality and representation. I totally encourage that because it’s important to educate and discuss. Although, I think even with the best intentions; regardless of who is selling me a lipstick, it can still reinforce ritualistic obsessions or behaviours when it comes to the beauty industry. Even when you remove sponsored content, these huge companies are still benefactors of honest reviewers and influencers. It can feel subliminal almost. We are more likely to ‘believe’ and consume miracle products advertised by relatable people, we trust them.
Judith Williamson said of Cindy Sherman’s work that “it is not just a range of feminine expressions that are shown but the process of the ‘feminine’ as an effect, something acted upon”. Similarly, your photographic work also features Ambie Drew as an “over feminised” alter ego. Has the work of Sherman and other female photographers been an influence on your work and thinking, and if so, how?
Yes, definitely, but I consciously seek work that explores these themes made by everyone. We all have different experiences with gender and sexuality, so I want my thinking and research to be intersectional and take others experiences into account when developing new work. Identity, sexuality and gender are so complex since it’s unique to everyone and my work mostly explores questions regarding my own identity, but my research and inspiration come from so many different sources and places. Subconsciously and consciously, conversations and experiences with other people too. Which I guess is probably the case for a lot of artists. I hope that everyone can take something from my work and relate to it, whether it’s comforting or disturbing, liberating or secretive, obsession, love or envy and hate. I don’t know where I’m going with this but these are words that seem to resonate when I watch my work.
In your commentary for Eternal Beauty, Internal Hate, your alter ego goes through something of a death spiral – acquiring and putting on cosmetic products until she becomes bored and self-hating, at which point the process starts again. A study by Viktoria Mileva at the University of Stirling a few years ago suggested that (quote) “women think women with make-up are more dominant." This implies that women have a total catch-22 in their lives: buy cosmetic products until you hate yourself enough to buy more, or completely eschew cosmetic products and thus become jealous of those who wear them. In contemporary western societies, how – if at all possible - can we radically change this horribly oppressive situation?
Death spiral is a perfect way to put it. I often wonder if we can ever escape something that is so deeply rooted within us from centuries past. Our consumption of unrealistic beauty standards and continuation of treating women as sex objects continue to kill us softly.
I struggle to understand the way I feel about femininity and feminine things and I will continue to use my practice as a way to navigate through that. It’s a vicious cycle of enjoying something for pleasure until it becomes a ritualistic routine. I’m learning to not be ashamed of enjoying femininity but at the same time be honest to myself and question why I do what I do and who it’s for. It feels like a strange combination of narcissism, disassociation and self-loathing. This appears as a subconscious decision for all of my film works; to repeat and loop because I don’t know have a clear answer. I seem to end up with more questions, but for me, it’s the reason to continue creating.
What’s next for you and your artistic practice?
I’m currently working on a new body of work called ‘Monstrous Feminine’, the first iteration/ experiment was commissioned by Vivid Projects with Black Hole Club. It’s taking form as an immersive installation that examines autonomous objects that explores how femmetopian items objectify the female body and inhabit a space. My alter ego becomes a physical object presented alongside the beauty ephemera that has featured in my previous films. I’ll be continuing to develop this into a new film across next year during a residency. Up until now, Ambie Drew has existed on the internet but now I’m wanting to explore and experiment how she can exist in reality.
Selections of Ambie‘s work:
- Magazine cover: still from “Soft bodies, cold machines“
- Article intro and outro: stills from “Eternal beauty, internal hate“
- Incidental pic: still from “I exist on the Internet“, as exhibited at Vivid Projects, Birmingham