Suzzan Blac is a surrealist artist from Birmingham, England. Her paintings detail her experience of being raped as a child and forced into prostitution and pornography as a teenager. Rae Story spoke with her about painting trauma, paedophile culture, and the pimp lobby.
Rae Story: Your work seems to assimilate horror and gothic styles with a surrealist aesthetic, do you have any specific or general influences in this respect? How did you come to your very unique style?
Suzzan Blac: In my late teens I developed a liking for Francis Bacon and Salvador Dali from seeing their work in Birmingham galleries. Before then I wasn’t exposed to any art, music, or books growing up, but drawing was something I was good at and enjoyed. During my teens, teachers would berate me for my “dark” drawings and persuade me to draw “pretty” things. I complied, because it was the only way to get any praise.
I wanted to go to art college when I left school, but when I told this to the man at the career office, he scoffed and told me to get my head out of the clouds. When I told my mother, she said, “Who the fuck do you think you are? You can get a cleaning job like me.” So I didn’t go to college and left home as soon as I turned 16.
Before deciding to paint my story of abuse, I’d never even used oils before.
I began painting as a kind of therapy and, even though I’d had conventional therapy, there were things that I just could not say to my counsellor. I just didn’t have the words. But, in paint you can express intense emotions, with forms, textures, and colours. The paintings I created were intended for my eyes only. I felt I couldn’t exhibit them because they were so visceral, horrifying, and disturbing. I knew that I would be stigmatized.
But I wanted the images to be realistic. I didn’t have any “evidence” of my past abuse, like images or film, so I wanted to achieve the realism of flesh and blood, emotions and expressions. I also knew that there couldn’t be any thought process to achieve what I wanted to on canvas, because any active thoughts would have thwarted my true and deepest feelings. So I would subconsciously doodle, not thinking about what I was doing. Then when I began to paint, I would transfer the most appropriate raw images onto canvas. In a sense, the images came from my gut, not my mind.
RS: Generally speaking, one assumes that people have a protective tendency to repress their feelings about bad things that happen to them or bad things that they witness, or that they try to make those memories seem benign or ordinary. Your work on the other hand is very exposing, it in no way soft-pedals or smooths over the horrors of the experience. Were you afraid of connecting so richly and vividly to those memories? Of “unleashing” them, as it were?
SB: Indeed they do. And, as I recently discovered, I suffered/suffer from complex PTSD, and didn’t even realize that I had been abused until I had my daughter when I was 28-years-old! I had suppressed and internalized all of that trauma and I would never have sought therapy, because I didn’t want to have to relive all of that. The pain would have been too much to bear. It’s easier to minimize, avoid, and suppress it. I only got help because I had begun getting flashbacks and I didn’t want it to affect my daughter.
I wasn’t afraid at the time, I just really needed to paint my story because the madness had gotten too much and I needed to get it out of my head. I also felt a lot of anger, and knew that I needed to channel it. I never got upset while painting, though — I had to remain detached so that I could really concentrate on my technique and not make any mistakes. It was not until years later, when I took all of my paintings out to air them, that I broke down, as I faced the enormity of my past life — the abuse. So yes, that was extremely cathartic for me and I always felt so lucky that I had this ability to express my emotions through paint.
RS: Your collections highlight commercial sexual violence, particularly as it relates to children. One of your more recent collections, “Abasement of Dolls,” is extraordinary in this regard, but not easy viewing. Arguments have been made that there is an endemic pedophilia culture (teen pornography, women having to remove all their body hair, etc.), that is actually at odds with a more superficial admonishing of child sexualization. What are your thoughts?
SB: There is such a climate of prevalent sexism, apathy, ignorance, and acceptability surrounding the commercial sexual conditioning and exploitation of girls and women. There are many who won’t or don’t bother to read about and research these subject matters, but an image is instantaneous and can be ingrained in the mind, so I feel it can be more successful at getting a message across than words.
We all know that one of the most popular genres of pornography is “Teen,” so what does that tell you? If (legal) pornographers could use children, they would. Just like the pimps who force and exploit young teen girls into prostitution and demand a higher price from the many punters who want young girls. But they can’t do that in pornography because it’s illegal, so they do the next best “legal” thing: “Barely Legal” porn featuring 18 year olds — really young-looking, near flat-chested girls with no pubic hair and a ponytail. The pornographer Max Hardcore uses 18-year-olds and makes them appear younger by having them wear pigtails, braces on their teeth, and actually buys their outfits from children’s clothing stores. He then degrades, humiliates, sexually assaults, and destroys them on film.
Japan only made child abuse imagery illegal in 2014 and there is still child abuse imagery available in video stores. Young girls are sexually exploited in bars and clubs, and are prostituted openly in many areas. There are vending machines that sell underwear worn by young girls and child sex dolls are openly for sale, never mind the lolicon, shotacon, manga, and anime — some of which is highly pornographic and depicts young children being used sexually by adult males. There is nothing fundamentally different about the Japanese, other than the cultural acceptance, so if pedophilia is accepted as it is in Japan, then we can see just how prevalent it would be in every country, if it were legal.
RS: Indeed. Social reformers like Josephine Butler tried to put an end to child prostitution in the UK in the 19th century, but she was attacked by pimps, and even some of those in prostitution thought her attempts to raise the legal age of prostitution from 12 to 16 delegitimized the “trade,” as it would send the message that prostitution was not, in fact, “a job like any other.” [At the time, labour laws allowed 12-year-olds to work.] People like Butler are often seen by reactionary neoliberals as puritans, which is telling.
I think there is a lot of complacency on the topic of child exploitation in the sex trade, which your work confronts — many people have a very dissonant relationship with child abuse and prostitution. Including pro-industry people who wiggle away from discussing the details and the material specifics of the industry, and just rant idioms, like “listen to sex workers.” It’s a very obfuscatory and conservative tactic to silence dissent.
In that vein, what is your perspective on the political situation surrounding the sex trade and what do you feel needs to be done to prevent more women and girls from being exploited, or to assist those who are already suffering as a result? What do you think of those women who say they enjoy prostitution as see it as a “job like any other?”
SB: Indeed. Many of the early commercial pornography magazines sexualized children and promoted paedophilia and incest, often through cartoon characters like “Chester the Molester,” who featured for many years in Hustler magazine. So yes, pornographers, who are in essence just pimps, would have no qualms about featuring real children if it were legal.
As for “pro-industry” people, they are often are either pimps, pedophiles, pornographers, porn peddlers or porn consumers, punters who buy women, or neoliberals. Many of them are in positions of power and influence in the media, such as the Free Speech Coalition in the United States and Sex and Censorship in the UK. These people often have vested economic interests in the sex industry and their words resonate with young people who are growing up in a climate of pornography and sexual objectification of girls and women in the media. Therefore, they are conditioned into wanting to believe the myths of prostitution and the lies of pornographers.
Obviously I am all for the Nordic model when it comes to prostituted women. But we need to go further, and not only criminalize the buyers, but expose them and their choices. Like any other violence towards women — domestic abuse or rape, for example — society and the media focus on victims instead of perpetrators. Instead of “He beat her,” it’s “She’s a beaten woman.” Or “Woman was raped,” instead of “Man raped woman.” This is, in itself, victim blaming and shifts the focus to the reasons why a victim “got herself” into this, instead of focusing on the perpetrator and why he did this.
The only way forward is to educate our children about sexism, relationships, consent, sexual abuse and exploitation, and the harms of pornography. We need some kind of external agency to educate the next generations to think critically about why so many girls and women are objectified, sexually exploited, and assaulted, because all we ever hear are reports and statistics about violence of girls and women.
Through pornography, children’s minds are being warped and conditioned to believe that women are happy to be the victims of sexual violence. If pornography itself is eroticized sexual violence, how can the malleable mind of a child understand the difference between fantasy and reality, myths and lies? The [way that pornography normalizes violent sex acts and teaches boys they have permission to replicate these acts in real life] is altering and inciting children’s behaviour, and we are seeing more child-on-child sexual assaults and filmed rapes and gang-rapes since the rise of online pornography.
I would say that most of the women who say they enjoy prostitution (or any other part of the sex industry) are often products of a dysfunctional family, where violence and sexual abuse is commonplace and/or they have been sexually assaulted or raped. These victims have Complex PTSD, which is a pattern of behaviours in which the victim continues to abuse themselves in order to ward off uncomfortable symptoms that feel more painful than the actual abuse. This safety mechanism often manifests through high-risk sexual behaviours, in which there is a continuation of abuse, self-loathing, self-harm, self-sexual denigration, dissociation, and a reenaction of the abuse itself (otherwise known as trauma bonding). Also, in some of these young women, there are high levels of anger and aggression, which manifests as bravado and mental toughness. This is not who they really are — this is a survival mechanism. These young women are also usually drug or alcohol dependent, therefore willing to do absolutely anything for the money to feed their habits. It’s a self-propagating cycle.
I feel that these facts need to be understood, acknowledged, and addressed by all governments and health organizations. They should also be used in the training of health and police agencies, social workers, and judiciaries. This information should also be relayed to the media and the general public, in order to combat victim-blaming, which is a huge contributing factor in the whole realm of sexual abuse, rape, exploitation, and violence against girls and women.