Based in Toronto, artist Ness Lee creates amazing monochromatic black and white illustrations of all those emotions and desires in her.
What do women want? It's a question many have tried to solve for centuries, as if we were unreadable and enigmatic creatures incapable of communicating our desires. We’re not that mysterious. On the contrary, I think I’m speaking for many when I say that we know quite clearly what we like and how we want our desires to be fulfilled. This takes me to another thing, the term desire. What do we mean by desire? More importantly, what is female desire? Somehow the term has become a synonym for women’s sexuality and passions, her drives, and the sensuality behind it.
I won’t say that’s entirely incorrect, but somehow whenever we talk about this, we focus only on the erotic and sexual part of the term and not on the overall image. If you ask me, female desire encompasses way much more than just that. We long for love (and not precisely in the romantic sense of the word), understanding, representation, and a sense of belonging. What's more, we want the right to be ourselves in all our quirky and bizarre ways.
For me that’s what these illustrations by Ness Lee portray: the sensuality of female desire in all its possibilities and forms. Based in Toronto, her illustrations have enticed a huge number of followers, not only on social media, but also in real life, thanks to the many platforms she uses to display her art. She creates installations and exhibitions in galleries and public spaces, and her art is also as diverse. Most of her amazing and peculiar characters are brought to life through paper and ink, and she’s proved to be quite talented in translating that imagery to many other creative forms, like ceramics, paper cut-outs, plush dolls, candles, graffiti, clothes, and even tattoos. But what do these characters represent and what does she want to portray?
If you take a look at many of the websites that have profiled her, you’ll see that they mention a clear connection with ancient Japanese art, or in broader terms, with Asian imagery and culture. Well, that isn’t completely true. As she’s explained in different interviews, she’s Chinese-Canadian and defines herself as Hakka, one particular group of Chinese people that can be traced back thousands of years ago. Although her work has clear connections with the traditional Shunga art, it's more of a self-exploration of Lee’s cultural identity, which is something crucial to understand her artistic vision. As she’s explained, her work is a visual autobiography exploring everything she experiences and feels. So, it’s not quite precisely a homage to Asian traditions, as it’s been often described, but a representation of her reality as a Chinese woman.
What’s incredible about this autobiographical work isn’t only the fact that she depicts what she feels and experiences, but the fact that her work is a personal diary she’s creating for the future. Each illustration takes a lot of planning and a lot of work. As she explains, each piece is a conversation with herself so, once it’s all done, she goes to the back of the paper to actually write what emerged from that personal and internal conversation.
As you can see, almost all of her illustrations depict naked bodies, mostly of women. More than just being an erotic and sensual approach to sexuality, she uses the nakedness of the body as a canvas, and each character’s movement and physicality allow her to convey emotions like excitement, sadness, anger, despair, love, vulnerability, and her-self-care. At the end of the day they all are images of herself, so each experience and feeling that her characters are expressing are her own. They become therapeutic mirrors of her concerns and drives.
Ness Lee’s unique illustrations convey in a humorous and highly emotional way her own views on identity, culture, self-love, representation, and belonging. More importantly, they invite us to reflect on our own roles in the world and how this can have an impact on our emotions and self-care. That, for me, is a clear reflection of what desire encompasses.
If you want to see more of this artist’s work, take a look at her official Instagram account: @nesslee
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