Suzannah Pettigrew is a visual artist/curator/set producer hailing from London, dwelling in Paris. She’s run her own multi-purpose concept (a studio, gallery and project space), is a visiting practitioner at Central Saint Martins and has worked intimately with some of the most bang'n influencers today including collaborative installations and set design for Vans and Nike. She fantasizes about working on a Wes Anderson project. I know she will; her talent is legit and so is her tracksuit game.
We met at a club in London, which we called “Cabs.” I liked her immediately, because A) my girl Ikem had already befriended her; B) she hooked up shots on the house; C) she had just that ‘je ne sais quoi’ I dig hard in friends. We had the kind of bonding experiences one does in the club in your early twenties — um, er...like, sharing a bathroom stall while you take turns peeing, and tucking each others thongs in when they pop out of your skinny jeans. Whatever the case, she quickly became — and still is — one of the women who I continue to cherish and hold in high regard. A homegirl. The kind of sister of which you have no familial relation — the kind you choose.
This past week we got together for the first time in 4 and a half years (because I’ve been over here in Canada raising feminists) and found time in between moving houses (I unpacked last week in Whistler, BC), working and doing mom-stuff (my son calls her Auntie Su-shi) to deep dive. We talked about her journey, the female experience and how she has used her work as an artist to respond to the things she has come up against in her social world.
DEV: How old were you and what was happening when you started to pursue and explore feminism?
SUZ: My application to anything has always been creative and artistic. It’s always been how I’ve viewed my environment and responded to it. But I particularly remember having a conscience with my work when I was about 16 or 17 at the peak of the Iraq war; my brother was very informed and his interests deeply influenced me. I just thought it was such a travesty, and begun to make anti-war installations and that really continued until I was about twenty one.
DEV: What was your experience with equality growing up?
SUZ: I’d had a very strong grandmother and really felt equal in my house when I was growing up. I was really privileged that way. It’s difficult for me to post-rationalize but my own privilege is probably why I’ve been so passionate to fight for equality through my work.
DEV: I was about 20 when you first gave me a piece of work. Do you remember it? It was a 50’s pinup on her knees, with a gun to her head and text reading “to the notion that it is far better to give than to receive.” What was going on for you when you made that series of collages?
SUZ: Oh god, yah. I do remember. It was a series of work about the sexualization of the female form — a collage of existing imagery combining work from different eras. Well, quickly after moving to London I started working at a nightclub. For the first two years I was the only female server there — and I felt sexualized often. It felt like this really normal thing. I think that I have probably rationalized a lot of that kind of behaviour. But, I have always been quite wary of conflict and even if something made me uncomfortable I don’t think I would often say so.
DEV: It’s interesting that you feel so jarred by confrontation because your work confronts a lot of social issues. Knowing you for so many years now, I just find it beautiful that you have been able to do that and release that way. Not everyone has their art to do the talking.
SUZ: Yes, absolutely. I mean I’ve had my art, but I know that I’ve covered my voice. I’ve been doing a lot of work recently to uncover my intuition. You know I’ve recently started reading Women Who Run With the Wolves. I really identified with the ‘too good, too sweet Mother’ archetype.
DEV: Okay so you gave me that piece, and now it’s ten years later. How has your journey shaped your thinking since then?
SUZ: You know I was really bullied in my school days. I just completely allowed myself to be rinsed of a healthy ego by my friends. I think I’ve continued this into my adulthood even though it may not have been as explicit. In 2013 I retreated to a rural area in Scotland which was just completely immersed in nature, and I created a piece called “If you receive a round of applause in a forest and no one else is there to hear, does it make a sound?” It was very much about the social platform validation so many of us experience. This last couple of years has been about me consciously breaking old patterns.
DEV: I've witnessed other high-performers feel a lot of pressure around the speed at which they evolve. Like, once you recognize a habit or a pattern you need to break, that some how you should be able to do that in savasana by the end of your yoga class. It is so much more isn't it? It’s really taken you a focused decade to began to explore and feel comfortable with your inner voice?
SUZ: I think I’m starting to feel comfortable with my voice. It’s not like it’s one of those ‘I’m cured of my cold’ type of things. Despite coming from such an equal and loving home, you just can never tell what experiences you are going to have in your social world and how that will affect you. It impacted what I felt was appropriate to say, and how I have felt rejected or exploited.
DEV: It requires a huge commitment to undo this stuff doesn’t it? What measures are you taking?
SUZ: I’ve started working with a healer who used a lot of reiki-based practices. I actually wrote a script to start to exercise the ‘too good, too sweet Mother’ archetype out of me. During a ritual, I performed the script aloud and it began “I enter a forest….”
DEV: Wow. You came full circle to you previous work in Scotland. Did you realize this at the time?
DEV: I understand there has been a lot of shedding of negative relationship patterns in your commitment to uncovering your intuitive voice. Over the last few days together you’ve spoken about a couple of the people who’ve really shaped your confidence and encouraged your development. Who are these babes?
SUZ: Two friends in particular have been just absolute ride or die for me. Grace Ladoja and Sara El Dabi. They are both fierce, talented and strong women who have been such a force of strength and huge support in my life. Sara because she is so extremely kind, and she always reminds me when I get caught up in stuff or other people's responses to me, that everyone is trying their best to varying degrees of bestness. Grace because she has role modelled to me so well how to be opinionated but not judgemental.
DEV: They are both in London, and you’ve loved London. Can you tell me about why you moved to Paris?
SUZ: I’d reached a point of personal despair . . . I needed to leave London because it felt like I was relying on the comfort of my circle and the community. I needed to push myself. I’d been there for so long. I was most afraid of being alone, so I needed to know that feeling in order to figure myself out — and to feel strong. I was terrified of rejection so I drowned myself in it and came back as the best version of myself that I could find.
People might not agree with you or what you say, but it’s kind of irrelevant isn’t it? As long as you’re speaking with your authentic voice.
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