Millais’ painting, Ophelia, continues to inspire viewers and critics alike, but what if the heroine came back from the watery grave she was condemned to? Here, Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou considers the return of Ophelia in the artwork of Jada Bruney and Rolake Osabia, and the music visuals of Christine and the Queens.
I remember my father admiring the painting from across the gallery. Hung between other works from the Victorian era, which were arranged like an assortment of artisan chocolates packed into a luxurious box, this picture caught his eye. I had been facing the opposite wall, musing on Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott (1888), an oil painting that, despite its muted wintry palette, commandeered the space. But where my father had gestured towards, asymmetrically across from The Lady, was another woman meeting a watery end. Millais’ Ophelia (1851-2), floating between the romanticised bodies and faces of other women, gleamed in its own jewel-like colours. I walked over to where my dad stood, the painting slowly coming into focus and displacing the postcard replica stored in my mind from the many books that had raved about this work. I could tell he was about to put on his ‘expert’ voice, the tone and register of one who likes to explain every last detail to another – any – person within earshot, such was his excitement. ‘Look at the acute attention to detail,’ he repeated (I had heard this all before when he’d shown me a thick monograph on Millais months ago). ‘The foliage in the painting is so realistic and correct that a Professor of Botany conducted a lesson on the plants of the English countryside in front of Millais’ work. Why venture outside when you could appreciate the natural world painted here,’ he said with satisfaction. ‘I could think of a few reasons why it would be important to see the natural world as it is, away from a canvas and stuffy gallery,’ I muttered. But he was off on one, detailing the accuracy of this pansy and that daisy and remarking on the unique perspective achieved by this angle on that axis. As his voice trailed off, my eye traced the body of the woman who was in the throes of death – or her last poesy-filled moments of life. Ophelia, a name which in the Greek means ‘to help’ or ‘helper’, had not been helped during the truncated arc of her theatrical life. Ophelia, a ‘pretty’ sounding name to match the other vowel-resplendent feminine epithets Shakespeare gave his women who met brutal or tragic ends – Desdemona, Cordelia, Lavinia, Emilia. Ophelia, a woman whose madness literally becomes her in the many beatific paintings by men commemorating this scene.
While my father continued his commentary to the left of me, I couldn’t help but feel he, like many of the male characters in Ophelia’s life, had utterly missed the point. Millais had too; so fixated was he with capturing the river, the hoary tree stump, the florid reeds and neatly placed fritillary to near photo-realist perfection, that he had barely given a thought to the predicament of the woman at the centre of his work. My father would confirm this: one of his ‘facts’ about Millais was that he, like the French Impressionists, worked en plein air. Before there was an Ophelia, there was an accurately rendered painting of Hogsmill River in Surrey. Millais had spent the summer of 1851 there with fellow Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founder, Holman Hunt, whose own painting, The Hireling Shepherd, spared no less flora and fauna to frame its frolicking pastoral couple. Millais’ inclusion of Ophelia came later in 1852, back in his Gower Street studio in London, when he hired Elizabeth Siddall to pose for him. For Siddall, Millais’ attention to detail, so praised by my father and innumerable critics, almost proved her downfall. When posing for the portrait, Siddall had to lie in a tin bath of tepid water, heated with lamps from beneath, for several hours a day. Wearing only a thin second-hand dress – the silvery silken gown partially submerged by water in Millais’ work – Siddall caught a violent cold after one of the lamps under the bath went out. Millais was so immersed in his work that he had not noticed – or thought to check – how his model was faring. Attention to detail only concerned the vitality of a leaf or the blush of a petal, not the pale brow of the woman whose character was at the centre of the work and who was being paid a pittance to lie inert in a tin bath for hours on end.
Siddall did not die – not yet – from the cold. Her father intervened, threatening legal action unless Millais paid all her doctor’s bills until she was fully recovered. But Millais’ inability to see her ailing health mirrored his inability to connect with the reality of the woman he was painting. Like Ophelia, Siddall was in a state of grief; she had lost her brother a fortnight before posing for the painting and though an experienced and sought-after model for the Pre-Raphaelite circle (one who was said to be committed to Millais’ project), she may have needed more time to process the loss. Lying in lukewarm water, the light-weight dress slowly sagging against her damp skin and weighing more than the original costs of its parts; pushing each limb, then her chest, down into the metallic depths of the bath, what did she think of? What fantastic or mundane notions mixed and coloured her mind as Millais tended to his canvas? Did her brother’s death catch on her straying thoughts, as shadows flitted and floated across the corniced ceiling? Did the water soothe the ache for an absent loved one or slow the searing numbness settling into her fingers and toes? Did she sing songs, like Ophelia, to while away tedious hours where arms and hands went limp and soft from the water? Where her forehead was clammy, not with dew or rain or the undulating currents of a brook, but the turning temperature of a body no longer inured to the creeping cold. Or did she fold the glinting warmth of refracting light inside and laugh at the lengths men will go to render a dying maiden in paint? Was this scene of water and cloth and half-light; of grief and sight and meditation, confirmation of her own life, her own desire to live on – not just in the works of other male artists, but in those painted creations by her own hand?
When I look at Siddall in Millais’ finished work, I think of life unlived, of life still to be savoured, of life tethered to the brushwork and opinions and disloyalties of other men. Siddall died from a laudanum overdose at the age of 32. Suffering from post-partum depression after the miscarriage of her child and addicted to the drug used to assuage the pain from this and other ailments, Siddall’s short life was at once rich and fraught with tragedy. From the young age of 19 she harboured dreams of becoming an artist; she approached another artist, Walter Deverell, for guidance, but somewhere along the way she became the one being painted, not the painter; she was the woman drowning under the weight of men’s expectations and ambitions and versions of her, not the woman standing proud by her easel. Though Siddall was in a relationship with Rossetti, one of the foremost Pre-Raphaelites in the brotherhood, he continually delayed marrying her, exposing her to slander and gossip. He did support her artistic ambitions to an extent and influenced her style of drawing, but Rossetti was far from the ideal or collaboration-inclined partner. Forever hemmed in by artists who, though radical for their time, upheld a brotherhood nonetheless, Siddall’s story – or at least the brief outline of it – shares an affinity with Shakespeare’s heroine that cannot be denied. Like Ophelia, Siddall was seen not heard; directed and never directing. Like Ophelia, she was framed by the overly romantic and mythologizing lens of the men she knew and loved. Like Ophelia, she was remade, as art historian Griselda Pollack has observed, into a sign of masculinity, male desire and male creativity; a cipher in their creative narratives and a casualty to them in the process. A life cut-short, a death that could have been avoided, these Ophelias were yet to rise from the depths, throw off the antique gown, and reimagine the world through their flower-bursts of mad creativity. So that, I can’t help but ask what would a return of Ophelia look like? What would the reverse of her demise bring? What would she say? How would she speak? What would she do with all those flowers?
Before we bring her back, our Ophelia redux, we must remember the play, the words, the view, from behind and in front of the footlights. We must remember the character as written by Shakespeare. Interpretations and onstage portrayals will always vary, but when we return to the text (as it has come down to us), the character of Ophelia is infinite in potential but limited in experience. Squeezed between men, subject to their words and wisdom, whims and wishes, Ophelia only finds her voice and some semblance of volition in madness. And even when mad, she doesn’t disrupt much: an unnamed ‘gentleman’ in Act 4.5 reports that she ‘beats her heart’, but her entrance on stage couldn’t be anything less dramatic. Singing songs of lost love, forbidden love, lewd love, Ophelia’s ‘distract’ state of mind pours out in harmonious verse, rather than forceful pounding prose. Delivery, costume and directorial decisions can alter this – I’ve seen multiple Ophelias rip their clothes, frantically strip down to their bare flesh, while restlessly singing ‘How should I your true love know’, so that the dissonance between action and voice evokes unease in surrounding characters – but on the page the deceit of the royal couple, Claudius and Gertrude, remains intact.
Shakespeare weaves Ophelia in and out of Act 4, between King and Queen, brother and courtier, like the garlands she is said to have made by the ill-fated brook, so that her prettified sanity – her hummed and melodious conviction that something is ‘disjoint’ in Denmark – is met with pity, again turning suspicion away from the guilty. When one wants raging rebukes and passion-fuelled accusations, a storm of Cassandra-like rage (though she wasn’t believed either) – behaviour afforded male characters like Hamlet and Laertes throughout the play – we’re given ditties, subtly symbolic floral tributes, encoded flora and fauna, revelation in the hyper-feminised and concatenated language of flowers, plants and herbs: ‘There’s rosemary: that’s for remembrance… And there is pansies: that’s for thoughts,’ she says to her brother in what will be her final scene.
Though there is power in the flowery display, it is lost on the surrounding witnesses. It is up to the audience to decipher Ophelia’s message, petal by petal. Inevitably this pathos-inducing show moves many to weep, but not without remarks of how ‘pretty’ and‘attractive’ Ophelia appears in madness. ‘Pretty lady,’ Claudius calls her, ‘pretty Ophelia,’ he later insists; ‘she turns to favour and to prettiness,’ observes Laertes before his sister drifts off stage for the last time. Madness only moves when sung in lauds and decked in garlands. Observed by men, it’s the beauty of a suffering woman that strikes the eye and heart more than the cause and import of her distress. Her death, again beautifully reimagined, is as inconsequential as her life: she barely causes any ripples in court that cannot be poetically done away with in a monologue detailing her watery demise. Spoken by the only other woman on stage, Queen Gertrude, the source of all feminine ills according to Eliot, Lacan and Freud (see Jacqueline Rose’s ‘Hamlet – the ‘Mona Lisa’ of Literature‘), Ophelia’s passive death, her succumbing to the ‘weeping brook…mermaid-like’, accentuates the warped feminisation and trivialisation of her ‘reason in madness’. The ekphrastic nature of the scene and Gertrude’s retelling of it further objectifies a woman who was drowning in life as in death – though not by water and foliage but by the deadly deeds of men.
That artists seized on the visual capital of this ultra-traditional conception of the feminine is unsurprising. The mid-to-late 1800s saw a proliferation of flower-strewn, long haired, wan “beauties” lost in a trance by or in water (think Burne-Jones’ The Mirror of Venus (1898) or Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), alongside the latter’s portraits of Ophelia); consumable in their emotionally consumed state, they always appear ethereally one with the elements or a threat to men in their liquid domain. Millais’ portrait looks towards the face and trope of the eternal feminine, but there is another reason why he and artists like him (Hughes, Waterhouse and Rossetti) were compelled by Shakespeare’s description to paint the scene. Gertrude’s monologue is painterly in its poetic and allusive description; she invites the auditor and reader to build the scene, to dwell on it with our own mind’s eye, to revel in the feminine creative energy of it all. By removing Ophelia’s death scene from the stage and the spectator’s eye, the imagination crafts the ‘weeping brook’, the ‘pendent boughs’, the ‘weedy trophies’ and wreaths of ‘cornflowers, nettles, daisies…’, as well as the beautified body they encircle. We strangely enjoy the elegiac erotics of the scene; we embellish, imbue, emboss the moment and its central female form with the natural accoutrements of pleasure (flowers and water); we wade in the water with Ophelia figuratively and emotionally, but avoid her tragic end.
If we are able to do this, how much more so the Victorian male artists who had a whole language of flowers at their disposal, a public fluent in the lexis, and the daring to hint at the eroticism and sensuality such a feminine subject embodied? But it’s this type of femininity – one inflected and informed by a historical male gaze – that traps Ophelia, keeps her suspended between the water’s surface and its dark depths, keeps her aligned with an emotional and existential dissolution that artists like Millais and critics such as Bachelard saw as inherently female. Overcome by grief for her father, sexual frustration for and rejection by Hamlet, and the collision of romantic and familial love, Shakespeare’s Ophelia derails, deranges and finally dissolves, irrelevant to the play’s end. Millais’ Ophelia dissolves too, albeit tranquilly, subliminally, her palms and mouth open enough to suggest an ebbing life, an ecstatic moan, an orgastic commune and release into a hyper-natural and ever-blossoming vision – but who is this for? Is it for Ophelia herself or the Victorian spectator, who is scandalised and mesmerised by the painting’s precision, the maiden’s passive submission, the breathy wet surrender to a sensorial world of leaf, liquid and passion.
Looking up, pulled down by the mud, what did Shakespeare’s Ophelia see? What liquid dreams passed through eyes and current and weed into earth and clay and loam? We see the daisies drift and break, the forget-me-nots unbroken but subsumed, the purples bloom dark, but what did Ophelia see, what would she say and do with the stillness of this surface, with the description of an end ever opening to the gaze of another? If she rose up for air, refused the heaviness of water, relished and ingested the flowers, whose reflection would she choose? Which rendering would become her? How would she mark her return? Whose pleasure would she resurface for?
In the sixteenth century Ophelia’s death was profane; in the nineteenth it was euphoric. In 2018, the profane is the euphoric, but this time her end is not death but a wild rebellious resurfacing. In Christine and the Queen’s video, Comme Si, Ophelia returns to us, joyously, anarchically, in all her flower-crazed power. The video begins with the singer floating in water, her face pale, her eyes shut, her arms folded, her hands clasping a simple bouquet of flowers. The camera hovers on a diagonal above the body, allowing us to take in the long translucent gown, the scattered daisies, the brightly blinking narcissi, violets and nasturtiums. We have seen this tableau before; we know this pose, this stasis, this version of a supine woman, sleeping, dying, asleep in death, her body surveilled and possessed by us in the surveillance. Yet something is amiss, something is disturbed; there’s too much water, too many flowers; there’s no stream of hair lifelessly flowing with the current. Then the camera closes in on her face, as it so often does with women, and before we can pause, take in beauty, her eyes flick open and sharply lock with ours. No more ‘pretty Ophelia’, ‘pretty lady’; no more observed, but the observer. The next shot our Ophelia is up, out of the water, disrobing from her strait-jacket-style gown and caressing her shoulders to reveal a taut and muscular body skimpily clad in a pale crop top, boxer-like pants and lace-up boots. Shedding her dress, she casts off the kind of femininity that would have her under water, by the mud, choking on lilies and sedge. This Ophelia, our Ophelia redux, embraces a femininity with a masculine edge; a butchness firmly located in the femme.
Initially the undressing is shot from behind while the camera furtively lingers, taking in her upper back, a cheeky flash of bum and thigh. But Ophelia guides the lens, leads its gaze, forces it backwards, upwards, downwards, as she romps, cavorts, frolics, stomps and krumps her way through grassland and river. Playing with the eye of the camera, she teases us a view of her we’ll never have; she is no longer our object of pleasure, but we and all the world around are hers. Rioting in her own mad-cap pleasure, revelling in the raw movement of limbs, the sensation of moisture against flesh, the fullness and sensorial enormity of being alive, this Ophelia is unrestrained and unrivalled energy. Not only the desired but the desiring, Ophelia lets loose her sexual desire, jolting, thrusting, jerking, rippling downwards into water warm to the touch. Surrounded by waterfalls – not an English brook – Chris’ Ophelia doesn’t dissolve in her natural surroundings; rather, she thrashes around in them, as water cascades behind and spurts up around her. She is liquid only in the sense that she is free, fluidly one with her feelings, wants and needs: her Ophelia will not sink into muddied depths.
This unbounded sexual energy is typical of Christine and the Queens’ latest LP, Chris, of which Comme Si was an important track. Adopting a new alter ego by shortening the end of her stage name ‘Christine’ to ‘Chris’, Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier (the artist’s real name) channels a more masculinised and sexually freer side than that shown in the music and videos to her first LP, Chaleur Humaine (2014). Prancing on festival stages with love bites proudly visible on her neck, dancing West Side Story-style battles and Michael Jackson-esque sequences (think Jackson’s Bad era in ‘87) with her troupe of dancers in videos and live performances, Chris saw Letissier own and embrace the multiplicity, fluidity and fullness of her queer identity and her pansexuality. That she deliberately chose the story of Ophelia for one of her singles on the album does not negate this new sense of personal empowerment and artistic reinvention. On the contrary, Ophelia, as subversively depicted and reconceived in Comme Si, is part of this artistic liberation and sexual revolution. In DIY mag Letissier eloquently explains that ‘the whole idea of the video is to twist the terrible ending of Ophelia, as a myth, an idea…of the young girl, unwanted, unloved, [who] simply cannot live. I started to dream of giving that myth a welcomed, witty twist. Let’s undo that tragic ending; let’s cheat death.’ Looking at Millais’ painting, discovering a kernel, a clue, a trail of petals leading her towards this resurrection of Ophelia, Letissier conceived of Comme Si as ‘an erotic reverie subverting rejection with self-empowerment.’ Using Krump, a form of hip hop that allows one to harness aggression, playfulness and mime-like gestures to dexterous and energetic extremes, Letissier ‘shatters’ the original painting by creating a ‘powerful feminine figure who finds another way to be unforgettable’. Owning her sexuality, not drowning in it; enjoying her madness instead of dying to it, Letissier’s Ophelia is the unapologetic resurfacing of the feminine we all need.
When it comes to Letissier’s rewriting of Ophelia, what of Elizabeth Siddall? Is she liberated from the lukewarm waters of Millais’ painting? Does Letissier successfully release her from the mythology of Shakespeare’s and Millais’ heroine, or her own tragic end? Not quite the latter, though Comme Si is a sign that many women who are artists – whether their medium be film, music, dance, visual art, etc. – now confidently stand behind the easel – or camera – as well as in front of it. I like to think that Letissier’s embodiment of Ophelia’s creativity, erotic energy and extreme emotion is a win for Siddall too, an acknowledgement of what Millais’ painting couldn’t fully admit to or recognise in a woman at that time. Letissier as Chris, as Ophelia, as an alternative Siddall in an alternative lifetime, breaks the chain of defeated and rejected women (artists), and it is this Siddall would have thrown flowers over.
Tragic love, ill-fated love, unrequited love, love with a ‘morbid heart’ as Maggie Nelson’s friend terms it in Bluets: all are centred in what remains of Elizabeth Siddall’s artwork. Far from betraying her own ‘morbid’ fascination with amatory passions gone wrong or with ailing heroines dying for the love of an errant knight, Siddall was drawing those female figures available to her. Portraits of abandoned women, often from medieval literature or dressed in medieval garb, are prominent in Pre-Raphaelite work of the same time, as well as in late Romantic poetry. Despite these narratives chiming to an extent with her own, Siddall’s work, much like Millais’ Ophelia, reflects back to us the limited position and trajectory assigned to women throughout literary and art history. Female figures, women’s bodies, were either framed in relation to men or projected onto for male eyes to work out the complexity of their affective worlds and suppressed emotional selves. Beneath this trope, one which Letissier tired of, the complex energies, internal lives and ambitions of women were submerged. Millais painted his model with great care, but he did not take great care of her; the depiction of consuming love was of greater importance than the near-consumptive end of Siddall. The lack of care – towards the figure of the feminine, the model, the woman, artist or otherwise – is inevitable when the pattern laid out for us is one of ‘the morbid heart’. That Letissier’s Ophelia upended this by embracing feelings not just of the heart, but the groin, shows how nuanced representations of the lives and loves of women is a form of artistic, and therefore socio-political, care. Letissier’s Ophelia carelessly revels in her own skin, in her unbounded desire, in feelings and modes of behaviour usually carefully scrutinised, policed and sanctioned by a heteronormative society: to portray her in a state of carefreeness is, therefore, an act of care.
2020’s Tate Collective saw this act of care replicated again in several responses to Millais’ Ophelia. Displaying the best young artists in the UK, Tate chose work which riffed off several famous artworks in their collection. Many artists who chose Millais’ painting followed Letissier’s lead in turning away from the spectacle of the tragic eternal feminine, instead releasing Ophelia from this trope. Again, care is evident in the level of detail, skill and symbolism found in these rewritings. But it is also found in Ophelia’s response to herself: self-care, the kind of attention one does not always receive from a lover, brother, father – or anyone for that matter, is foremost in many of these works. In Jada Bruney’s Ophelia (2020), the titular figure floats in a bath rather than an English river – but this is no tin tub precariously lit by electric lamps. Bruney’s Ophelia soaks in a luxurious candle-lit bath filled with red rose petals and a glass of red wine to hand. The famous flowers strewn on and around Shakespeare’s heroine are now used as a form of aromatherapy and self-care, as seen in the potted plants sprawling along and dotted around the baby pink-walled bathroom. Though the river hasn’t been completely forsaken (beyond her window lies the Thames and a south side view of central London at night), Ophelia’s no longer at the mercy of it or the hostilities of the natural world. No longer lost to the river, Bruney’s Ophelia owns it, or rather an apartment-fronted vision of it. She is in control, this is her space, her zone of zen, and she is free to luxuriate in the possibilities of what the night holds for her (one spent alone indoors or out with the rose-giving admirer? Or were the flowers a gift to herself for a change?).
What I love about Bruney’s Ophelia is that this is a heroine we want to be; this is a scene of which we want to be part. With Ophelia, Bruney has created a cosy moment of tlc, a plush pink, pastel-tinged, colour-popping femme nest where the stresses of the outside world are kept at bay by the comforts of home and the realisation that we, as women, are worth it: we’re worth the time, the care, the investment. That’s a truth no L’Oréal ad can properly teach, and certainly no dude who may have dumped, duped or desperately pursued you, can take away. This is Ophelia taking time to ‘do her thing’.
Rolake Osabia’s Pattern Up (2020) offers us a moment of self-care similar to that found in Bruney’s Ophelia, but with a difference. The scene switches from one being framed in the restorative space of a bathroom to that of a bedroom or study. Ophelia is no longer lying in water and petals, but sits, cross-legged, on the floor next to an orderly pile of books, their spines a glowing rainbow block beside her. The walls and shelves are white, making this splash of colour all the more important. Books – not flowers and songs – and the vivid imaginary worlds contained within, are one of the languages this Ophelia expresses herself through and delights in. The other languages are painting and drawing, as Osabia’s work is a self-portrait, a subtle mixed media piece that quietly contemplates the self in solitude. Unlike Millais’ and Bruney’s respective paintings, Osabia’s work both reveals and conceals its subject. Whilst Millais’ Ophelia was an open body, her extended arms and horizontal form an invitation for eyes to wander, linger and wash over her like the algae-infested waters, Osabia’s figure sits upright, her body visible but her face partially covered by her phone. It is this refusal to show us her face and current mood that cut off the spectator’s voyeuristic gaze and preserve Ophelia’s bodily privacy, autonomy and self-possession. What then challenges this closure and concealment is the phone itself, another eye and interface, held between Ophelia the viewer-subject and us, the viewer-object. The phone, like the books, are both a closed and open door, another protective frame through which we attempt to enter and engage with the Ophelia musing within. But just when you think you’ve worked out the optical illusion and come as close to the subject as possible, you realise the image must include a mirror, its double captured by the handset’s micro lens, a moment of silence and self-reflection literalised by a reversed selfie on the phone.
Pattern Up’s play on enclosure, disclosure and closure; on states of concealment and revealment; on distance and intimacy, reiterate who is in control in and of the composition. This is a beautiful evocation of self-ownership and meditation, an Ophelia who does not dwell on broken vows, relationships and doomed concepts of love. Though we cannot fully see her, she can see herself in an ever expanding field of surfaces, frames, lenses, focuses and zooms that only she operates. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, she is both beauty and the beholding gaze. What she reflects on, therefore, is herself, on what she is and becomes in these multiple modes of communication, representation and self-contemplation. Framing her portrait with the same subdued collage of leaf and water-coloured pansies found on her outfit, this form of self-love and self-care – of saving, seeing, appreciating yourself, for yourself – reclaims Ophelia as a woman who exists not to please or reflect others, but to please, enjoy and love herself.
Photos of Osabia, her face partially covered, standing next to her image in Camden furthers this sense of ever-expanding play. Creating a kind of mis-en-abyme effect, Nathaniel Telemaque’s photographs of the artist in front of her work continues this circle of inclusion and exclusion, of being seen and hidden, present and absent at once. Her direction of the lens, reminiscent of Letissier’s video, reminds us that in a social-media driven and interconnected world women do not always have this prerogative and control over their image and bodies. That Osabia’s original work and Telemaque’s subsequent portrait of her preserve this line of autonomy and self-realisation, is a kind of radical rebellion towards and subversion of the encroaching powers of social media and its continuous surveillance. Irrespective of what medium or media she uses, this Ophelia keeps her own gaze firmly on herself and won’t be swayed by what others think or say of her.
When under water, when pulled by currents invisible to the human eye, there is light before darkness; fractals of warmth before confounding coldness. Under waves, thrashing against the depths, light breaks in, courting you upwards even as an inhuman force pulls you down. Calm above, but the frantic heaving battle beneath. Should you lose, another body, a liquid form, starts to take shape inside you. Should you win, the light, cast like a net, will heave you aboard life’s raft, as what once surged blue with grief and restlessly green around you recedes beneath. Exhausted and still drenched with the experience, you barely take in the same familiar land, the same sky, the very same sun as they settle and resume their usual states. Resurfacings make the body ache and tremble; they are triumph hard won. They are clenched fists knotted with weeds and stones from below; they are release by release as air fills your lungs, your heart stops tripping to an underwater beat and your ears no longer hear the siren call.
Ophelia’s return, her resurfacing in art history, popular culture and media, has been hard won too; a centuries-long return of women going against the critical tide, of pushing against the deluge of readings and headlines that prefer to see them in front of the easel as ‘stunners’, ‘beauties’ and ‘pretty ladies’. Letissier’s queering of Ophelia comes at a time when critics and audiences in her native France and around the world do not fully ‘get’ her gendered identity and expression of sexuality as performed through her art. Bruney and Osabia’s feminist conception of Ophelia as an autonomous, self-regarding, self-reflective and creative woman comes at a time when socio-political care towards women, particularly Black women, (their bodies, work and time), is going backwards in a post-pandemic, right-leaning world. All such resurfacings have taken time to come into being, but in returning, these Ophelias offer hope for alternative versions of femininity, alternative patterns of bodily freedom, alternative visions of futurity, and how all are figured on the page and canvas.
Click the links above for more information on all of the artists mentioned in this essay. Follow Jada Bruney on Instagram @jadabruney and @jada_art, Rolake Osabia on Twitter @rolsisrols and Instagram @rolakeosabia, and Nathaniel Telemaque on Twitter @DeTelemaque and Instagram @pesovisuals.
Lucy Writers and Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou would like to thank Rolake Osabia, Jada Bruney and Nathaniel Telemaque for allowing us to publish this piece.