Coercion, control and a regaining of agency in Natasha Caruana’s Muse on Muse

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For the past 15 years, Natasha Caruana has been turning the lens on her life, revealing the innermost social characteristics and interactions that happen behind closed doors. Beginning with her degree show series, The Other Lady (2005), in which Caruana fulfilled and staged photographs with women in extramarital affairs, the photographer has sought to bring hidden subjects towards the forefront of the cultural creativity, encouraging the viewer in order to confront their long-held assumptions and biases about the lifestyles of other people. An unwavering autobiographical strand unifies Caruana’s practice; although Caruana did not situate herself in that preliminary series, she was inspired by her own affair with a married man. Realising the hook of lived encounter would allow the personal to be translated into something with common legibility, Caruana understood that she had to put himself directly into her work.  

Now, with a new project, Day job on Muse (2021), Caruana revisits the extramarital affair the girl had at the age of 18. Combining text, photographs and shifting image, Caruana weaves together an unfolding narrative which, in form, echoes the particular growing suspense of a mystery comic strip. A trip to India, which Caruana took for her fifth wedding anniversary, catalysed the work. At the time of the trip, her husband, Simon (referred to as SS through the series), was the same age group as the married man whenever she started seeing your pet in 2003. Caruana can be haunted by a moment in the center of one night when the girl reached across the bed toward Simon and for a moment thought she was resting next to the married guy. “I experienced waking up one morning thinking I was alongside somebody that I used to be in the relationship with, then the piece evolved from that, ” she says. “I realised that other people are probably having the same experience of this residue of love, this residue associated with memory. ”

Drop their gowns, Muse on Muse, 2021 © Natasha Caruana.

Epidermis Touching, Muse on Muse, 2021 © Natasha Caruana.

“One from the visitors said, ’I can not believe your husband let you do that. ’ That’s while i had the realisation that this is actually a piece of work. Because that individual straightaway is making a good assumption of how I should become an archetypal wife. And am thought, the piece of work goes beyond just me plus my story. ”

After the lady returned from India, Caruana became fixated on the idea of staging a photograph of SS and the married man, naked, engaging in skin-on-skin contact. Through fragments of text taken directly from Caruana’s sketchbooks, we have been privy to her thought procedures. Anyone familiar with the photographer’s work will note the continued preoccupation with subverting traditional gender roles across the muse – Caruana is the active image-maker, while these two men from her past and present lives talk about the commonality of being the girl muse. “What would it end up like if I was the one to fireplace the shutter? ” she explains. “It was about myself taking a photo of these two men, and not about them shooting me. In all of the work, I’ve never really already been the muse. I’ve normally wanted to give myself and other women within my work a voice. ”

A substantial point of the narrative comes when Caruana meets the particular married man for lunchtime, having not seen him in three years, to recommend the idea of the photo to him. He agrees, yet only if Caruana will invest the night with him. While Caruana initially withholds the important points of this exchange from DURE, she eventually decides never to go and relays the full story to SS. It is then that SS promotes Caruana to go ahead, for the sake of her artistic practice. At an early showing of the collection as a work-in-progress, which took place the same weekend Caruana met the married man in a hotel, one viewer indicated shock at Caruana plus SS’s marital dynamic. “One of the visitors said, ‘I can’t believe your husband let you do that’, ” she recalls. “That’s after i had the realisation this is actually a piece of work. Because that individual straightaway is making a good assumption of how I should behave as an archetypal wife. And I thought, the piece of work will go beyond just me and my story. ”

Haunted by an Image (2005), Day job on Muse, 2021 © Natasha Caruana.

I did so it, Muse on Day job, 2021 © Natasha Caruana.

Photographs taken from a hidden camera in Caruana’s view, paired with screenshots from SS using the Find My Phone app to track her movements as she goes to meet the married man, provide a durational account of their swap. Surveillance technology raises questions around the ways that women’s systems are policed. Yet, within Muse on Muse an alternative aspect of tracking technology is regarded as. The surveillance of the self, that women engage with as a safety measure – whether walking home from a night out, or meeting up with someone from the dating app for the first time.

“I wasn’t able to get the deal with of where we were heading because married man wouldn’t give it to me. Rather than sensation like a woman’s body had been surveyed, I subverted that will – using technology offered me power. We didn’t think technology would be part of [the series] but it happened to become part of it. I believe it’s an important part of the work, of what we do to shield ourselves. ”

My new Muse (2014), Muse upon Muse, 2021 © Natasha Caruana.

At the age of 36, Caruana finds herself together with the married man once more. She details an trade in which he tries to coerce her into the bath along with him by commenting about how expensive the bubble shower is. Here, a rupture between past and present occurs. Caruana considers that will at the age of 18 this would have got caused her to feel guilt, thus achieving the married man’s desire. Yet as an adult Caruana states no, and leaves the space. With time and experience, Caruana has gained a new perspective on the relationship.

“Looking back to that 18-year-old, I think, yes, I was sort of fixated on trying to find something, ” she recalls. “At that point, I found it through someone who believed in me plus somebody that would like me to get nice holidays, and someone who would support me and encourage me and give me confidence. But at that will age, you don’t actually know how weird that is. Essentially, somebody is in a position of power. It’s not a great dynamic. ”

Lifetime happened, Muse on Day job 2021 © Natasha Caruana.

Consumed (2018) Muse on Muse 2021 © Natasha Caruana.

The resolution of Muse upon Muse was interrupted when the pandemic hit, removing associated with Caruana getting her photo of SS and the married man. Instead, as Caruana says in the series, living happened, and SS plus Caruana welcomed their initial child into the world. Within an unexpected ending, Caruana gets an altogether different quality; the series concludes with photos of Caruana giving birth and finally achieving a depiction of skin-on-skin contact, between herself and her newborn daughter. With birth, a new context to the series can be conceived: the question of how we can contribute to creating the kind of atmosphere we want to bring our children into.

“So I have in the narration, me standing right now there in the hotel room, and married man saying, ‘I’ve spent a lot of money on the bubble bath’, using monetary value as a way of exercising control, ” the girl explains. “And I thought, really, yeah, I’m going to place that in [the series], because that’s a real-life scenario that so many ladies probably find themselves in. Associated with somebody being like, ‘Oh well, I’ve bought you a nice dinner. So occur, let’s get on with the next thing’, and that kind of coercion plus control. I just thought, I would like to talk about it, particularly bringing my daughter into the planet. Because my daughter or some kind of young woman might find them selves in that position. And they will not know what’s happening. They will just feel guilty and be like, you just bought me such a nice dinner, obviously I will have sex with you right now. And actually, you can just state no . ”

Muse on Muse detail © Natasha Caruana.

Muse on Muse set up © Natasha Caruana.

Jamila Prowse

Jamila Prowse is an artist, writer and researcher who uses her experiences as a mixed race, disabled person of Black parentage to understand and subvert barriers to working in the particular arts. She is currently working on a series of films tracing the history of her ancestry by means of her relationship with the girl late father Russell Herman, a South African blues musician. Jamila holds the studio at Studio Voltaire and was a studio residency artist at Gasworks from January to April 2021. She has written for Frieze, Dazed, Elephant, GRAIN, Art Work Magazine and Photoworks.

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