“There’s a tension I’m trying to work out between bodies and people,” Amalie Dougish ’17 said as she showed me the photographs hanging in her studio. In each image, it is the people who are the focal point, the costumed, decorated figures stark against the dark backgrounds. This interest in the corporeal can be seen throughout her work, which is already quite prolific; in fact, an entire wall on the ground floor of Spencer Art Building is currently covered with her images.
Most of Dougish’s models are women, femmes and queer people of color. Her decision to focus on these bodies, in particular, stems in part from her own feelings of disorientation upon coming to Williamstown three years ago. Dougish grew up in Stockton, Calif., a place she described as quite different from the “predominantly white space” of the College. “My high school had a graduating class of 55, and there were like two white kids,” she said. “It’s a very diverse city.”
The shift, which she called her “big leap,” made her think a lot about identity. “You understand yourself by what you see,” she said. In this sense, her art is not just her way of coming to understand other people’s bodies and identities, but also her own.
Dougish can’t remember exactly when she became interested in art. “I’ve always been drawing and painting,” she said. When she was young, she kept sketchbooks of drawings and poetry, notebooks she called “fantasy documents of where I was.” Dougish is now an art history and practice and women’s, gender and sexuality studies double major. She also studied abroad during the spring of her junior year in Florence, Italy, an experience she cites as a major influence in her development as an artist. Her travels in Europe and the Middle East gave her the chance to meet people who had, as she said, made the decision to “devote their lives to art,” an experience that she said made her realize she could do the same.
While Dougish has always been artistic, she had been primarily focused on painting. She only picked up photography this past summer, which she spent working at the Williams College Museum of Art. The switch was self-motivated and somewhat spontaneous. “I got DSLR cameras from the equipment loan center and started messing around with a camera,” she said.
Much of Dougish’s recent photography has been done in the studio, and the images she produces often require extensive prep work. Indeed, she thinks of her work as a kind of “performance art,” one that requires her to carefully design her model’s make-up, clothing and body art, the last of which is sometimes painted with materials like tumeric oil, yogurt and honey. The willingness of her models to put up with such things is something for which she is very grateful. “My friends are so generous with their bodies and their time and themselves,” she said.
Earlier this fall, Dougish exhibited a number of photos meant to play with and subvert the genre of “pin-up girl” images dating from the 1950s. Though the traditional pin-up girl images created primarily to please the male gaze, Dougish, who said she had always been interested in the relation “between pin-ups and actual people,” sought to make images that would function quite differently. While nearly all of the original pin-up girls were white, hardly any of the models who appear in her series are. And though the people in her images sometimes pose in provocative ways, Dougish’s work seeks to explore the play between a model’s provocative pose and that person’s own “agency in taking on the provocative.” In this way, she said, laughing, her work represents something “kind of like a Beyoncé brand of feminism.”
Dougish acknowledges that there is something political in her work, describing it as, “a personal and political investment in bodies and identities that are usually looked over and marginalized.” But she also said that she has felt frustration about the tendency to politicize the work of certain artists because of their identities. “I think that brown artists are always put under an obligation to make art that is political in a way that white artists are not,” she said. On a fundamental level, however, “I’m just making art about things that I like.”
Dougish’s current projects include an upcoming artist talk for her photography class that will take place on Dec. 8 and her art studio thesis, which she said would be “a series of absurdist scenes about Muslim-American life.” After she graduates in the spring, Dougish hopes to travel to France, Morocco or Lebanon, and ultimately, to get a master’s of fine arts or a doctorate in art history. Whatever path she takes, however, she intends to continue to make art, something she believes to be all the more important in light of the events of the past few weeks.
“Post-election, I felt really lost and still kind of do,” she admitted. “But I think it’s important that people do what they love.” For Dougish, this is art, and her favorite thing is to lose herself in it, to, as she said, get into a “frenzy of making and not really consciously thinking,” a mode she compared to something like “dancing or cooking,” when she can focus wholly on making, on putting things together.