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Muses, Models and Artists: Life Drawing With Strippers

Muses, Models and Artists: Life Drawing With Strippers

Heads bowed. Charcoal scrawling. A model poses acrobatically, wrapped around a gleaming chrome pole - sheer inspiration in platform pleasers and dusty pink lingerie. Trust us, this isn't your average art class...

Welcome to Life Drawing with East London Strippers Collective. We caught up with the pioneering collective to talk art, breaking away from the male gaze and tips on how to show up for and support the stripping community.

 

Why does ELSC exist?

"EAST LONDON STRIPPERS COLLECTIVE is a network of feisty, feminist and fiercely independent strippers/ex-strippers. Founded in 2014, ELSC support and promote self-organisation among strippers & sex workers; challenging stigma, standing up to exploitation and fighting for improved safety and harm-reduction in the wider sex industry. ​

The founding members of the collective were all united around a shared set of workplace grievances, and a mutual desire to see their safety, dignity and employment rights acknowledged within their industry.

ELSC achieves this mission through artistic mediums such as life drawing, visual arts, dance, performance, and writing."

Where did the concept for life-drawing with ELSC classes come from?

"In 2013, ELSC founder Stacey Clare launched stripper life drawing as a way of subverting the practice of hiring sex workers as art models. These classes began the stripper life drawing classes at The White Horse, on Shoreditch High Street. She combined her then experience working as a dancer & arts education to create a class that continues the long-standing history of artists musing on the female nude.

Life drawing is the foundation for many burgeoning art careers, igniting critique that led to revolutionary feminist art theory & tapping into timeless allure of the nude subject.

Throughout history, many renowned artists have drawn inspiration from life models, many of whom were sex workers, such as Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Degas, & Egon Schiele.

ELSC’s contemporary take on the age-old practice of life drawing reaches back into art history for a rich trove of references while challenging wider society’s attitudes towards sex workers, the relationship between muse, model & artist & the culture of modelling work within visual arts. Furthermore, ELSC’s life drawing classes build a space where the muses are artists in their own right; their gaze & expression is prioritised over that of heteronormative traditional white-male practitioners.

Finally; there are endless parallels between the marketplaces for creative labour & erotic labour. The overlaps between the economic, social & political challenges facing the art world & sex work make building solidarity between these 2 groups more important than ever. ELSC’s life drawing class does this in heaps & spades."

Photo by @R0seJam

 

For first timers who’d like to head along, what is the key etiquette to observe?

"Class is lead, but not tutored. ELSC welcomes both beginners & experienced artists alike. ELSC directors, hosts & models are all current or ex-strippers. They face significant marginalisation and discrimination in all areas of their lives due to sex work stigma. Basic class etiquette includes:

No Photography:
Models go full nude at ELSC’s life drawing class. Absolutely no audience photography is allowed to protect the identities & privacy of our models. This is doubly true for models who are not “out” as sex workers. The host may photograph the model and the class.

No Touching:
Consent is VERY SEXY. Under no conditions may participants touch the model or host without verbal consent. Audience consent will be sought for any participation that requires any model/audience interaction. 

No Discriminatory Language or Attitudes:
ELSC’s members & roster of talent come from a wide range of diverse backgrounds. ELSC operates a zero-tolerance policy towards racism, sexism, classism, ableism, whorephobia, homophobia, transphobia or body shaming. 

All class participants are encouraged to enjoy a 15 min social after class ends to share their drawings with friends & other participants.  Every artist must leave 1 drawing for the model after class as part of ELSC’s unique class etiquette.

Finally: if you like what you see, TIP! Good tippers go to stripper heaven :)
Ultimately, stripping & sex work is LABOUR & ELSC pays their models well for their creative & erotic labour. Artists are encouraged to tip for the incredible athletic ability & aesthetic appeal of ELSC’s models. 100% of all tips go towards to model. ELSC takes 0 commission."

 

Photo by Poppy Pray

 

 

ELSC events are designed as disruptive acts that challenge a pervasive and long held power imbalance in art institutions. Why is this so important?

Over to Maddie Burdon (madeleine.burdon@hotmail.co.uk). Holding an MA from Central Saint Martins, Maddie is a writer, performance artist & ELSC resident researcher of all things sexy whose work engages affect theory & autotheory with a focus on sex work, art & queerness. Her work has been featured in the Lethaby Gallery’s YES exhibition, Crawford Art Gallery’s Muscle: A Question of Power, Femzine, GROT, i-D & the Wellcome Collection. This text is adapted from a paper originally delivered as part of ‘A Spanner in the Works’ symposium at Norwich University of the Arts, February 2024.

 

"All our models are strippers or ex-strippers, & they’re paid a lot more than the standard life modelling fee. The classes are fast-paced & involve strip tease & aerial pole poses, as well as audience participation & lap dancing.

The way we navigate the artist/muse issue & questions of exploitation in the sex industry is by asserting sex work as work, & stripping as a legitimate art form. The message isn’t about blanket narratives of exploitation or empowerment, but framing this work in a way that centres harm-reduction, destigmatisation & labour rights.

The desire for sex workers as art models isn’t going away & after centuries of poor representation, our view is that it’s irresponsible to produce this artwork without using it as a platform for de-stigmatisation & the sex worker’s rights movement. Images produced in our classes break away from the strip club’s prevailing male gaze, giving an insight into our dancers’ worlds & celebrating ownership over their own images, reclaiming the agency that is too often stripped of narratives around our bodies.

“If [institutions] are to remain relevant, they ought to tell counter‐narratives & counter histories that disrupt both public, & their own institutional, imaginaries.” (Hooper-Greenhill, 2001, p. 123).

In addition to our regular Monday slot, Life Drawing with ELSC puts on events around London including at The Groucho Club, the Toulouse Lautrec jazz club, the Standard Hotel, the Royal Academy, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the British Museum. Museums & galleries often wish to appear objective or detached from politics, yet politics impacts all of what visitors see, & how it’s seen. 

Institutions hold an enormous amount of power in selecting exhibitions & narratives that say something about life, community, & identity. As we’ve seen, sex workers have inspired success for many artists, but, because of public & institutional stigma their perspectives are mostly absent within the very institutions that seem so keen to display their nude forms (Spring, 2019).

As such, the way we intervene in these spaces to gain visibility work as a critical feminist sex-worker led ‘museum hack’ (Clover, 2017), giving us a platform to highlight alternative narratives & challenge traditional art practices. Drawing on Hamington’s feminist ethics of care (2004), highlighting sex worker voices has the potential to increase public understanding & knowledge of our experiences & struggles, & therefore the potential for care. 

An important aspect of institutional interventions is to be aware of the benefit to us, & that to the institution gaining cultural capital by proximity to us, or other grassroots collectives like us. Given that sex workers’ bodies have historically been regulated by those in power, there’s more at stake here than simply creating or displaying ‘nice’ artwork - in a world where policy & ideology have direct implications on the regulation & criminalisation of sex workers, visual representation & the power dynamics it promotes can have tangible impacts.

Our classes & events are community-based artistic strategies that exist on a continuum with activist practices, & working with institutions requires them to act ethically, & us to think critically about who we partner with. With the idea of knowledge creating the potential for care, our events can be understood as an effort to concretise the ‘other’ - that is to challenge the abstracted representation of sex workers that we’ve seen in the history of European art by representing ourselves as we wish to be, so that the public might humanise us in ways that move beyond reductive stereotypes that undermine our agency. 

They also have the potential to re-evaluate the relationship between spectator/artist & model/muse because of the confrontation with an embodied subject, using art space to reconstitute the sex worker body as a living site of resistance that challenges the established politics of viewing within these spaces & within any artwork produced by patrons.

Working with institutions requires them to act ethically, & us to think critically about who we partner with. An ethical tension that arises is that sometimes, the institution, who has the money, seeks to assume control over the narrative. As such, it’s important that they do the work to be able to provide a suitable platform, build trust in the commissioning process, & allow us to shape the narrative by refusing to depoliticise the work for general audiences (Babeworld, 2022). 

The key for any institution that works with us is for their continued solidarity in drawing attention to the issues around sex work, whether through further ‘hacks’ or shows with sex worker groups, so that we may become part of a permanent cultural legacy beyond a temporary event."

How has digital suppression by social media (or beyond) platforms hindered your work?

"Censorship & shadow banning on Instagram in particular completely destroys our ability to reach new audiences. We are not searchable unless you type in our full Instagram handle – this makes it difficult for even loyal followers to keep up with our updates. This has economic & political effects; if we can’t reach audiences, our ticket sales plummet. When there are urgent fundraising or political matters involving strip club licensing or decriminalisation, we struggle to make campaigns reach mainstream audiences because our work is so heavily suppressed.

Recently, Instagram has been flagging the accounts of dancers as “spam”, further suppressing their reach.

With the Online Safety Act now in place & a recent consultation on Pornography, we have to manage our digital presence with constant heightened self-regulation.

Frankly, we can’t say what we want to say. We speak in code and are forced to communicate our work in the most “vanilla” language possible. Sometimes this is possible – but usually it is completely in conflict with our values & the core of what we do.

Today, contemporary artists with impressive online followings & careers across the creative industry continue to muse on the nude form. Artists who dabble in erotica & art nudes are routinely censored & de-platformed on Instagram, Twitter & more.

This experience is shared by strippers, SWers & p0rn creators; censorship from puritanical laws destroys the livelihoods & connectivity of both SWers & artists alike.

We have essentially accepted that we will always be shadow-banned & will have to deal with the risk of losing our account at some point – this is just the reality."

 

Which 3 Instagram accounts should we all follow to support ELSC’s community?

"There are too many to name! We’d like to uplift the accounts of:

@xrage0001

Sex & Rage are led by sex workers, educators & activists. They throw (in our humble opinion) the best LGBTQ+ pop-up strip club night in London & the wider UK. They prioritise employing Black strippers & dancers for their events, which encompass club nights to kink-nights to spoken word poetry.

 

@cybertease_

Cybertease run virtual & in person pop-up strip clubs. They are a collective of strippers & sex workers who run their events as a co-op; all the profits from the night are shared equally by the organisers & performers.

 

@swunion_uk

The Sex Workers Union are a trade union that organise for decriminalisation of sex work & fight for improved working conditions. They provide vital resources, information & legal representation for sex workers across the UK."

 

How can you become part of the ELSC?

"Come join our class, book us for your hen dos, stag dos, birthdays & more! If you have a venue you’d like us to programme, we’d love to chat!

If you’re a dancer – our books are always open for new model & performers!

If you’re a stripper or sex worker and you’ve got a great idea that ELSC could platform, our inbox is always open for pitches & we’ll always take a meeting to discuss these with you.

We also offer consultation for filmmakers & businesses that are working within the sex industry – chat to us to improve your project outcomes!"

 

Want more?

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