Fatebe (“FAT-E-be”) is in the midst of the Lacanian Mirror Phase. “She’s starting to interact with her own image and own sense of self versus the drawing of herself,” says her creator, the New York-based artist Ebecho Muslimova. “[The film] Ex-Machina, popped in my mind; she’s looking at herself in a mirror, self-realizing. I feel like I’m drawn more and more into the relationship between her and her own image.”
But the Mirror Phase is supposed to be traumatic, correct? The child looks in the mirror and thinks, “That….. is….. me?” Well if not traumatic exactly, then it’s certainly dramatic. On the inside, we are chaotic, polysexual, formless. On the outside, we are a stable entity, more or less. But Fatebe, as rendered by Muslimova, appears totally unfazed by the realization of her own image. A viewer can intuit a wish fulfillment of sorts. Fatebe is Muslimova’s curiosity without limits.
“Fatebe” is the absurdist, zaftig imagistic alter-ego of Muslimova, and is now the subject of a stunning series of oil paintings and drawings at Muslimova’s current solo show TRAPS! at Magenta Plains. Muslimova has been obsessively drawing her since enduring a trying period towards the end of her education at Cooper Union (around 2011). Frustrated and struggling to meet the demands placed upon her by professors to make the kind of “difficult” conceptual artwork that is catnip to the up-their-own-asses art world elites—Muslimova literally tore up a number of works she made during the period—and enduring other assorted life anxieties, the early illustrations of Fatebe were born of Muslimova’s desire to make truly “earnest” work. “There has to be some kind of ‘trauma drama’ in order to make something earnest,” she explains in the back room of Magenta Plains. “It has to come from a place in which you weren’t feeling very earnest. You wouldn’t draw cartoon pussy if you weren’t in some way blocked.”
In short, Fatebe was born of her creator’s dejection. When she started drawing Fatebe—always naked and exposed, often humiliated—she had given up on the art world. She didn’t want to show her work to anyone. She imagined the lifelong obsessive drawing of this abjected alter-ego as a cosmic joke on her life. “[Fatebe] literally came out of a juvenile tantrum that I was having,” says Muslimova. “I decided that I was going to draw this one character my whole life, and people would see me hobbling down the street at 80 years old and would say, ‘That’s Ebe she’s drawn the same thing her whole life.’ And the joke became real. I can’t do anything else. It’s funny.”
The twisted irony of the joke is that Muslimova has found real success with her countless illustrations and paintings of the character (it appears that the Magenta Plains exhibition currently up has sold out of all the pieces). In a contemporary art culture saturated with boring, serious artists making boring, serious works dealing with relational aesthetics or identity politics and so on, Muslimova’s direct, frank, occasionally shocking, and most importantly, hilarious Fatebe works truly stand out in a crowded group show. It would appear that we all crave the kind of clarity of image and directness in communication that Fatebe evokes. In Fatebe Bear Trap, for instance, Fatebe is trapped in a bear trap. Make of that what you will.
From a psychoanalytic standpoint, what is most fascinating about Muslimova’s work with Fatebe is that the artist has, what she describes as, a very real relationship with her creation. She talks about her like she’s a real person who is enduring an in-real-time life on a chronological continuum. In a lecture at Swiss Institute in which Muslimova described her trajectory in creating Fatebe, she showed a number of slides of early drawings of Fatebe and said that each represent a new experience, a new memory, in the life of this character: “first date,” “first fart,” “first snake,” and so on. All artists, of course, have deep relationships with the works that they create (or they should, assumedly), but I’d wager that very few have relationships as deep as the one between Muslimova and Fatebe.
Kant believed that to humiliate someone was to deny that person’s very humanity. And yet, despite the closeness between Muslimova and Fatebe, Fatebe endures all manner of physical and psychological humiliations at the mercy of Muslimova’s libidinal imagination. But there is a kind of wish fulfillment going on. Fatebe is, in a sense, a guinea pig for Muslimova’s most based curiosities. Fatebe caught in a net, Fatebe shitting pasta, and Fatebe swallowing frogs en masse are just a few of the humiliating scenarios Muslimova has cooked up for her alter-ego in her most recent exhibition. Illustrations of the character allow the artist to expel some very bizarre notions from her consciousness. But simultaneously, Muslimova has empowered her character, forming a unique communicative flow between the artist and her creation, in which the artist can humiliate the character but the character can seemingly endure any humiliation without breaking a sweat.
“She’s relishing in [humiliation], because she’s my surrogate,” says Muslimova. “There’s real consequences to falling in holes for me or whoever, so she can explore these surreal degradations in a way that I wouldn’t allow myself to. She’s vulnerable, and kind of a puppet. But she’s just grinning through these trials I’m putting her through, and she can stand up to her creator.” Slavoj Zizek said that the true measure of love is the ability to insult one another, and if this is true, it’s clear that Muslimova truly adores Fatebe.
Muslimova’s Fatebe illustrations have garnered comparisons to other artists that use/have used illustration: Raymond Pettibon, Peter Saul, early 20th Century French satirist Honoré Daumier, and others. Beyond a shared medium, however, it’s hard to see how. While those artists respond in real time to current events, Muslimova reaches into the recesses of her mind. There are evocations of the naughty black ink drawings of late 19th century British erotic illustrator Aubrey Beardsley in the sheer distaste and decadence of the images. Suspiciously, critics have failed to detect connections between Muslimova and the Swedish artist Marie-Louise Ekman. Though Ekman is a painter, the cartoonish figures that populate her paintings delight in corporeal and sexual debasements similar to the ones endured by Fatebe. On Ekman’s work, Johan Deurell writes: “Her work is consistent, emotional and humorous; and perhaps even a bit repetitive – if the subject matter of personal relations ever can be.” Like Ekman’s debased figures, Fatebe offers a broadly debauched understanding of what it means to inhabit a body.
But Muslimova has also achieved something that none of these artists have. “Fatebe is Muslimova’s invention, which is every cartoonist’s dream—to make a memorable character,” writes John Yau for Hyperallergic. In contrast to the aforementioned artists, Fatebe is the sole vessel for Muslimova to explore the recesses of her subconscious mind. It’s hard not to infer psychoanalytic implications from Muslimova’s decision to continuously render the same character, her self-described alter-ego, into all manner of surrealist emotional and corporeal disturbances. Fatebe could be viewed, from a certain perspective, as a manifestation of what theorist Julia Kristeva would have called “the double” in her text Powers of Horror: Essay on Abjection: a place where boundaries between subject and object begin to breakdown. Kristeva believes that we are continuously drawn to the abject, which could psychologically explain Muslimova’s enduring fascination with drawing Fatebe–a character that was literally birthed from an abject period of her life.
But, as Kristeva says, “Abjection is above all ambiguity.” Though a viewer can infer some psychoanalytic level in Muslimova’s paintings and drawings of Fatebe, it is rather impossible to discern what, if anything, these works say about Muslimova’s psychology or emotional state specifically. On the contrary, Fatebe has given Muslimova a creative technique of self-exploration while providing a buffer between her psychology and the audience. She can give her viewers a window into her mind without ever allowing them to see anything specific about her mind. Muslimova’s psychology takes on a formlessness in these works: we understand that it’s present, but can’t see the thoughts, experiences, and traumas that shape and drive it. Muslimova says that the choice to render Fatebe in black line drawings is that the process and shading of painting can infer subtext, which she actively sought to avoid. “What Pettibon does is almost more revealing of who he is because to react to current events is to reveal his own inner feelings about those events,” observes Muslimova. “Drawing is an evidence of thought because it’s so immediate, but like the dark well of my own psyche, no one can see that [in these drawings]. [Fatebe] allows me a sense of privacy somehow.”
TRAPS! is testament to the riveting formal evolution of Fatebe’s illustrative existence. Though the show still features a number of black ink drawings, Muslimova has also rendered Fatebe on large-scale canvases in a number of oil paintings, each sumptuously detailed and emphasizing the character in exciting new ways. But it should also be noted, the paintings only offer vibrant backgrounds, Fatebe remains a monochromatic line illustration. Muslimova credits the choice to render Fatebe to larger canvases to the desire to expand the space around her. “The different textures and illusions of space in the painting reinforce her black and white flatness around her, so she, herself, as a drawing has more intention and dimension in her entity,” she says. But on a more emotional level, she notes, “I also just wanted to try painting because it scares me.”
In Fatebe Landing Failure, for instance, we see her caught in a leave-less tree, visually distorted to stress the delirious confusion of the situation, while her failed parachute is pictured off below the branches. The larger canvases provide the audience a clearer relationship between Fatebe and the audience. But the overall approach is the same. Fatebe is never the subject of a cartoon or animation, her image is always frozen in time, a picture. Roland Barthes, of course, wrote that photographs were little deaths, still lifes that freeze present moments into eternal pasts, prefiguring the stillness of the corpse. Fascinatingly then, Muslimova is making photographs of Fatebe from this imagined, nonexistent cartoon. This concept elevates the notion that we are being allowed to watch the life of this character through still images, and that every image that Muslimova creates alludes to the inevitably of the character’s demise. This technique yields a heightened relationship between the viewer and Fatebe; we empathize with her, we root for her, she’s the hero of this implied narrative. “I freeze her in the ideal angle that I want her to be seen in,” says Muslimova. “It’s important that she’s frozen and that we are seeing her from the angle that we are seeing her.”
What Muslimova implies here is that it’s not just the situations in which Fatebe finds herself that communicate meaning to the viewer, but Fatebe’s body gestures as well. And not just the placement of her limbs, and her poses and positionings, but the folds of her belly and the lines of her curves are all exploited as expressive tools. Much like Butoh dancing, the body is used as the primary performative tool in drawings of Fatebe, and Muslimova retains hyper-focus on how the body is depicted in each of the works. “The folds of her elbows, even those can be expressions,” she explains. “Whenever things are happening with the body, it’s a performance in a way, right?”
While some artists spend careers trying to find their aesthetics and voices, Muslimova has created one singular image that is able to inhabit so many of the avenues artists seek to explore. Fatebe is a rumination on the expressive potential of the human form, an abjected alter-ego that allows Muslimova self-exploration without the risk of over-exposing herself, a source of humour, transgression and absurdity, and–let’s face it–kind of a superhero. It is simply impossible to get bored looking at drawings of her. We want her to persevere, we want her to win, and we want Muslimova to keep drawing her. This “psychotic version of herself” that was once a tool for Muslimova to “nourish her creative urges” without exposing herself to the exhausting scrutiny of the art market is now on its way to becoming something that Muslimova never intended to create: a contemporary visual icon. Muslimova’s fascinating Fatebe drawings prove that artists should learn to stop worrying and love their mindless doodles.
Adam Lehrer is an artist, photographer and writer. Lehrer’s work consists of manipulated photography, collages made of mostly Internet sourced appropriated images, and video loops. He has had solo shows at Spring Break Art Show, Governor’s Island Art Fair, and has been featured in group shows. Lehrer is also a culture writer, and his art, film and music criticism has been featured in Autre Magazine, The Quietus, Forbes, VICE, Bedford & Bowery, Bullett Media, i-D, SSENSE, and more.