No Submissives Allowed: Indira Cesarine on art, feminism, and the untitled
“I don’t photograph women being submissive. I photograph women looking you straight in the eye; I photograph confident, empowered women.” ― Indira Cesarine
Confident, self-aware and extremely intelligent, Indira Cesarine embodies the qualities of a natural born leader. Unfortunately, in the United States, strong women are often forced to start their own business ventures to actually put their leadership skills into practice. And, that is exactly what she did. The multimedia artist and owner of The Untitled Magazine, The Untitled Space, Untitled Productions, and The Untitled Boutique is an undisputed Renaissance wo-man.
Born in the Midwest, Cesarine grew up in Iowa. Developing an unwavering passion for the visual arts early on in life, she was enrolled into multiple children’s programs by her parents, where she was able to channel her “obsession.” “When I was seven, I had a teacher who introduced me to a lot of impressionist art and early modern masters, like Picasso and Dali,” she stated. “I was really drawn to the work of Man Ray and Jean Cocteau.”
Growing up surrounded by individuals fueled by fierce determination, Cesarine had no shortage of role models to look up to. Her mother, in particular, was an especially powerful influence. Watching her, Cesarine learned to work hard and apply herself to every facet of her life, which is why she seems to excel at everything she does with relative ease. But, make no mistake, Cesarine’s sophistication is a product of her upbringing, education, and unadulterated grit.
The effort she put into her work, however, was not always appreciated in the United States, regardless of the fact that she established herself as one of the most sought-after photographers abroad: “In Europe, I was booking really big jobs from a pretty young age, but one of the things that really frustrated me was that it was impossible, despite this, to get any work at home.” The reason was purely sexist.
“Male photographers capture beauty better,” she was told. “There was this huge attitude that men could take better pictures of women because there’s this sexual connection,” she explained. “But, I did a lot of work with Vogue and Elle and other amazing magazines abroad." And yet, she found her dusty portfolio at the bottom of her agent's closet in America. “I mean, they didn’t even bother to send it out!” she vented. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Today, Indira Cesarine is one of New York’s most respected artists, editors, and feminists. ARTpublika Magazine spoke to the enigmatic influencer about her art, life, and career.
At what point did you realize you were a feminist?
My mother is an orphan; both of her parents died when she was young. Actually, her mother died from an illegal abortion ― she died of blood poisoning because nobody would help her. But, my mother rose from those ashes and worked, worked, worked. She was the recipient of many scholarships, including the National Merit Scholarship, and enrolled in the University of Chicago Law School after graduating from college. She was one of the only women in the entire law school to get her diploma, though there may have been three other women at the university when she first started.
She was always a very powerful influence on me in that she was a real underdog who came from a very difficult background. So, her story inspired me my whole life. In any case, she married my dad, who was a very successful auto entrepreneur in the Midwest. Though my mother originally wanted to follow her own pursuits in law, she ended up becoming the lawyer and vice president of my dad’s company. I was kind of mad at her for not pursuing her goals. She was so educated and accomplished, but she was always very subservient to my father. That really bothered me ― big time.
When I was six, I created this 50-page cartoon book. The [characters] were actually gender-neutral blurbs ― little spiky creatures that weren’t male or female. Being the youngest of five siblings ― I have three brothers and one sister ― I was very sensitive to who had power in the household as a child. Now, things are different. My mother has her own law firm and my dad cooks and takes care of the house. But, I think between her and my grandmother dying because of an illegal abortion, I've long identified as feminist.
At what point did you develop your first gallery show?
I went to Choate Rosemary Hall (high school) in Connecticut. Before I arrived at Choate, I did a summer photography intensive course at Parsons School of Design when I was 14-years old. Living in NYC, I did a series of portraits at nightclubs. It was back in the era of the Club Kids, many of which were very eccentric characters. They thought it was awesome, and no one cared that I was young. I have a lot of material from the 80s club scene. When I attended Choate at the age of 15, I showed my work to the head of the photography department, who was very impressed by its quality. So, when I was 16-years old, I did my first art exhibit at the school’s Paul Mellon Arts Center, and went on to do two more exhibits before graduating.
How did photography become your main interest?
After going to Parsons and Choate, it was definitely a big emphasis of mine, even though I was still doing painting and printmaking at the same time. But, photography seemed to me to be a viable career. I went to Columbia University and was completing a triple major in Art History, Women’s Studies and French, and because it was in New York City, I was also able to work for some of its biggest modeling agencies.
Starting from my freshmen year, I was able to make some cash. Eventually my rates climbed up, so by the time I graduated from college I was making $1000 a day. So, I moved to London, because I decided that I wanted to work as a photographer. I was also modeling at the time, but that didn’t last long because I didn’t really like it. And, I far preferred the respect that I was receiving as a photographer versus how models were treated, though models and photographers should all get the same respect. With photography, people were really receptive. It was a question of being realistic.
What are some your best memories from working in Europe?
Overall, I really enjoyed working in Europe. One of the reasons is I got along with the editors, who were mostly women. They loved strong personalities and in America, I think, I rubbed people the wrong way.
I had so many great experiences, and went on so many incredible trips! I was in my late 20s, doing shoots for British Vogue. For one of them, we went on a trip to St. Lucia for an entire week. I cast two models from New York ― who I knew, liked, and worked with ― and had a great team with me. We got to stay in this amazing hotel-mansion on a plantation and had the entire place to our selves! Scouting for locations, stopping by beautiful little towns and stunning beaches, I couldn’t believe I was actually working. It was so relaxing! And, everyone who worked in fashion knows it’s complete insanity. At the time, everything was shot on film ― there was no Photoshop or postproduction like now. You had to get it right in real time.
Why did you eventually move back?
I never planned to move to Europe for my entire life. I bought a place in Tribeca, which is currently The Untitled Space. I actually intended for it to be my photo studio; I thought I was going to put all of this energy into it and make it my focus. In the end, I transitioned my entire focus into opening my own magazine. I realized that if I wanted to make it, I had to do it on my own terms, in my own country, and that meant I had to be independent. I started working on it in 2008, and launched the first issue online in 2009.
Initially I called it XXXX Magazine, because I wanted to spark curiosity about what it may be. It primarily focused on multimedia: video art, fashion films, shorts and documentaries. The aim was to do something very conceptual. I went to film school in 2001, and later went back and attended film production school in England, so I’ve been doing a lot of video work. At the time, Nick Knight's SHOWstudio was gaining momentum and I was very inspired by a lot of the work. Of course, when I translated the magazine into print, we added entertainment content and talent interviews. I also changed the title to The Untitled Magazine. Within a year, I had a global distribution deal. Since then, we’ve worked with so many phenomenal people.
What was the most illuminating thing about doing a Girl Power issue?
How many amazingly empowering stories there are out there. Every single woman we featured came from a unique background and worked really hard to carve out her own place in the world. Personally, I really enjoyed interviewing Naomie Harris. I actually flew to London to do her shoot and interview. She is such an insightful and down to earth person; she was also one of the only celebrities we worked with on that whole issue who didn’t have a publicist on set.
Women photographed the entire issue, all the articles were written by women, and all of the talent was female. I spent a huge amount of time trying to find female photographers across the world that could do these shoots. I really enjoyed working on the issue and am very glad I did it, since that is our last issue ― a Collectors Issue. I can say that now I’ve moved on; I want to focus on the gallery. I will keep the online magazine, since we reach the same audience, but the Girl Power issue was our last big release.
Why did you choose to focus on women at The Untitled Space?
From my own experiences, I understand how much women need help. Female creatives need assistance, because so few of them are actually able to sell their work and make a living. You may see them on TV or in the press, but it does not mean they are able to pay their rent. Bottom line is, when you look at the statistics, only 5-8% of artists represented by galleries and museums are women.
In 2015, my team and I spent months and months and months going through every major magazine published in America ― we’re talking about 10 major publications ― and looked at every single photo credit, counting how many women were actually being published. In the United States, the average was about 13%. I was shocked, because some of these publications come off as being very supportive of women, but they had zero women shooting for them. So, when I looked at these numbers and statistics, it just made sense to me. I will say that I have not reviewed the statistics for 2017, but the state of our country right now shows me that women need to be supported.
What was your favorite exhibit at The Untitled Gallery to date?
I have to say that I really love our current show, Secret Garden: The Female Gaze on Erotica. It definitely comes from a very real feminine place; the artists are exploring their own intimate stories with the work. And, Uprise: Angry Women was incredible, because we have such a small space but were able to feature about 80 artists. The exhibit was very reflective of what a lot of women experience.
Is there an exhibit you would like to do, but haven’t yet?
That’s an endless question. Oh god! I have so many ideas. I guess I would like to do an exhibit of my own work. I have been focusing so much on exhibits with other artists, I’ve sort of ended up neglecting my own. I am also planning to do an exhibit focusing on textiles, but ― you know ― in the future. I do like the idea of pushing forward and doing some large-scale work, maybe something in the public space.
What are you currently reading?
Books, hmm. I’ve been rereading My Secret Garden (1973) by Nancy Friday, which inspired the theme of my current exhibit. I highly recommend it to everyone who doesn’t mind a little erotic content.
Is there anything that people may be surprised to learn that wasn’t addressed in this interview?
Well, when I originally found my gallery space, I was unaware that Lispenard Street, which is where it’s situated, was actually the location of New York City’s Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, this was where hundreds of emancipated slaves were able to find a new beginning in the North East. It’s an interesting coincidence that this street has a long history of being populated by people fighting for freedom, liberation, and equal rights. I hope we’re absorbing some of their energy.