Prudes avert thine eyes.
Safia Bahmed-Schwartz’s subjects might vary from lounging naked ladies, to finger silhouettes, to an anonymous couple embracing in a multitude of positions – but erotic illustrations are just one of the many mediums in which this provocative French artist works. When she isn’t depicting scenes of a decidedly sexual nature she is also an art book publisher, a director, a tattooist… the list goes on. We caught up with her in the red-light district of Paris where she informs us, unsurprisingly, she has just returned from designing the interior of a club in Strasbourg, before she divulges her inspirations behind those alluring black and white images.
When originally finding your work we thought your only medium is tattoo artistry. Do you have a tattoo parlour too?
No no, I am in fact just an artist. I studied art in the South of France and then I moved to Paris. I am originally from the Paris suburbs – I’m a suburbs girl. When I began my studies I tried to find another way to draw. I made a book, I made a silk screen, I made many things. Then three years ago, I started to tattoo because I realised that skin was just another kind of paper. I’m stopping because I’ve tattooed a lot of people. It took a lot of time and I want to do other stuff. I don’t know about other tattooists but when someone asks you to do something, something painful, even if there are 20 people around, there is something specific and intimate that happens between the tattooist and the person who is being tattooed. When I tattoo 10, 20 people per day it’s like I’ve done a gang bang! I feel like I have had sex with the people I have tattooed, I give a bit of me and they give themselves too. After three years it’s a lot for me, meetings, stories, pain…
You’re a woman of many disciplines. How many do you have currently?
Illustrations are my primary thing and mostly what people see. Five years ago, I opened my own book publishing company, they are art books. My second book was an exact copy of my Moleskine with erotic drawings. Even my artist friends believed it was the real thing. I made 500 copies. Do you know ’Booba’? He is a French rapper and I made a book about him. The next one will be of a project I have been working on for four years. I‘ve been Photoshopping my face and I have done 900 in four years! I made two a day but right now it’s a little complicated so I have 900 but I will do a “best of” – my face on any kind of picture, like on the Mona Lisa or Beyoncé with Blue Ivy!
I write too. I started to write when I was doing my book and two years ago I realised the way to share text easily was singing. So I started to sing. Last year I made a song with a friend of mine and I took it more seriously. At the same time I decided to do video clips too. I had a hard childhood and I don’t talk to my parents. I feel like I’ve already died. I make myself happy, that’s why I draw every day. I didn’t draw yesterday because I was busy and I haven’t yet today and I can’t wait to again because I need it. I hope I can entertain people if I make someone think maybe for only a minute, I’m happy about that. I’m not pretentious – I don’t want to change the world. We live in a fucked up world but if I make someone happy – that’s great.
(*** NSFW video below ***)
Personal question, but are the pictures themselves on Instagram, are they fantasy or reality?
I’ve been drawing sex from the very beginning, since I was 20. I thought it was the best way to talk to people because it is attractive. Right now, I think it’s seductive and I love black and white. If someone masturbates to my drawings it makes me super happy. It is another way to do porn.
Is that another area you want to go into? Do you want to direct/star?
The end of my next video clip is a sex tape.
Yes, with me and another guy. I was thinking about directing porn but I really want to do a long movie and I am thinking about it.
Do you think your images on Instagram challenge censorship?
I grew up in the 90s and right now we are super sensitive and restricted and can do less than we could ten years ago. This is no more challenging than a painting in the Louvre or a sculpture. Some of my drawings come from sculpture. I don’t watch TV but there is a lot of violence on TV and that can be more psychologically damaging than a dick on paper.
However on a social media platform, your images can be easily reported and deleted. You could lose those images.
It’s only happened once and it was removed.
Do you think society can be too prudent when removing such images?
I don’t know. I know that some of my friends are shocked sometimes. I was super sick in May and June and it was during this period that my drawings became more erotic than before. My friend said to me “Safia, I like your drawings, but jeeez, everyone’s fucking!” Yes, it’s true! I don’t get why it’s shocking, everybody does it.
And why have you focused on drawing erotic scenes?
I’m a fucked up person. Since the beginning, when I was younger I just wanted to be provocative because I just needed to scream. It was the perfect cliché of an artist. I need to scream because I am an artist, I am a woman. My father is Algerian, my mother is German – my father is Muslim and I grew up in a super restrictive, super extremist Muslim way.
Would you then say it was a rebellion against your background?
I wouldn’t say it’s a rebellion. For 12 years I was at a Muslim school. During the weekdays I went to a French school and at the weekend I went to a Muslim school in a mosque. My brain is fucked up. When you mix culture and you have all these different values to respect but they all contradict each other. So, you don’t know what society or your parents are really expecting from you. Each expectation is different. When 9/11 happened my father said “Safia, you will do the same when you are a woman”. What the fuck! I left home.
The thing I never get is that if I was born a guy my life would be different. I didn’t decide it, I am a woman, I was a girl and I can’t change that. It was not a rebellion, I was not Kurt Cobain but I needed to scream all the mess I had within me. Maybe it’s a bit about frustration but at the beginning I drew because I needed to explain myself. I didn’t have the words and in my head I wasn’t allowed to say them or think them. That’s how I began and why my drawings were super hard and super provocative. It was just “Hey! Look at me! I’m suffering!” I’m 29, I think about everything I’ve worked on and I know there is a different way to read each of my work.