With their duo exhibition Beauty in the Belly of the Beast, Maria Izabella Lehtsaar & Sarah Nõmm focus on their shared interests towards intimacy, sexual self-expression and various representations of love and violence between people. Current exhibition is based on the concept of bedroom as a place where one can rest, dream, feel pleasure and fear. It is also a place where one reads texts that shape us as human beings and creators and the place where meetings for this collaboration have taken place. The “bedroom activities” form a socially controversial subject. This place is intimate and reveals the nuances about us that are private and make us vulnerable. It is something that entirely belongs to oneself and at the same time is completely shared with the dearest ones. And yet, not all bedrooms are safe – besides softness, there could also be violence experienced under the roof of love.
The artworks at the present duo exhibition have been inspired by the contradictions related to the intimacy of a bedroom where the expressive means of tenderness and harshness are intertwined. For instance, Nõmm’s artwork “Little Switch” refers to a whip as an object with the purpose of hurting, that can be read in several ways. On one hand, it is an object of power and violence that is used for punishing disobedient bodies; on the other hand, the whip has its place in sexual practices where harshness, care and pleasure are combined. Lehtsaar’s new linocut works “Pillow Princess” and “Unknown Pleasures” continue expanding the artist’s visual queer vocabulary. “Loveless V” is their final addition to the series on the subject of boxing as self-defense and self-love, while also referring to their attempt to challenge gendered stigmatization of extreme or violent sports. Nõmm’s installation “Untie My Ribbons” is inspired by non-normative romantic relationships that won’t classify under the seemingly obligatory relationship form of monogamy. Through the cuddly weapons from the series “The Softest Touch” and the pictures completed by manual typesetting titled “Queer Scissors I II III”, Lehtsaar observes the world of signs related to lesbianism while in some cases using it for self-empowerment and in other cases ironically repeating uniform stereotypes to absurdity.
Less accepted experiences of intimacy under the bedroom motif often need justification for their existence. In this case, the justification is provided by a collective diary, kept by the artists and the curators, that is presented in the exhibition space. The diary serves as a platform for sharing personal stories on the topics discussed at the current exhibition. It reflects on a long-term creative process of four people – the first outcome of which was the exhibition Hardcore Gentleness in the Vent Space project room in 2022.
The stories of the interwoven destinies of a beauty and a beast are as old as our civilization. These usually begin with the imprisoned princess and end with marrying the prince who has killed the dragon. Sometimes these stories have also been told from the point of view of a princess with a higher agency, revealing for instance that the prince might be even more monstrous than the dragon, or that the princess could save herself on her own, or will choose another partner in life. Yet these stories won’t tell us anything about the daily life of the new couple nor the fact that there are beasts sleeping underneath their bed. Beauty in the Belly of the Beast attempts to offer more diverse narratives about intimacy and to enrich the common ground for mutual understanding while emphasizing the importance of safe experiences to people’s welfare.
Maria Izabella Lehtsaar (they/them) is an artist based in Tallinn who combines textiles, graphics, drawing, installation and text in their work. Their works deal mainly with the themes of queer experience and mental health, often playing on the fragile border between reality and fantasy. Lehtsaar graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts with a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Art and is currently studying in the Contemporary Art MA programme. In 2021, they were awarded the Edmund Valtman scholarship and in 2022, they were nominated for the AkzoNobel Art Prize with Sarah Nõmm.
Sarah Nõmm (she/her) is an artist based in Tallinn who works primarily with sculpture, installation, video and performance. Her work deals with the female body and the spaces surrounding it. Nõmm’s works are often based on personal experiences and look at themes of the body through popular beliefs, myths, taboos and everyday rituals. She has a bachelor’s degree in Sculpture and Installation from the Estonian Academy of Arts. In 2021, she was awarded the Young Sculptor Prize, in 2022 she was nominated for the AkzoNobel Art Prize with Maria Izabella Lehtsaar, and won the Eduard Wiiralt scholarship.
Anita Kodanik (she/her) is an Estonian-Ukrainian freelance art worker based in Tallinn. Her research and curatorial practice focus on the visual cultural expressions of collective and personal identity politics. Kodanik graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts with a bachelor’s degree in art history and is currently doing her master’s in curatorial studies. Her recent curatorial projects include exhibitions Imageries in Blanks (2022) at Maardu Decennial and Exercises for Dreamkeeping (2022) organised together with roam Berlin residency program.
Brigit Arop (she/her) is a freelance art worker based in Tallinn with a background in semiotics, who mainly curates and writes. She is interested in artistic practices that use poetry, material-sensitive approaches and humour to shift stale values. Arop has a bachelor’s degree in Semiotics and Cultural Theory from the University of Tartu, and is currently studying for a master’s degree in Curatorial Studies at the Estonian Academy of Arts. Her last curatorial project was the group exhibition Greetings, and Whatever Customarily Restores a Bond About to Break in Kogo Gallery, Tartu (2023).
Curators: Anita Kodanik, Brigit Arop
Graphic design: Kertu Klementi
Supporters: Cultural Endowment of Estonia, Student Council of Estonian Academy of Arts.
Special gratitude goes to: Anton Serdjukov, Karl-Christoph Rebane, department of graphic art at the Estonian Academy of Arts, Eda Urmet, Kristi Kongi, Marge Monko.
Exhibitions in the Draakon gallery are supported by the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, Estonian Ministry of Culture and Liviko Ltd.
Exhibition by Maria Izabella Lehtsaar & Sarah Nõmm
Curators: Brigit Arop & Anita Kodanik
Title: Beauty in the Belly of the Beast
Draakon Gallery, Pikk 18, Tallinn.
Mon-Fri 11.00-18.00, Sat 11.00-17.00
Photography: Roman-Sten Tõnissoo