Sally Smart: The Exquisite Pirate, Melissa Miles

Sally Smart has long been interested in exploring women’s neglected histories, and in her ongoing project, The Exquisite Pirate (2004-07), turns her attention to the extraordinary world of female pirates. Creeping into cultural memory in fragmented and ghostly form, female pirates such as Anne Bonny and Mary Read have had a far more subtle impact on history than they did at sea. Popular ballads about their exploits are no longer sung, and their stories are continually refashioned in fiction, theatre and film in response to changing ideals of femininity. These shifting histories, images and myths are gathered up by Smart, and in her latest group of exquisite pirates are reassembled to address the little known legacy of female pirates in art history.

Smart’s series of five large scale assemblages on canvas are driven by the striking similarities between an eighteenth century allegory of piracy and Delacroix’s famous painting of Liberty, Le 28 juillet: la Liberté Guidant le people (1830). Drawn by an unknown artist, the allegory of piracy is published in the frontispiece of a translation of Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of Pyrates (1724-28). Johnson’s widely cited history includes an account of the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and it is likely that this narrative informed the artist’s personification of piracy as a bare-breasted woman, holding fire in one hand and a sword in the other, as she stands defiantly beneath the Jolly Roger. The historian, Marcus Rediker, highlights this illustration’s striking resemblance with Delacroix’s Liberty.Like the female pirate, Liberty stands in the centre of the composition with her breasts exposed, and clutches a rifle and bayonet in one hand and raises a flag with the other. For Smart, the notion that such a powerful symbol of unconventional womanhood may have helped to inspire one of art history’s most celebrated depictions of Liberty was too compelling to resist.

Much in the same way that histories and representations merge and form new stories and images, Smart pieces together her assemblages and wall tableau with discrete elements that transform in their new contexts. The flags that feature so prominently in Smart’s collage paintings Liberty (The Exquisite Pirate), Navigator (The Exquisite Pirate) and Yawk Yawk (The Exquisite Pirate) reference the flags of Liberty and piracy, and forge an additional series of connections with the present. Originally formed from a broom found in Smart’s studio with a cloth tied to its handle, the flags of Smart’s exquisite pirates cross artistic, domestic and historical realms. As an artistic device, this improvised prop underscores Smart’s performative approach to her work and the significance of her process to its meaning. By including a silhouette of the broom’s brush in her work, Smart also raises issues of femininity, the body and social class. Delacroix’s Liberty and the allegory of piracy are rare representations of working class women, and as such are important to Smart. Bonny’s and Read’s working class origins and their rejection of conventional codes of femininity are described in Johnson’s history, and are embodied in its illustration by the female pirate’s muscular physique. Delacroix’s comparable portrayal of a powerfully built woman scandalized Parisian critics who denounced this “dirty” Liberty as a whore, a fishwife and part of the “rabble.”

The relationships between the body, thought and culture are recurring themes in Smart’s work and are particularly evident in Octo-pussy (the Exquisite Pirate). The bare breasts that so often appear in historical images of female pirates, and are revealed again in Delacroix’s Liberty, reappear in this work. Cut from magazines, along with this pirate’s hair and nose, the breasts allude to contemporary ideals of feminine beauty and the power of cutting as a symbolic act of independence and transgression. Long plaits of hair double as rope, and are massed at this pirate’s feet where they morph into the tentacles of an Octopus. Traditional emblems of piracy including parrots and headscarves, contemporary floral and gingham fabrics, and other materials screen-printed with wood grains, belts and buckles add to the texture of Smart’s work. The very ground on which these figures stand is equally rich in metaphor as a symbol of the silver of the pirate’s booty and the reflective qualities sea. The sumptuous silver also lends the female pirates an iconic quality as though enshrining their place in history.

Smart’s practice of piecing together apparently incongruous elements to create new associations recalls the surrealist game, the exquisite corpse, to which Smart pays homage in the title of her series. Although chance plays a part in her process, Smart is always in control of the outcome, and unlike the surrealists remains acutely conscious of the formal and conceptual effects of her combinations. Smart’s long term interests in surrealism and psychoanalysis are also evident in much of her imagery. The enlarged middle finger attached to the outstretched limb in Navigator (The Exquisite Pirate) echoes Liberty’s gesture as she propels her people forward, and stands in for the swords and other phallic substitutes that inevitably feature in historical images of female pirates. Hair is another well-known fetish, and the masses of wet, curling tendrils that cloak the skeleton in Skull (The Exquisite Pirate) produce disturbing, uncanny results. Allusions to Sepik River masks, Islander tattoos, body scarification and the practices of cutting and collage in Yawk Yawk (The Exquisite Pirate) draw on the surrealists’ interest in ‘other’ cultures, and work to anchor Smart’s pirates closer to Oceania. Conceived in 2003 in the context of heated debates about the plight of the Tampa refugees, and developed during a period dominated by anxieties over immigration, border protection, battles between Greenpeace and Japanese whalers on the high seas, international military invasions and the continued plundering of natural environments and resources, this body of work resounds with contemporary, local and global significance.

In Smart’s work, the pirate ships pinned to the gallery wall may double as colonizing tall ships, or they may be comprised wholly of figurative elements that leave gaps to be filled by memory and association. The shared iconography and fabrics with which these works are constructed mean that the pirates and their ships are each represented metonymically by the other. Importantly, Smart is also embodied in these assemblages. The complexity, dynamism and scale of The Exquisite Pirate speak to the performative character of Smart’s work, and map the movement of her own body and ever-evolving ideas in relation to the materials and space.

Dr Melissa Miles is a lecturer and researcher at the Faculty of Art & Design, Monash University.

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