Curated Conversations: Ayla El Moussa
Ayla El Moussa is a surreal artist whose visual vernacular juxtaposes traditional compositional elements of nude portraiture with nature. Her self-portraits draw her audience into a contemplation of the worlds within. Ayla traces her love of mythology and the fantastical to her magical upbringing on a farm on the western coast of Canada, explaining why her work often feels like a snapshot of a much longer and grander tale. She is both the artist and the muse, thus challenging the power dynamic of nude portraiture by reclaiming agency over her own body and inviting her audience to experience intimacy as she defines it. Ayla’s work has been featured at Christie’s. She is one of the 6529 Meme artists, has collaborated with Playboy and with SuperRare Labs on numerous occasions
Linda Dounia Rebeiz: Scene 3 of the Painted Muse Series has a painterly texture that hasn’t been seen in your work to this extent. Elements like this texture, the choice of garment, and the model’s pose seem like a nod to the Renaissance.
Ayla El-Moussa: My research of the Renaissance started with the Century Series and further expanded with the Painted Muse Series. The bear market was the perfect time for me to dig into some of my influences from the Renaissance and explore them in my practice more formally. The relationship that painters from the Renaissance had with light has always been very interesting to me as a photographer. While starting the Painted Muse Series, I wanted to give myself room to explore some of these curiosities and really take the time to experiment.
LDR: What are some stylistic references from the Renaissance or otherwise that we can expect to see in Scene 3?
AEM: Caravaggio’s approach to chiaroscuro, balancing rich dark tones with beautiful moments of light to guide the eye through a painting, is something that I was very intentional about in Scene 3. And because I was working on portraits, I kept coming back to John Singer Sergeant’s bravura brushwork and his use of white paint to create stunning portraits without too many fine details. I actually did a lot of painting on Procreate in this series. I took my time to experiment and get the techniques right.
LDR: Your audience was introduced to your painting a little bit with the Nude Abstracts. Is the Painted Muse Series a continuation of that journey?
AEM: Nude Abstracts was my first opportunity to paint in Procreate. The Painted Muse Series is more figurative, but I think people will see the stylistic links between the series. Introducing painting to my practice has been a way for me to expand it and explore ways to play with materials I am known for, like silk, water, and rock.
LDR: What was the idea behind the composition of the Painted Muse Series’ artworks?
AEM: Scene 1 was an experimental piece. I was playing around with studio photography in Procreate and didn’t really have an end goal in mind. I was so happy with the result that I decided to expand the scope with the next piece, Scene 2, and work on a bigger scene. In it, there is a figure reclining with her back to the audience, very similar to a lot of my work in that it’s an anonymous woman. I don’t like to create an identity so to speak for my characters. I prefer the audience to leave their preconceived ideas and project themselves into the character. Scene 3 was interesting because I have rarely done a frontal pose. The only one I have done in the past was The Allegorical Figure of Day and Night, which also uses silk as a material. In Scene 3, I am wrapped in silk but the treatment of the material in Procreate makes it look like marble. I would almost say that Scene 3 is the most erotic piece I have worked on. There is a mystery about what I could be doing. Am I posing for someone? Is there someone watching me? The way the light penetrates the silk and is reflected by it is incredible but also intriguing. Have I just finished doing something with a lover? To me, it was perfect to end the series on intrigue because there are so many questions about what I could be doing.
LDR: You didn’t necessarily start with a story in mind, but ultimately each piece in the series leads to the other. That in itself is a wonderful testament to experimentation – one idea building on another until something larger emerges.
AEM: The process of experimentation to make this series was very enjoyable for me. It’s incredible to step back and realize that a beautiful story has written itself through the process of trying new things and, also, see how far I can stretch my practice to explore new grounds while keeping the feeling of my work.
LDR: Elements like water, sand, or rock are very present in your earlier work, but in the Painted Muse Series, they are stripped back and your character is an empty space. What was the thinking behind this new direction?
AEM: Most of my work is either shot outdoors or includes elements of nature. I wanted to challenge myself and strip away as much as I could but still keep recognizable references to previous work. For the Painted Muse Series, I shot everything in the studio for example. The idea was to then use painting techniques to give the character the illusion of being a marble statue. I have always been drawn to stone, sculptures, and the idea of cementing something, like a legacy. It’s a big word but in a way, I feel that artists on the blockchain are cementing their contributions to art by minting it, in the same way sculptors immortalize their work in marble. The treatment of the silk on the character’s body was instrumental in getting that marble effect. The silk also fluidly wraps around her, water-like. So in a way, nature is still present in this stripped-back version of my work.
LDR: You explained earlier how this collection was a nod to the masters that have inspired your work. I’m curious about your relationship to them, and to art history in general, and what it means to you.
AEM: It’s an important question for me because we’ve uncovered that there are so many incredible female artists who were overshadowed by their male counterparts in art history. Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the most influential artists of the Baroque period, but she is not as well-known as Caravaggio today, for example. With this series, I am almost inserting myself back into this period of art history and trying to reclaim it. On top of that, I am using my own body. I am the artist and I am also the muse.
LDR: In a way, the power structure that exists between the male artist and his muse is not at all present in your work. As the artist and the muse who also happens to be a woman, the process of making your work is empowering you.
AEM: I feel very lucky to be able to be both. Whereas portraits during that period of history channeled a certain gaze on women, I am able to engage in conversation with myself. It helps me learn about myself as a woman and articulate what I want to say as an artist. It’s very intimate and it also feels very safe. I don’t have anyone looking at me while I work. I am looking at myself and choosing to allow my audience to see me in the way I present myself. That’s empowering to me. I have been asked many times by colleagues to pose as a model but I am such an awkward person. If someone else is taking a photograph of me, stepping in front of the camera is very hard for me. As soon as I am alone, there is a complete shift. It’s like I am coming to life and I draw energy from feeling ownership over my body.
LDR: The history of nude female portraiture is definitely a complicated one. It’s almost natural to wonder who we are looking at, how they felt during the experience of being painted or photographed, and whether the result feels objectifying or not. Those questions don’t feel necessary with your work.
AEM: It’s interesting that nude portraits were historically made for boudoirs and other male spaces like it. That explains why there is a voyeuristic element to them, to create a fantasy or the idea of sexual worship. In my work though, I am choosing what to show, how to pose, and how to compose the piece. I keep coming back to this idea of ‘old’ scenes with new details. This means that I am not necessarily creating new poses or compositional references, but it’s my context, as a woman working with technology, that is the novelty.
LDR: Using Procreate to this extent is new for you. What was that experience like?
AEM: I am going to give a shout-out to my brother for introducing me to Procreate because it’s been an amazing experience. I used to paint a lot in high school, oil paintings mostly, before I started photography. Procreate has really brought back some of the foundational principles I learned then, but it’s also opened up some completely new dimensions for me. I can channel the embodiment of a painting while still having total control. It was the perfect program for channeling my research. I would look at how John Singer Sergeant approached brushstrokes or how Caravaggio treats light on folded material and try to emulate them on the tablet. It was time-consuming but it was definitely worth the effort. It was also amazing that I could almost carry my work on my tablet. Everything I needed for this series was just right there. I started working on the Painted Muses Series in California where my studio is, but I finished it in London while traveling to see my family who’s based here.
LDR: Where to from here? Is Scene 3 the last act of the Painted Muse Series? Are we going to see more of this stripped-back version of Ayla moving forward?
AEM: This collection is a bridge to a new direction. It’s research-based and also explores the materials I am familiar with in a new way. My appetite for experimentation has grown and I will keep expanding in these new directions. The Painted Muse Series in particular, though, is a short story. Scene 3 is the last act of that story. To me, it feels like a prelude to what’s next.
Linda Dounia is an artist, designer, and curator based in Dakar. She is interested in how technology reinforces systems of inequity, investigates the philosophical implications of technocapitalism, and dreams of solarpunk, degrowth, and decolonized futures. She is a curatorial editor at SuperRare.
SuperRare editor Oli Scialdone considers the social experience of provenance and its relationship with community in the Web3 space.