By subverting the associated meanings of symbols like the colour pink or the word ‘bitch’, Australian illustrator Ailie Banks creates a universe populated by bold, daring, carefree and powerful women. They don’t shave their armpits or pubes, they tell the world shamelessly that they have a mental illness and learn to live with it every day, and they don’t give a fuck about society’s expectations for them. Sounds exciting? Meet Ailie and her army.
Art has always been present in your life - you watched your mom paint and you started drawing since you were a little kid. You also have said that art saved your life in so many ways. Can you share what does art mean to you? And in what ways has it saved you?
So to be blunt, my father was extremely abusive and growing up with that kind of presence (with no exit) meant that escapism was a fundamentally important part of my life as a child. Art and drawing and cartoons became another world I could dissolve myself into in order to survive the situation. When I was old enough to draw things for myself, I realised I could use art to create whatever I wanted. I could use it as a vehicle to express difficult emotions and happily lose myself in the process.
You are inspired by women around you and by daily life situations, and we can see that in your illustrations. Spreading the message of empowerment and self-love with illustrations about having the period, breast-feeding, the unsolicited messages girls receive (‘send nudes’, ‘can I cum over’, etc.), the way people treat women (hysterical, crazy, etc.). How do you choose the subjects and messages you want to convey and share with the world?
Most of my conceptual practice starts from my (or the people I love) real-life experiences. I really try to avoid imagining scenarios that I haven't lived through myself or haven’t spoken directly to someone it’s happened to. I guess I hope that by doing this, other people can feel seen and validated in their experiences of potentially the same thing and we can see issues on a larger scale. I hope this then stimulates important conversations and eventually action and change.
According to you, what are some of the most urgent matters society should address concerning women?
Sexual abuse and domestic violence are things that the more we talk about, the more prevalent we realise they are. I think that there needs to be better education around what domestic violence and sexual abuse actually look like. For example, the fact that most victims know their perpetrators very closely and that abuse of any kind starts so subtly that first signs can go unnoticed. I wish we, as a society, and especially men to other men, would talk about these issues more.
You have written, “Living openly with mental illness” on your Instagram page. Would you call yourself an activist spreading awareness to normalize it?
Well, for me, it’s simply a fact – I live with mental illness. For me, publicly displaying that is kind of a defence mechanism. I guess I’m hoping it weeds out anyone who might have a problem with it. I think anytime anyone with a ‘disadvantage’ or ‘difference’ lives openly, it’s almost always read as activism because people are expecting us to hide that part of ourselves. It’s just a part of my life and I am in a position of privilege that allows me to safely declare it as part of my identity.
Pink is the colour of universal love, represents friendship, affection, inner peace, and approachability. And it’s also the official colour ‘for girls’ in Western society. You are always using this hue in your illustrations and that gives them an atmospheric quality. What does pink represent in your illustrations? Are you trying to subvert its ‘girly’ meaning?
Pink is a colour that, yes, has traditionally been used to mark something as ‘feminine’ – and, most of the time, that mark brings a whole set of rules and prejudices along with it. I also think that because most of the time pink is shoved in women’s faces since childhood, there’s a nostalgia that colour can carry and ultimately says ‘this is for you’. So for all those reasons and more, I use it as the foundation for my work.
Most of your subjects are also visibly hairy. Is this a way to subvert mainstream beauty standards? Is illustrating hairy women a statement against canons imposed on females?
I illustrate my characters with body hair to simply offer a visual alternative to the way mainstream media presents feminine bodies. Most of us naturally grow body hair, we were just told from a young age that you should never see it.
Laura Callaghan, Charlotte Allingham, Prue Stent and Honey Long are some artists that you follow and like. And you have something in common: brave women sharing and spreading the message through art. Can you describe what they bring to you?
I am constantly inspired by the work these women put into the world. Not only does their practice inform mine but their work makes me feel seen as I make my way through the world as a woman myself.
Nowadays, all your published work is digital, but you also like to create with clay and canvas. Do you have in mind working on a ‘more physical’ project, for example?
All my work is digital because that’s the supplies I had access to when I was a student. Also, digital format allows me to share my work quickly and effectively with a worldwide audience, which I love. However, as I move forward, I do continue to incorporate more traditional art techniques into projects and hope to continue into the future.
For society, the word ‘bitch’ has a bad connotation, but to you, a bitch is “someone who stands firm and speaks their mind in the face of sexist rhetoric. They don't filter themselves for the comfort of others and they don't give a damn about meeting societal expectations.” Last year, you published a volume titled The book of Bitch. Did you hesitate using the word when you were choosing the name? Do you define yourself as a bitch?
The irony is that other people labelled me a bitch before I took that label and ran with it. As I talk about in the book, the word ‘bitch’ has followed me and the women around me my whole life, and it is such an all-encompassing label that it’s pretty inescapable if you want to exist in a world that hates bold women. So, after much thought, I decided to draw what I thought a bitch really was and reclaim the word for myself and anyone who resonated with it.