Sofie Birkin’s creations are as varied as they are powerful. Whether they feature MeToo campaigners closing in on Brett Kavanaugh and some suspiciously vulva-esque-looking tacos, or a woman enjoying some solo-sex, the characters in Birkin’s art are indifferent to your presence. They’ve got bigger things to worry about. Ahead of the release of Sex Ed: A Guide for Adults on October 29th, the book for which Birkin has designed all fifty illustrations, she shared with us her thoughts on representation, the rise of sex educators, and living in the United States in a time of, arguably, pure chaos.
Your art is characterised by striking colour palettes and minimal line work. What influenced your visual style?
My father was once a graphic designer, and my parents have always had this very specific visual language of pop art simplicity punctuated by details – like a giant floral vase against a sparse white wall, or a gilt framed mirror over a mid-century modern chair. Growing up around that, combined with working for a graphic design agency for four years, has given me an appreciation for dialling back the details and focusing on composition and colour to convey a message. Visually, I also draw inspiration from Fauvism and take a lot of compositional notes from contemporary fashion photographers.
You describe the people in your illustrations as characters. They occupy such a presence in the frame that they feel like real characters. When you draw your illustrations, do you almost feel as if you know them?
I’m very bored by the historical treatment of women in art as beautiful objects. My favourite portraits are the ones that let you imagine a whole life for their subject, so that’s what I always strive for in my own work. I do sort of feel like I know them – or like I’m catching a glimpse of them. I don’t want to be overly prescriptive with the characters I draw because I want other people to come up with their own stories and projections.
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You’ve said before that you want to challenge preconceptions of women in art by refusing to give them small ‘feminine’ features. The women in your illustrations rarely look at the viewer, and when they do, it’s with indifference. Is your art a form of protest? Are your characters looking on at allies or enemies?
It’s neither – they’re just not invested in whether you’re looking at them at all. They exist in their own world. Or they see you, but they’re not there to smile and look pretty for you. I know we’re all familiar with the concept of the male gaze at this point, but it can be so pervasive – if you’ve ever been completely alone and found yourself adjusting your position to something more flattering, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
I’m a queer woman and a feminist, and I think beauty standards are an absurd tax on women and femmes, and yet there’s still a horrid little voice in the back of my mind telling me to sit up straighter when I’m by myself on the couch. So I draw to shut it up, basically.
What do you hope women, POCs, and queer people take away from the characters you draw?
I don’t want to oversell myself, but I just hope that people see themselves somewhere they might not often feel very represented, and find it joyful and empowering.
The artwork you designed for Playboy’s Sex & Gender issue was very powerful. The article talked about the sexual moral panic in the United States. Originally being from the United Kingdom, and now living in the US, which country do you think has a more sex-positive outlook, if either?
I think any valuable comparisons between the US and the UK are almost impossible to make. The US is just such a huge country that it’s home to as wide a variety of opinions as anyone could imagine. But within the context of my little bubbles of lefty queer folks both here and back home, I can offer this: I think, in general, Brits have a more lighthearted, casual attitude towards sex, which I like, but we’re also bigger prudes. My American friends will have more earnest conversations, but without a trace of bashfulness.
“I’m a queer woman and a feminist, and I think beauty standards are an absurd tax on women and femmes.”
Speaking of the US, you’re coming close to an important election. Your art appears very much in protest of the country’s current political landscape – the image of Brett Kavanaugh surrounded by protestors in your Playboy illustration comes to mind. What is it like to live there in this moment, and is it changing the art you create?
Good timing for this question as I’ll be a US citizen by the time this is published! Obviously, this has been a bit of a wild year and it’s definitely impacting the art I make. I’m very much aware of the contemporary atrocities and historical injustices that the US is built on, but there is also so much culture and creation and thriving community here that is worth celebrating. Way back in February, I was an embarking on an art series exploring that – the beauty I found in the US as an outsider calling it home. With the current political landscape, it felt less and less appropriate to amplify my voice like that, so I shelved the project.
Those with power in the US have a vested interest in maintaining violent white supremacy, and as artists we need to prioritize Black voices when having that conversation. I’m still working out the balance between creating space and using my platform for good. On top of that, my art is supposed to be vibrant and joyful, and sometimes that’s a tonic, but sometimes it feels trite when so many are suffering. I don’t have a clear answer, but I’m trying to learn as I go with consideration and humility.
One of your illustrations is called Big Dyke Energy, which I love, and on your website, you say you use your work to “spread the gay agenda wherever you can.” You’re part of a growing group of illustrators, including the likes of Florence Given, who use inclusive art to challenge systems of power and embrace sexuality. As romantic as it may sound, do you think this style of art genuinely is key to upending the toxic systems we live by?
I don’t think representation and diversity in art is enough by itself, but I do think it’s incredibly important. Obviously, within the queer community, we have bigger fish to fry – LGBTQ+ youth homelessness, healthcare inequality, disproportionate violence against trans people… to name a few. But representation within art and media is powerful and essential. It fights feelings of shame and invisibility, and can give queer kids the tools to understand and celebrate themselves. When queer artists are able to take up space, we can champion our own stories in all their richness and complexity, free of dangerous and negative stereotypes and ideas.
The community of sex educators and illustrators is growing rapidly online. Why do you think there is such an appetite for this content?
I think, in general, but especially now during the pandemic, we’re all becoming increasingly digital in the way we form community, so online spaces for sex educators and illustrators were inevitably going to grow with it.
For me, illustration occupies this middle place between art and graphic design where communication and beauty hold equal weight, which makes it perfect for social media like Instagram. A few years ago, I had to explain and even defend my job all the time, but now when I tell people what I do, they’ll share their favourite illustrators with me. I appreciate having this whole online world of other illustrators to chat to. It’s very supportive and motivating.
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I’m really interested in the new book, Sex Ed: A Guide for Adults, illustrated entirely by you and written by sex educator Ruby Rare, coming out October 29th. How did this project come about?
The book was commissioned by Bloomsbury, so my editor (the wonderful Lauren Whybrow) reached out to me to ask if I’d be available to illustrate it back in March. I was very busy at the time, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find time for it, but Lauren’s emails and description of the project totally charmed me and I was excited to sign on.
Did you talk with Ruby beforehand to establish a style or colour palette for the visuals, or did you have complete free reign? From what I’ve seen so far, the colour palette seems to focus on more muted shades, whilst still maintaining your lighthearted approach.
Sex Ed was really a collaboration between the four of us – Ruby wrote it, I illustrated it, Pooja (Desai) designed it, and Lauren (Whybrow) edited it. Pooja came up with that gorgeous dreamy colour palette, and Lauren had the vision of setting everything in a weird, sexy undulating alien landscape. I was given a huge amount of free reign creatively, but we all worked on the art direction together. It was important to everyone that while it was accessible and beautifully designed, it was also genuinely erotic in parts.
Sometimes, artistic representations of sex and eroticism can be really limited, so we all wanted to represent a real diversity of characters in the illustration to reinforce the idea that we all deserve to embrace our sexuality. It was a real labour of love and we’re all incredibly proud of it.
Ruby described your art as “filthy, gorgeous, and empowering as fuck,” what do you hope people take away from this book?
I think you could be inexperienced and terrified or worldly and self-assured in your sexuality, and still take something from this book. It is genuinely educational, but it’s also just a really fantastic read. It’s funny and sexy and incredibly engaging. It’s a truly unusual, modern book, and I think it will help people feel more comfortable and celebratory about their sexuality. I think Sex Ed is everything sex can be – it’s equal parts raunchy and sweet, it has a great sense of humour, but it’s also sincere when it needs to be.
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