The meta-installation I Think You Like Me, But I’ve Been Wrong About These Things Before at Artspace Aotearoa on Karangahape Road is the first major solo exhibition of Tāmaki Makaurau-based artist Natasha Matila-Smith (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Hine, Samoan, and Pākehā).
Tucked away from the constant buzz of Karangahape Road, visitors are gently greeted by two half-transparent, red plastic curtains at the entrance of the gallery. Peeling them apart, you enter a modest space flooded with pink and blue lights. The objects and images are comfortably spaced out, with plenty of negative space for the viewers to roam or stand and ponder.
I Think You Like Me explores body image, validation, and sex in the context of social media. By emulating her bedroom space, the installation is a literal and metaphysical realisation of Matila-Smith’s most personal insecurities. According to her artist statement, the show is inspired by her “monotonous hours scrolling through the internet while laying in bed.” Through the installation, Matila-Smith shares her own experiences of loneliness, body shaming, and social-media anxieties as a WOC and an indigenous artist, giving insight into how the cultural and social dispossession of ethnic minorities in real life is reiterated in their digital lives.
Matila-Smith graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts in 2014 and now lives and works in Tāmaki Makaurau. Her work fuses text and imagery. Apart from her works of art, she has also written extensively on the issues of online interconnectivity, gender, indigenous identity, and body positivity.
“As a title, I Think You Like Me, But I’ve Been Wrong About These Things Before perfectly encapsulates this contemporary condition of second-guessing oneself whilst acknowledging the wider societal influences that cause us to doubt our own decision making,” said Matila-Smith.
Inside the gallery space, poster-like selfies of her feminine body parts are supplemented by a series of apologetic, or timid texts. A gentle pastel tone is echoed throughout the installation with its lighting, photography, and text, creating intimacy and sensuality that are immediately disarming.
“Tell me I’m pretty,” is written across a part of the exhibition.
The words are printed onto the wall in a muted grey, such that one has to move real close to distinguish them. This muteness further contributes to the reserved and almost-apologetic tone of the exhibition.
As we fall deeper into the comfort of her installation, placed in the centre of the space is a heart-shaped bed draped in blue microfleece blankets. On the bed lies an open MacBook, linking to a projected slideshow that rotates through a series of sentences. It is a classic teenage-bedroom setup that is, at the same time, reminiscent of an infant’s crib or a mother’s womb due to the warm hues.
The exhibition space is filled with curves – the curves of her body, the curves of the heart-shaped bed, the flows of crumpled fabric sheets. All the softness and shapelessness hug you from all sides in an almost-motherly embrace. “It’s OK. I am vulnerable here. You can be vulnerable here too,” promises the installation. Through her honest presentation of her own insecurities and the formal comfort of blankets and soft lights, Matila-Smith creates a safe space for the viewers to have self-examinations and confessions.
“Sorry I’m like this,” another text, printed on the wall space between two large prints of Matila-Smith’s thighs in black stockings, whispers.
Those soft words and bedroom selfies feel like snapshots of thoughts left unsaid between the hurried and hedonistic pursuit for validation on social media. By framing her insecurity alongside what could conventionally be seen as “Insta/Tinder sexting selfies” in an exhibition space, Matila-Smith gives solidity to these desires for connection and validation. The work captures a collective sense of disembodiment that characterises the digital life of a generation.
“As a shy person, my work arises from a sincere desire to connect with people and a frustration that I often can’t achieve this using whatever ‘social’ tools I already possess,” said Matila-Smith. “Through art, I am able to communicate this with an audience and have found that many people share my feelings of inadequacy and failure.”
At first glance, I did find Matila-Smith shy.
Her work is reserved, quiet, and consistently self-conscious. Even her online presence is secluded with her Instagram posts hidden behind the wall of a follow request. However, I also find Matila-Smith exceedingly courageous in her honesty. Set on one of the busiest streets of Auckland in a public gallery, I Think You Like Me extends a universal welcome to all. The more I contemplate the exhibition, the more I admire her bravery in displaying her insecurities to a most diverse public. Here is my heart, here are my feelings, I wear them bare on my sleeves and put them on display for all to see –– the plain honesty contrasted with the fragility of her confessions become the essence of the installation’s ability to move its viewers.
“I’m much more fragile than I appear,” confessed a scribbled note taped against a mirror selfie. In the selfie, Matila-Smith is pulling up a corner of her black dress to reveal a sneaky peek of her left thigh.
As personal as it is, Matila-Smith’s experience of dispossession points to the social-political challenges that WOCs and indigenous populations face within the contemporary digital landscape. Online, discrimination and cultural hegemony are often conglomerated as people can type bullets while hiding behind a mask of anonymity. Matila-Smith’s work informs us of disconnected WOC youths who struggle to navigate a digital world saturated with unrealistic expectations and over-glamourised personalities that are mostly White and Western. As a result, they end up stuck in the liminal loop of neglect and the hunt for validation.
I can’t help but wonder: despite all the inclusivity tag-lines and body-positivity campaigns launched by popular brands and corporations, how much of that movement translated to concrete change for the ordinary WOC?
“I wanted people to understand what it’s like from a personal level to be a fat WOC with everyday issues not relating to feelings of displacement. Of course, those feelings are there but I’m more than racial oppression…I’m also bodily and gender-related oppression,” said Matila-Smith.
“Sometimes I find eating so tedious,” echoed a string of blue-colored words under a slightly lighter blue background of the same hue.
Matila-Smith’s works’ honest, confessionalist quality directly juxtaposes the lack of it on social media platforms. Her honesty is contagious: the show invites us to ponder our own relationship with body shaming and cultural hegemony, as perpetrators, as victims, or both.
Yet, her work is not a head-on critic of social media.
“I’m having such a nice time I don’t wanna ruin it,” a final line of text stated quietly on the wall.
In an equally cautious manner, her installation also directs hope for social media to become a venue for earnest self-expression and human relationships. It reminds me of a quote from the TV show BoJack Horseman: “In this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make.”
If social media as a medium does have the capacity for sincere connections, perhaps it can only be achieved through a deliberate soul searching, one confession at a time.