There is a certain sense of interconnectivity in Ella Spira MBE’s art. Her work fluidly evolves based on collaborations with people and encounters with nature, culminating in an end product that is intricately woven with all that she comes across. As a Grammy-nominated composer and the co-founder of production company Sisters Grimm, Spira is no stranger to creating groundbreaking work. From the Zulu ballet Inala to Voices of the Amazon, a dance musical about the Brazilian rainforests, Spira has produced shows driven by social impact and cultural exchange as part of Sisters Grimm. As a visual artist, her pieces are just as powerful, with a focus on how we relate to nature and culture.
Her latest project—held on our shores—is entitled Global Landscapes Singapore. As part of the Global Landscapes series that has toured Dubai, Albania and Indonesia, the multi-media exhibition celebrates the beauty of Singapore and the richness of life around the island, serving as testament to the inspiring nature of her practice. And as with all that Spira does, she has allowed the project to organically grow into something bigger.
In collaboration with Singaporean photographer Rebecca Toh, Spira is presenting Global Landscapes Singapore together with Inner Landscapes of Ella—a series of photographs that forms an intimate portrait of Spira both as an artist and an individual. From her painting process to her morning shower, Toh’s images reveal Spira at her most unguarded. Beyond unveiling the face behind the art, the series celebrates confidence in one’s skin and love for one’s own body. In baring herself both physically and metaphorically, Spira lends her very being to the conversation surrounding body positivity.
“Beyond unveiling the face behind the art, the series celebrates confidence in one’s skin and love for one’s own body”
“Landscapes has grown, together with Rebecca, into a piece about empowerment and confidence. Diversity in collaboration is also an incredibly important aspect. She’s Chinese Singaporean, I’m white Jewish British. The collaboration is so unlikely, yet makes total sense. Ultimately it’s about two women who have been on a journey of self-discovery and have reached a place where we are not fighting who we are. We are at ease with ourselves.” For Spira, collaboration has always been central to her craft—and is one of the multitude of ways she works to uplift female artists.
Her partnership with Toh, born out of a serendipitous bond, has also given rise to a single entitled What is it Like to be You?—penned by Spira as a reflection of the deep collaboration between the two. The stirring piece of music accompanies Toh’s photographs of Spira in the exhibition, weaving yet another layer of depth into their work together. Here, Spira opens up about charting her path as an artist and authentic change-maker advocating for and celebrating female empowerment.
As someone who has pursued many different forms of art, what drew you to visual art?
Visual art has always been something quite personal for me. I was always encouraged to focus on music instead, so visual art started off as something more private. Eventually it just became the right time to think about sharing that with the world. My music, theatre and art all come from the same place. When I paint, it’s to translate what I’m feeling or seeing onto a canvas. Having other people share in this particular aspect of my practice as an artist is something new to me.
How did your collaboration with Rebecca shape Global Landscapes Singapore?
The connection between Rebecca and I definitely influenced the exhibition. This is typical of how I work, I always collaborate with other creatives from different backgrounds. I am very instinctive about it. I didn’t know I was looking for her, but clearly, I was. I was fascinated when I first saw her work. When I looked at the pictures she took of me, I did not notice myself at all. I only saw Rebecca’s artwork. She’s the first photographer I’ve worked with who has achieved that. The composition and the lighting in her work completely stops you from assessing the imperfections of the body, which instantly made us think about how we could use this to say something about body confidence.
We wanted to show that the somewhat simplistic pressure many of us put ourselves under due to a one-dimensional outline of a body shape is nonsense. I am not that body shape, nor will I ever be. I’m curvy and I’m tall, and I can hand-on-heart state that I am confident and happy with my physicality. This comes through in Rebecca’s photography. To us, the word ‘landscapes’ is evolving all the time, so the natural next step was to start leaning into the forms and bodies in a space.
“When I looked at the pictures Rebecca took of me, I did not notice myself at all—I only saw Rebecca’s artwork”
What has your own journey with body confidence been like?
I’m totally comfortable with my body now, but that was not always the case. I used to be bulimic, I had a hysterectomy and I’ve had hormone problems since I was in my teens. So many girls go through similar challenges. Body confidence is complex and multi-layered. It’s not just skin deep. It’s also about how assured you are on the inside. There are particular body shapes that we are made to feel like we should all aspire to. In the past, I might have wished to look more like someone else, but I absolutely don’t now.
That has been the result of a number of factors, including being settled and confident in who I am, having a greater understanding of bone structure and celebrating others’ physicality and my own. I have also found the right fitness choices for me and learnt what diet best suits my body to support me feeling positive and confident. That’s something I wanted this exhibition to reflect.
As an artist, what do you think your role is in promoting female empowerment?
Having art out there that supports the cause is so important because art has the power to deliver the message faster and stronger due to its emotional impact. There are a lot of examples to show that empowering people through art does inspire progress—and that’s my goal. Female empowerment remains such a strong message. We’ve made progress, but it’s so important for us to continue talking about it. We need to be pulling each other up even more, because we still have a long way to go to achieving equality.
Personally, I look to employ women—empowering, celebrating and spotlighting them. We strive to create a working situation that enables women to have the career they want while being mothers and balancing their own families. I also look to support younger women: we have created work experience opportunities and internships where we have taken on young women and supported them through to university and beyond. I have discussions about female rights around the world, we bring different groups of women together, and some of our work is very specifically about the journeys of women who have been hurt and disempowered. I consider us to be very deliberately active in the space of female empowerment, and will always endeavour to play an active role in promoting it.
What does representation in art mean to you?
Representation is massively important. As a third-generation Holocaust survivor, it has had a deep impact on me and my outlook on life. Perhaps if there was more knowledge and less myth about the Jewish people, they would not have been persecuted in the way they were. And the way to stop that from happening again is to come together and share stories and personal experiences. I want to play a part in creating art that celebrates different cultures. As a white person, I have an element of privilege, and for me, it’s an obligation to use that to give a voice to others.
What inspires you as an artist?
Collaboration and honest emotion. Helping people feel things that they don’t usually allow themselves to feel is definitely a huge motivation for me. I want to explore the full breadth of our emotions, so while some works might be poignant or sad, I make it a point to also create pieces that have some humour.
What do you hope people take away from your art?
I hope people will find themselves, or something that resonates deeply with them in the art I create.
Watch the exclusive footage from the exhibition’s private launch and be part of the Global Landscape movement at ellaspiraart.com.