The walls of Ellie Kammer’s studio are lined with canvases. Images of the female form in muted neutral, pink and plum hues sprawl across the room. With the rich depth of oil paint, the Adelaide artist captures the nuances of women’s bodies: the way sunlight edges on skin, how stomach flesh rolls and gravity weighs us down, and the inherent power and pain of having a uterus.
Kammer has garnered international attention for her stark and unapologetic depiction of endometriosis; she captures the usually silent struggle of sufferers such as herself through visceral, sometimes graphic images of bloodied and bleeding bodies.
When Broadsheet visits she’s getting ready for her second major exhibition, The Host, which opens as part of SALA on August 16. It’s the follow-up to 2017 exhibition Nescience that launched the artist’s career and attracted attention from all over the world, including a shout out from fellow endo advocate Lena Dunham. Kammer’s painting Property of Lena was shared on the actor’s Instagram last year.
Back then it was a risk to paint something so graphic, she says. Now, the positive reception has boosted Kammer’s confidence to explore the “authenticity” of what she experiences daily. “I’m comfortable now making decisions that are a bit risky … usually if you take a bigger risk, it does pay off in a bigger way than doing something that’s comfortable and easy does.”
Kammer’s studio is a part of Richmond cafe Karma & Crow, which is owned by her twin sister, Janie. The “happy vibes” and solid crew is a boon for productivity and mental health – all things that are affected by the artist’s chronic endometriosis. “I need to have very regular breaks in the day. It’s so nice to have this little sanctuary attached to my studio. It fuels my creativity.”
Endometriosis is a condition that occurs when tissue that normally grows inside the uterus grows in other parts of the body. It can result in extreme pain, digestive upsets, infection and infertility. It’s often overlooked and widely misunderstood.
Thankfully, that’s starting to shift. Last week the federal government announced a multimillion-dollar National Action Plan for Endometriosis. For Kammer, it’s a massive win; it will boost funding for research and help to support and diagnose the 1 in 10 women afflicted with the disease.
While her first art show explored confronting “physicality” and “devastation on the body”, Kammer felt the need to get up close and personal with her new works.
“I needed to talk about my own experience in more depth, and how it affects my life in all different aspects, not just being physically ill but how it branches out into my relationship, into work, into sleeping, everything that I do every day.”
Just before her diagnosis, Kammer knew something was wrong. “I was travelling around Europe with my ex-partner and, unfortunately, I had a miscarriage in Toulouse, France. It just completely severed the relationship for reasons I couldn’t understand.
“I ended up being in a hotel room in France with no contacts and not being able to speak the language, and my partner just left. That response to me having a health issue made me enter the next relationship with total trepidation.”
Self-portraiture is a way to explore the deeply personal. “I don’t like it when people misconstrue why I paint myself,” says Kammer. It’s not about ego or vanity. “I speak about my body because it is the most genuine and true story I could possibly tell.”
There’s a sense that she has learned to transcend the confines of her physical body. “I’m a very natural sort of person. Because I’m so educated about the workings of my body, I actually don’t feel very attached to it.”
Perhaps it’s the result of repeated invasive surgeries and extreme pain, but she’s not shy about revealing her inner workings – literally. The exhibition will feature a video loop of real-life surgical footage captured by her gynecologist in an “intimate, close-up visual” of endometriosis treatment.
While endometriosis has been a pivotal part of the artist’s early career, she hopes to explore broader topics of gender equality and body image. She says many of the difficulties of endometriosis stem from sexism.
Historically, women’s health has been considered taboo. “Someone decided that women should be in pain all the time,” says Kammer. “If that is a normal thing, why shouldn’t they have options in front of them to stop living in that way, to be able to function on a daily basis?”
“I do get tired of talking about it, to be honest,” she says. “It’s kind of conflicting. I want people to ask me about it, because I’m the person that’s said, ‘You’re supposed to talk to people about it’. But right now, I have about 60 message requests on my Instagram.”
“People are supportive and lovely, but also openly tell me their experiences which are sometimes quite horrific. For me, that takes its toll on my mental health. It’s a balance of talking to people when I’m able to, and shutting down … when I am not able to anymore.”
The Host opens at Studio Bowden on August 16 from 6 to 8pm. Ellie Kammer will present an artist talk with Mark Kimber on August 25 at 11am.