The Vulva Project: Emily Collyer | Georgia Keeling

Norfolk based illustrator Emily Collyer’s work is characterised by her delicate, intimate exploration of masturbation and sexuality, framed by a powerful manipulation of the female gaze. In her most recent series, ‘The Vulva Project’, Collyer reckons with the bodily experiences of young women in the 21st Century – from learning more about one’s ever-changing body, to having sex for the first time.

'Period Sex' by Emily Collyer

Adopting the stylistic form of the reclining nude, Collyer creates contrasting impressions of the traditional passive female agent indicative of Renaissance art, constructing a state of power and freedom that challenges the traditional male gaze through their diverse positioning – whether they are leant back on one hand, spread out on their stomach with their legs in the air, or partially or completely naked. Collyer’s women, through their small smiles, raised eyebrows or refusal to address their audience, rebel against what society usually hails ‘feminine’ and create their own bold, unashamed gaze.

"I’ve definitely been able to be much more open about my own journey into discovering my sexuality and gender expression by making artwork that reflects just that. Making art in a way that is fun and engaging has helped me become much more comfortable in my own sexual freedoms, as well as helping me to grow by listening to experiences from other women."

‘Growing up, I was always taught that “girls don’t masturbate”. The notion of sexual pleasure for women, and LGBTQ+ sex, was completely ludicrous,’ says Collyer. Left underrepresented in sex and puberty education, female masturbation and woman-loving-woman sex are often left for young women to discover through pornography, which overshadows these acts of female pleasure through the prevalence and control of the male gaze. ‘As young girls, we were taught to be scared of sex (being taught that our first time will hurt, all of the risks of falling pregnant and catching STIs) instead of being taught to view it as something to be enjoyed.’

TOP: 'Vulvas'; BOTTOM: 'Lesbians' - Emily Collyer

Through my early teens there was virtually nothing I consumed that saw women taking their sexualities for themselves. I saw women existing solely for the male gaze, in magazines, TV, films and porn, all of which are harmful ways of teaching girls that they are only valuable underneath the male gaze. By creating the work that I do, I see it as a way of taking back mine and other women’s sexualities, aiming to represent us in a way that’s healthy, fun and existing solely for ourselves in the ways we choose to.

Using bright, colourful and warm palettes, Collyer allows her work to be a comfortable, welcoming and engaging space, powerfully challenging the taboos of female sexual pleasure. Her choice to work in coloured pencil and gouache paint casts the work in a soft, gentle and playful light, creating a platform that allows the normalisation and safe, healthy discussion of masturbation and wlw love and pleasure outside of the hyperbolisation and control of the porn industry.

LEFT: 'Sex Toys'; RIGHT: 'Menstrual Products' - Emily Collyer