Paris-based artist Olivia de Bona credits her mixed European and Vietnamese heritage as being a primary source of inspiration for her carved and painted wooden inlay or marquetry ‘paintings’. Originally honing her skills with graphic-inspired and street-art works, including paper-cut works and large-scale murals, de Bona’s instantly recognizable style prioritizes bold, stylized shapes and delicate, sensuous forms combined with a confident mastery of composition.
There is a call to Viennese Art Nouveau, namely Mucha, with curving archways and window-frames that reveal languid and reclining female figures; but also, to the tradition of Vietnamese wood carving-tableaux, in which complex scenarios are diligently and painstakingly extracted from wood in high-relief. de Bona’s interest is in the paradox of showcasing, but also revealing the female form. Her figures – caught unaware and in repose – recall Degas’ bathing beauties, or even nods to Bohemian communal baths popular in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of bygone eras. The works seem to bask in a decadent, fin-de-siècle style of reverie and Romanticism – hyper-stylized, with just the necessary touch of kitsch to let viewers into the private scenarios she’s creating.
Whether bathing alone, or stretching prone as jaguars in a larger group, de Bonas’ female figures seem to invite as much as they reject. Viewed through screens, armatures, veils, or even behind bifurcating palm fronds, de Bona toys with the viewer: “Questioning the status of women is a recurrent idea… This translated by the patterned repetition of the female body, I’m searching for the most accurate and sincere memory of a body. Is the woman only called to be an object of desire? Does she have agency or is she relegated through the eyes of others? There is a sort of power-struggle in the work. One can imagine de Bona’s tedious and painstaking technique in creating these complex works as the process of ‘working through’ the burden’s both historical and contemporary of the female in artistic representation. In her seminal essay on such matters, critic Laura Mulvey states:
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy onto the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”
de Bona refutes such passivity, and her females seem defiant, empowered, and in control. In Le Boudoir, de Bona’s cheekily presents a woman sitting on what appears to be a toilet. She is defiant, both sexy and unsexy, and ultimately through such humour, through such laissez-faire presentation of the female form, de Bona explores a new way of considering the female. “I am divided between the need to produce attractive or comforting images and the refusal to submit to the desires of others as the aesthetic trend of the moment,” states. “It is a contradiction: the wish to please or not yielding to the demands of society…”
In Bain de Minuit, she updates Rousseau’s shamanistic figure in the jungle as a bathing nude with a pet tiger under the glow of moonlight, and one almost feels as if they are themselves basking in this balmy paradise, with the hum of the shore and cicadas chirping in the distance. But beyond these theoretical and often burdensome concepts of the figure and the nude, what makes de Bona’s work most interesting is the undoubtable fact that the work is nothing short of remarkable. The subtle colour gradiations and natural grain in the wood are utilized to create a variety of stunning effects. Her use of heavily patterned areas offset by colour washes creates a tension and beauty of both form and subject matter. “I try to go beyond my own subjectivity,” she states, “drawing into my imagination, into fantasy and fable, where I always leave something to escape and where symbols never drain their mystery.”