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For her first solo exhibition tonight at Capricious 88, Toronto-born photographer Petra Collins is already boasting an artistic retrospective of sorts by age twenty-one. As a culminate exhibition of work since her teenage years, “Discharge” carries a true autobiographical bent —spanning her earlier days exploring the “Teenage Gaze,” and the origins of her photography collective, The Ardorous, alongside more recent work—neon signs of pop lyrics, larger self-portraits, and glazed sculptures of her used panties.

What was once an externalized effort for discovering sexual identity, her practice has turned into a very personal, internal, and intimate mode of self-discovery—“Discharge” provides the most private experiences for Petra as a person, externalizing them again as an artist, daring her audiences and asserting new notions of feminine sexuality. We sat down to discuss sexual growth, provocation and reception. 

Your early photography addresses aspects of teenage femininity, and some of the realities of being that age—but I feel like there is a lot of fantasy at play, like with the cheerleading outfits—clichés that are certainly “teen,” but as if they’re from another time.

Yeah! Yeah, totally. I think I was trying to capture a sense of nostalgia and a timeless quality in my photographs—for me, there’s a bit of playing around with documentary truth, blurring fantasy and reality.

With the photographs that I had been taking of my sister, those summer images of her with her friends at the end of their senior year, those were really real moments that were very emotional for me, too, and very emotional when I was taking those pictures. They’re really nostalgic and emotional for that stage in her life coming to an end.

But these kinds of images address the overall nostalgia you feel when you’re young—throughout being a teenager, it feels nostalgic because you’re already looking at it in a retrospective, you’re told that these moments are fleeting, that the memories last forever, and these sorts of experiences, alongside their portrayals in the media, sort of come to define you. So there is this desire, and like, fantasy, in already looking back at yourself and how you want to seem, how you’ll remember, how it will compare, even while you’re living it.

Even with the more bubblegum-ish portrayals of sexual innocence, real or sometimes staged, there seems to be an undertone, a grittiness.

Yeah, I think during that time, I was sort of exploring myself and my insecurities, along with my sexuality. I think my photography sort of explores that time in my life, and that’s why I think there’s often that darkness there—the darkness is sort of the reality peeking through these situations.

Your title piece, “Self Love,” is your most recent photo work, and the largest piece in the show, and it is a close-up portrait of you masturbating—

I guess it was the sexual education I never experienced in high school. I find it interesting that as a society, we don’t teach—or rather, sexual education is so geared to be male-oriented. The full female anatomy isn’t really taught, and important statistics that demonstrate that only 20% of women can orgasm through intercourse—are lesser known. All sexual education is all about intercourse. Women aren’t really taught, aren’t allowed an institutional understanding of pleasure. As I am more grown up now, with my own sexual education, I just wanted to create that image of pleasure.

“I really want to take things we have to hide and make them visible—I took the most intimate things I had and put them out there.”

I think whatever we are taught, we’re told to also ignore. With “Self Love,” is this an intended retaliation, a big “fuck you,” to the all the media attention that came from the American Apparel shirt you did, or more specifically, the Instagram ‘pubic hair’ banning?  Anything you’ve done involving a vagina recently has really exploded, so here you’re kind of wielding it again, reminding us.

Haha, yeah—I would say so. I’m just trying to do it until it’s normalized, basically. That whole experience with Instagram, I just felt like I had been physically compromised—standards were imposed on me about what was acceptable, censoring my body—we all feel pressures, and I know it’s only online, but it felt so physical, so real. It really got to me.

As your first solo show, it’s called “Discharge,” which seems about right...

Well, this is like my sharing of work, an expression of myself and my progression, letting go of these insecurities, and I feel like, you know, the word has a connotation of femininity, but one that is not particularly desirable—a discharge is usually kept hidden. And I really want to take the things we have to hide and make them visible—I took the most intimate things I had and put them out there. I feel like the sometimes negative reactions I’ve gotten address this aspect of reception.

Will it feel weird if someone buys your underwear?

No, I think it’s really funny—I wonder who it will be, or what kind of person it will be. It’s awesome that I can make something like that, selling it as art.

Petra Collins, "Discharge" at Capricious 88 (88 Eldridge), show runs February 28th — April 27th. Opening tonight, February 28th from 6-9pm.