Melissa Kitty Jarram
The illustrator using her work to celebrate women and disrupt the male gaze
Melissa Kitty Jarram’s love of illustration is deeply rooted in how it connects to other forms of creativity. It was this idea — that her work could “accompany other forms of art, be it comedy, literature, design, music, fashion or something more obscure” — which drew her to the practice initially and which underpins her passion for it to this day. “It’s a truly collaborative form of art,” she tells us, and as she puts it: “what better way to spend your life than making art for art?”
While motifs and media vary across Melissa’s portfolio, “stripped down to the bone, my work always begins with drawing,” she explains. It’s a consistent starting point in an otherwise fluid practice that spans digital illustration and painting as well as experimentation with photography, animation, and film. This foundation is crucial to what she does, giving her “a way of exploring how concepts and shapes work together, which can then be fleshed out” into vibrant illustrations and paintings.
A graduate of Kingston University, Melissa is keen to note the impact of her time there on her practice. It was an ‘Experimental Life Drawing’ class “that really made me fall in love with painting and drawing the female form.” This love of depicting, expressing, and — most importantly for Melissa — celebrating women’s bodies has since become the central pillar of her practice: one which could easily be defined as an ongoing exercise in “putting women on a pedestal, celebrating all their beauty and strengths.” Stemming from a desire “to live in a world where people value themselves independently of the male gaze,” these depictions also have a critical edge, interrogating how we are conditioned to see women and their bodies. Melissa’s illustrations and paintings are therefore the result of a reflexive attempt to “understand just how much the male gaze has influenced my own perception of the female form and [to] free myself of it.”
To achieve this, Melissa looks to weave alternative narratives informed by ancient myths into her work. “The world has changed drastically over hundreds of years and … I’m impressed that we can still relate to the characters in these stories,” she tells us. It’s not just a simple retelling of these legends that we see in her illustrations, though, with often overlooked, female figures now centre-stage. In the painting ‘Calypso’, Melissa depicts a retelling of the Odyssey where the eponymous nymph replaces Odysseus as the hero. “The character really stood out to me because I really respected her… [but] the narrative was portraying her as a disruption to the hero’s journey,” she explains. Through this process of reframing, the moral of the myth shifts from a focus on masculine pursuits of power to centring the importance and strength in “letting go of something you love so gracefully.”
Melissa is now in the midst of a number of new projects, including ethnographic research documenting the experiences and emotions of a woman working in the sex industry. With aspirations to put on a solo show of paintings from the project, her already important and exciting practice continues to grow and we can’t wait to see how it turns out.