London-based artist Polly Nor titled her new exhibition It’s Called Art Mum, Look It Up after receiving messages from teenage girls saying that they wanted to buy her prints and get tattoos of her pieces but their mums wouldn’t let them. “They thought it was inappropriate” she laughs, which is a shame, really, when the success of her art lies in its exploration of everything from mental health to female sexuality. With 729k followers and counting, Nor’s rise to Instagram fame comes as no surprise – her work is infinitely relatable. From girls scrolling through Tinder with vacant expressions while sat on the loo, to bedroom mirror selfies and girls masturbating while texting and smoking (hey, we’re multitaskers), Nor’s drawings depict the very real, behind-closed-doors versions of ourselves. Her women are us when we get home from work, or on Sunday evenings, or when we have the flat to ourselves.
Her most recognisable motif is the devil, which stems in part from the saying “Face your demons”. In some pieces, Nor’s women are devils-in-disguise, who, once in the safety of their own homes, unzip their human suit and are finally themselves – Nike sliders, beer in hand, sunbathing in the garden. Elsewhere, the devils are figments of the women’s imaginations – in one piece, a girl sits on her caged demon, with Nor’s caption reading “Learned to hide my crazy”. Garnering thousands of comments, with friends tagging each other, her work is reflective of the way we speak openly online about mental health, emotional turmoil and the struggle for self-love right now. Why does Nor think people are able to express these things via Twitter and memes, and by sharing artwork like hers, when IRL conversations are still somewhat taboo?
“That’s a really good question. I find it really interesting the way people are now using memes to discuss mental health when it’s something that people usually avoid talking about openly,” she says. “Personally, I find it really hard to translate emotions into words. I think a lot of people find that difficult, so I guess posting a meme, or a piece of art, is a way of sharing how you feel without actually saying anything that might make you feel too exposed or vulnerable. My best pieces definitely come from times that I have been going through my own personal struggles. I have always had really intense mood swings and at those times I don’t even have to think about what to draw, it kind of all just flows out of me.”
Alongside mental health and the darker, hidden sides of our lives, Nor’s work champions female sexuality. When Instagram bans images of women’s bodies, her work speaks to people. “Sex and sexuality are a big part of human life and a subject matter that has always been very prevalent in our art and culture. I think despite us all being used to seeing sexually objectifying imagery of women in everything from our art to our pornography, it is still often treated as a taboo for a woman to openly express her sexuality,” she explains. “Through mainstream media, women are constantly told how to be sexual, how to look sexually attractive, how to perform sexually, but very rarely is there any focus on how we actually feel. So it is important for me to focus on the thoughts and feelings of the characters in my work, instead of focusing on how sexually attractive she appears to the viewer.” As well as the aforementioned masturbating women, Nor’s work includes Lady Godiva-esque girls riding demons naked through forests and proudly taking selfies in their underwear.
While undeniably universal, Nor’s pieces are very British in their sardonic humour and, with cans of lager and colourful prints littering the women’s bedrooms, they look like most of my friends' rented flats. “I take a lot of inspiration from stuff that is going on in my life at the time, from dreams I’ve had, or from conversations with friends. When I’m in the studio I tend to just sit down and visualise exactly how I feel at that moment,” she explains. “I think my work has been inspired by a whole load of people, though – I love Nina Chanel Abney, Corey Washington, Brecht Vandenbroucke, Ellie Andrews and Andy Baker.”
So what can we expect from her Red Bull Presents exhibition? With previously unseen sculptures and an immersive installation, it’s set to be a treat: “I’m taking key elements from my illustrations, like the human skins and the wormlike devil arms, and making them into large-scale sculptures out of papier mâché, modroc and latex. The installation is a life-sized recreation of the bedrooms from my illustrations, all pastel colours detailed with my wonky black lines and a forest of plants growing up the walls.” We’re excited to take a walk through Nor’s world – get ready to face your demons.
Red Bull Presents 'It’s Called Art Mum, Look It Up' is on from 18th-22nd August at Protein Studios.