Dutch artist Maartje Matheeuwsen delicately peels back a thin sheet of paper from her flower press, revealing a display of flattened purple and yellow orchids. A faint smell of decay taints the air. “I find the flowers dry slower here than they do back in Holland,” she says as she tests an orchid petal with her fingertip. “It’s because of the humidity.”
The flower press, recently brought to Hanoi from Matheeuwsen’s native Holland, has become an integral part of her life. When Matheeuwsen posted on the all-female Facebook group Hanoi Beautiful, searching for women willing to share their story about their relationship with their breasts, she received a shocking number of responses. “Within 30 minutes, I had 30 women commenting, and even more DMs.”
Fellow artist, Ellen Downes, had previously told Matheeuwsen about her project interpreting the 2D reflection of the body we see in the mirror into 3D body casts. Describing the project’s effect, Downes states, “Often the reaction of women is emotional as they realize that their perception of their own body is not necessarily realistic. The experience of having their body cast is often liberating. It creates realistic preservation of their body exactly as it is in a specific moment in their lives.”
She narrowed down her search to subjects who were different sizes, different skin colors, different genders, and who had different stories.
Downes plans to showcase the casts in an exhibition, with the goal to “present the diversity of the female body in all its forms, reject unrealistic beauty standards and encourage us to celebrate our bodies as they are: unique and varied.” She hopes the exhibition will be a space to share personal stories and begin important conversations about women’s relationships with their bodies.
Downes’ project prompted Matheeuwsen to remember her mother, who she lost at a young age, and the relationship her mother had with her body. Her mother, after having given birth and breastfeeding her children, would often refer to her breasts as “tea bags.”
The memories, along with Downes’ encouragement to join the exhibition, ignited the idea for a photography series. “Being mature now and understanding what [my mom] must’ve felt when she was my age and struggling with self-confidence, [it seemed] like a nice way to honor her and also confront the changes in my own body.”
But the reaction to Matheeuwsen’s Hanoi Beautiful post transformed that initial idea. Overwhelmed by the number of responses, Matheeuwsen had to be selective in picking her models, desiring a diverse group of individuals to showcase their bodies exactly as they are. She narrowed down her search to subjects who were different sizes, different skin colors, different genders, and who had different stories. “I see enough breasts on Instagram that are perky and big and their nipples are almost in their elbows,” she says. “And, you know, that’s great. But it’s not really how it is.”
“As soon as the flowers are on, it changes everything. Because the flowers are dried, they bend with the skin. They literally blend in as if they are a painting or a tattoo.”
Her request prompted models who are pregnant, models who are transgender, and models representing a wide range of ages to reach out to Matheeuwsen with vulnerable and touching stories about their relationship with their breasts. “[There were] stories about bullying, stories about sexual trauma, about sickness, about health, about celebration.” One woman wrote about being diagnosed with Lynch syndrome (when a person carries the gene for breast cancer) and the decision about whether or not to have a mastectomy.
Since then, Matheeuwsen’s colorful studio apartment in Ba Dinh has become an impromptu photography studio, sometimes hosting up to four models a day. She uses pressed flowers that come from Holland along with ones she finds around Hanoi. She laughs, recalling people who have curiously taken pictures of her as she picked through discarded flowers on the street.
Matheeuwsen uses Vaseline or eyelash glue to delicately adhere the flowers to the subject’s skin. “As soon as the flowers are on, it changes everything. Because the flowers are dried, they bend with the skin. They literally blend in as if they are a painting or a tattoo.”
The models are shot from the waist-up, wearing only the flowers, in front of a bright yellow backdrop, which Matheeuwsen claims exudes positivity for her and is complementary on all skin tones. The process is fast: a few shots and once Matheeuwsen has one that showcases the model comfortable in the pose, the shoot is finished.
She was surprised to feel a twinge of discomfort when subjects took their bras off, almost as if she was intruding.
“I’ve had women who have breastfed their kids for years,” Matheeuwsen remarks of her models, “whose breasts are hanging but they’re proud of them. With stretch marks, with scars. No breasts. So big that they actually hurt you breasts. Everything.”
When asked about some of her most touching subjects, Matheeuwsen shares a photo of a Vietnamese woman shot alongside her 72 year-old mother. Two brave, beautiful women bridging a generational gap through the camera’s lens.
Matheeuwsen also teaches sex-ed courses and tantra workshops in Hanoi, demonstrating her self-proclaimed goal to make people, especially women, feel at home in their bodies. Still, she was surprised to feel a twinge of discomfort when subjects took their bras off, almost as if she was intruding. “For the first few shoots, I felt this pressure to make the women feel really comfortable” she recalls. “And then I realized that they don’t need me for that because they approached me.” Now, she says, she feels more comfortable looking at breasts as works of art.
Matheeuwsen says the response to this series is already inspiring her for future projects. “The fact that I live in a place where this can work proves to me how close Hanoi is and how beautiful a space Hanoi Beautiful is when it comes to feeling safe and feeling included.”
Along with photos and stories of 25 women, Matheeuwsen’s own photo will also make a small appearance in the exhibition. She plans to shoot herself holding her camera, her breasts covered in flowers that came back in her press from Holland. It is her way of showing support and giving thanks to the women who bravely took part by baring their souls and more.
“The ultimate goal is to find support,” Matheeuwsen says, “because we can be so mean to each other but we all go through the same things. A little bit more understanding and support couldn’t hurt.”
The exhibition, coordinated and curated by Ellen Downes, will open at QUA Artspace at Hanoi Rock City Jan. 3-12 from 7-9 p.m. Entrance will be by donation.
Hanoi Rock City
27/52 Tô Ngọc Vân, Quảng An, Tây Hồ, Hànội
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