Santina Amato: This Woman’s Work is a Labor of Love [Interview]
“Because dough is a live material, it needs to be made on site,” says Santina Amato, who’s fresh from a photoshoot for the NYC-based iteration of her ongoing time-lapse series, Portraits of Women With Their Weight in Dough. “When the dough is ready (normally about 30 minutes), we place it on the sitter, and it is ‘quiet on set’ as the dough starts to perform for the camera. Under ideal circumstances, dough takes about an hour to rise, so we shoot for as long as it takes to get that money shot.”
Born in Australia and raised by traditional Italian parents, Santina is intimately acquainted with the chemical magic of flour, water, sugar, and yeast. “My mother would always be in the kitchen, cooking up a storm, making things like fresh pasta and bread from scratch,” says Santina, who, as a young girl, kneaded dough and dried homemade pasta under the watchful eyes of her mother. “My mum is very traditional in her expectations of gender roles, and so she trained me to be the perfect housewife. There were no other expectations for my future beyond being a housewife, so my mum taught me every domestic labor that was taught to her […] this is where my fascination with bread dough began.”
Years later, when Santina arrived in Chicago for grad school, the emerging photographer knew she wanted to work with dough. “After many trials and errors, I created my own portrait with my weight in dough,” she says, describing her first photoshoot as spontaneous and visceral. “As the dough started rising and consuming my body, I had to end the shoot as my left nostril and left eye were consumed by the dough, and my right nostril was about to be.”
Intending to expand the project, Santina secured an individual artist grant from the City of Chicago in 2019. Aided by a small army of dough makers—”mixing that amount of dough does take time”—Santina photographed five women in their respective homes as pounds and pounds of dough consumed their bodies. Formatted as both still photography and durational video, the works paint a striking portrait of female exhaustion and physical, mental, and emotional labor. “Women's labor is something I have always been interested in, simply because of my experience as a child,” Santina says. “As I grew up into a woman within the multicultural society that is Australia, the labor I was expected to perform became very different. Where the labor my mum taught me was physical and to benefit the family, the labor I was expected to perform as a single woman who could be and do anything in the world became different […] I found entering womanhood quite exhausting.”
After a three-year pandemic pause, Santina revived the project with funding from the New York State Council on the Arts. “Each portrait requires a team of amazing women to produce,” says Santina, who calls the dough-making—and its clean-up—a “full-body experience.” While the full series of NYC Portraits is slated to appear at the Bronx Museum during their sixth AIM Biennial in 2024, you don’t have to wait that long for a glimpse of Santina’s new work; scroll through to see portraits from the NYC sessions, then read our interview with Santina to learn more about the whole series.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Santina Amato discusses raw dough as an artistic medium, how she chooses the women in her portraits, and the many benefits of growing older (and wiser).
Where did you get the idea for Portraits?
Santina Amato: Using bread dough in my work came really naturally to me. Dough was the first material I used to create with, so it just made sense to bring it into my work and use it as a way to comment on contemporary issues directly related to women and their bodies.
Can you tell us about some of the new works in this series? How do you choose your models?
SA: The new portraits are of women who live within four out of the five NYC boroughs. I was thrilled that it worked out that way. I like to do a call-out for women to participate, as it allows variety in demographics. I always focus on choosing women from different decades, as we are bombarded with images of young women both in the art world and general culture. The call-out consists of a questionnaire that needs to be filled out and includes many questions so I can get a sense of who the women are, but the one I focus on the most is, “Why would you like your portrait taken with your weight in dough?”
Some of the responses are pretty typical, so I always go with responses that are unique to that woman's situation but that may also resonate with my own. Erika is a transwoman who wrote that as a woman without a womb, she would never experience giving birth, and so she wanted the dough to be a doppelganger for childbirth. As a woman with a womb and deciding from a young age I did not want to have children, Erika’s response made me realize how lucky I am to have had a choice in what I wanted my body to do (or not do). Jenny is a working mum who has a young child, and she spoke about wanting an excuse (or maybe it was permission) to be able to just stop, even if for an hour. I get this, even though I don’t have children. I feel the pressure to be always “on” as a woman, which is so exhausting. Mary Ruby spoke about food being her love language, which she finds exhausting while struggling to adopt another form of expressing her feelings. As a woman raised within Italian culture that is renowned for its close relationship to food, I too, use food as a way to express how I feel about those that are near to me.
How has women’s labor (unseen or otherwise) changed in your lifetime? Do you find it’s different from culture to culture?
SA: It’s definitely different from culture to culture and also different for little girls raised by immigrant parents within multicultural societies like Australia or America, where imported traditions and cultural norms may not coincide with the multicultural norm. I was raised in an Italian bubble in Australia by parents who were raised in rural Italy and were not educated beyond middle school. They expressed themselves through the labor they produced using their bodies.
In terms of it changing in my lifetime? As someone who is in my early 50s, I see a personal change that I am sure most women experience as we get older. Especially in terms of aesthetic labor to present as female. Where aesthetic labor is quite prevalent as a young woman, and even though society expects me to continue to do it, to “fight the signs of aging,” I am happy to see the trend of older celebrities such as Pamela Anderson walk the red carpet without makeup. Although I do hate how much attention women without makeup get over a man who is the same age. I also find setting boundaries much easier to do these days, which, in turn, requires much less emotional labor than not having them.
How does food (particularly dough) speak to female desire? Do you see it as a form of expression or oppression? Or potentially both?
SA: Food has a long history in art as a way to represent desire, life and death, women's bodies, fertility, etc. The pomegranate, for example, is probably the most famous for its attribution of Venus and a symbol of desire, fertility—because of its many seeds—and marriage. Although I do use bread dough in my work, I do not see it as food because dough is the first stage in bread making and not edible before the cooking process. I mean, it could be if you’re really hungry, but yeah, no thanks! I see it more as a food-like substance and a material I choose to work with in my practice, just as a painter uses oil paints over watercolor in their work.
For me, there is a strong connection between the way dough performs, femininity, and the female experience, as it is directly related to my own personal history with the material. My first memory and experience of femininity and the power of creation (and potentially female desire) was watching my mother knead this soft, white, voluptuous material on our kitchen table. Folding the dough over onto itself and pushing her whole body towards it, she transformed the ingredients of flour and water into a living organism created for both our oral pleasure and life sustenance.
Dough in my work symbolizes the shit we are forced to contain and control, particularly desire as a general concept, so I do see it representing both expression and oppression of that desire. From the labor it takes to produce dough to the way the material expands and swells up, just as women's bodies do at varying stages in their lives, I find an uncanny similarity between dough, dough-making, and my own experience as a woman who has spent a lifetime trying to achieve bodily autonomy.
Women are always told, whether consciously or subconsciously, to not take up too much space, to stay in their lane, and to not stir things up. Containing female desire, not only sexual, is (unfortunately) still alive and well today. I often refer to this video read by Cynthia Nixon and written by Camille Rainville titled “Be a Lady They Said” from her Writings of a Furious Woman blog. It shows how absurd and unobtainable these expectations are that are placed on women. And they are placed on women to contain their desires.
My portraits and their use of dough show how exhausting it is to be a woman. But what I enjoy most in the series is seeing the women beyond the age of 50 showing some sort of joy, satisfaction, and finally, bodily autonomy in the release of societal expectations that have had a grip on their lives and quite frankly, finally not giving a shit any longer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist(s). Feature photo: “Mary Ruby, 2023”
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