Premier Model’s Tessa Kuragi is the captivating focus of Julian Marshall and Cynthia Lawrence-John’s Man Ray/Japanese rope art inspired story for Volt 17, ‘In The Service of The Mind‘. As she generously shares her influences, hopefully her intelligent and creative mind will inspire you too.
Volt Café: What initially attracted you to working as a model?
Tessa Kuragi: At 15 I moved from Jamaica to London. Until then I had felt constantly outcast – a porcupine in a basket of cuddly kittens. I craved the eccentric or peculiar, finding some escape and solace watching late night screenings of ‘The Twilight Zone’ (when my satellite dish hadn’t been struck by lightning that is!). Landing in London I suddenly found myself in a city with such a vast array of cultures that no-one batted an eyelash at the man in full Zulu costume walking down the middle of Camden High Street. I knew then it had to be London where I would finally fit together those misshapen pieces of myself that seemed to have no reflection anywhere else thus far. So I began to search for photographers whose work appealed. I was attracted to work that was erotic, violent, dreamlike, nostalgic, challenging and that’s pretty much remains the drive. I would be lying if I did not also say that the draw to modelling was due to an element of narcissism (because what artist/model doesn’t have a touch of ye ole Narcissus), also it was my way of saying ‘fuck you’ to everyone that bullied me growing up, for not being thin enough/pretty enough/tanned enough/normal enough… etc. Rebelling against the imposed norm is a tremendous creative driving force.
VC: What are your influences? And who or what really gets your creative juices flowing?
TK: Too numerous and from many art-forms but to give a flavour; writers like J. G. Ballard, Henry Miller, Vonnegut and Jean Rhys – the book Crash for instance was hugely influential on my view of eroticism and fetishism and finding beauty in the unusual and I find Vonnegut’s disturbing of the conventional narrative satisfying. Musicians like Momus and World’s End Girlfriend. Photographers like Nobuyoshi Araki, Helmut Newton, Hans Bellmer, Gilles Berquet—the latter who I work with as much as possible, the former who I would be honoured to work with. For me Araki is the rare artist, one who captures mortality, sexuality and intimacy with a unique honesty. Film makers such as Koji Wakamatsu, Haneke, Greenaway and Buñuel. Performance artists like Suka Off, Keira O’Reilly and Franko B. Ero Guro manga, psychoanalytic theory, Japanese pornography. I have a strong affinity to the surrealist movement and the Japanese ‘pink movie’ genre.
VC: Being referred to as a ‘surrealist muse’ you’re clearly not ‘just’ a clothes horse or a passive subject when you’re being photographed. I’m not dissing those models, just from my perspective it is really refreshing to see a model who’s present and approaching the work from a creative angle. How did you manage to become so collaborative in your work? And was that a factor right from the start? Have you ever had to ‘struggle’ with a photographer who preferred the more traditional approach?
TK: I use modelling as a mode for my own catharsis, rather than a commercial endeavour, so it is important that I am able to exert my influence on the project rather than being completely passive working on a project that does not resonate. I curate my own character through, for the most part, only working with photographers/painters/performance artists whose work I feel either already explore themes I want to, or who I could inspire to do so. Occasionally I have had a photographer on a shoot decide to ask me to do something completely ‘off topic’ and on these occasions it doesn’t work – the resulting photo might look good on a superficial level but my lack of conviction and veracity is obvious. Even though I am now doing more fashion modelling, I doubt I will ever be a commercial model – and I’m cool with that. I think I am more suited to working with photographers and brands that want to collaborate with me as a character or an element of it, rather than as simply a ‘clothes horse’ as you put it – though that is probably a more financially lucrative way of modelling.
VC: You always appear completely at ease no matter what in your shots – an admirable quality! Before you start a shoot do you have a routine to get into that space?
TK: Oh goodness – I certainly don’t always feel that way! I tend to flit between two personas in life and on shoots – one part of me is a shy, giggly, silly 8-year old and the other is a confident, assertive femme fatale. It can be quite confusing for people and for me. Maybe, though, what also comes through is a feeling of ease that comes with the free association of creative process.
VC: You’re a successful model, constantly in demand. Would you be at all interested in working as a photographer or art director?
TK: I have been thinking more about this of late and have already started working on a book project with my boyfriend called ‘Bruise Album’ – a catalogue of bruises ‘exhibited’ and part photographed by me and presented in an appropriated album decorated with nautical illustrations – so that there is a juxtaposition of a gentle and passive backdrop against the evidence of violence and damage. I would like to do more of this kind of thing, but it’s still a bit of a new direction for me. I’m not sure I would stop modelling though – I need the visceral satisfaction that comes from using my body.
VC: Fashion models usually look surprisingly low-key in between appointments, make-up free faces, slouchy clothes; does that also apply to you?
TK: Not really. I mean, I don’t generally wear makeup apart from occasionally lipstick, but I’m not sure my normal dress sense would be called ‘low-key’ or ‘slouchy’. I tend to either dress as a French/Japanese schoolgirl, a 1940’s femme fatale, in head to toe black, in costume/fancy dress, or in ‘fetish’ wear. I don’t own jeans or trainers or anything that would be considered ‘normcore’ (makes me sad even knowing that word exists).
VC: Your work is beautiful but also very strong. What does your family think about it?
TK: I think initially they were quite worried about it – the violence, the sexuality – its effect on my future career prospects. Over time though, they have realised that it’s really important for me to do – not just being a vanity project but as my way of keeping sane. To quote Zizek in ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema’ (a film that explores psychoanalytical processes in film) – ‘we need the excuse of a fiction to stage what we truly are’.
VC: What do you think of the recent mass commercialism and vanillafication of bondage? It has moved from being quite niche – you had your specialist suppliers and clubs known to aficionados – whereas now Daily Mail is happily writing about Atsuko Kudo’s shop because Gaga, Rihanna, Madonna et al wear it to gain cred and most luxury lingerie design have BDSM elements. Do you feel that doesn’t affect you and what you do; or do you think that your work has to become more severe, more niche, in order to distinguish itself from the tsunami of 50 Shades of Blah that is such a trope at the moment?
TK: On the one hand I welcome it as it could potentially pave the way to reducing stigmatisation and pathologisation of BDSM in terms of increasing awareness and acceptability; much like has been done for homosexuality. On the other, you risk, as you say, it becoming ‘a trope’- a façade of what is not only a sexual but a cultural movement – using it for its thrill appeal while completely misinterpreting its values – as 50 Shades of Grey seems to do – though I must confess I have not read it or seen the movie – just the various reviews of it.
As to whether I feel it affects my work – not really, I don’t feel wholly defined by BDSM which is why, though I understand why I get the label, being classed wholly as a ‘fetish model’ somewhat irks me.
For example you could argue that there is a prevalence of BDSM themes running through Surrealism; the disfigured bound dolls of Hans Bellmer or Simone Mareuil’s eye ball being sliced through to reveal the moon in ‘Un Chien Andolou’ but this isn’t classed as niche BDSM art, it’s art that deals with the human psyche. The psychoanalyst Kernberg outlines the link (he feels it is universal) between the core Oedipal drive and the urge for sadism/ masochism. Themes the Surrealists often pursued. So sure, I am interested in exploring themes of eroticism, and sexual violence and as such there is a massive crossover with BDSM, but it’s just an element of my character, not the entirety.
With thanks to Tessa Kuragi and Olivia Hazeldine at Premier Models
Behind the scenes photographs ©Julian Marshall
The full story appears in Volt 17
Words by Anna Bang
Tagsanna bang, cynthia lawrence john, Franko B, Gilles Berquet, Greenaway, Haneke, Hans Bellmer, Helmut Newton, Henry Miller, J.G. Ballard, julian marshall, Keira O'Reilly, Koji Wakamatsu, Kurt Vonnegut, Luis Buñuel, Nobuyoshi Araki, Otto F. Kernberg, Premier, Rean Rhys, Suka Off, Tessa Kuragi,