Manuela Benaim

Venezuelan artist Manuela Benaim combines ergonomic and bodily forms to create anthropomorphic sculptures highlighting the symbiotic relationship between object and user. 

Benaim’s sculptures are both intimate and universalizing, realized in life-like objects and wearable “Second Skins.” Their sensorial emphasis makes clear the distinction between body and soul, while their use in performance work breathes life into their forms.

We spoke with Benaim, who is currently working from her father’s studio in Caracas, about wearing pajamas in a pandemic, nudity, and the stories our skins tell. 

Photography: Genesis Cabrera

Rose & Thorn?

I think this is my rose, I really enjoy talking about art, I always end up learning something about myself and if I can inspire someone to make art today, that's great. My thorn is that wifi in Venezuela is really bad, it's isolating, but it isn’t all that bad, it forces me to focus more on what I need to do.

When did you start working with silicone, and developing this body of work? No pun intended [laughs].

I have always been interested in the skin, and in bodily textures. I experimented a lot to get to where I am now. I experimented with scobies, leather, melted collagen, human hair, horse hair, gelatin, even rawhide from pet stores. Then I found liquid latex which was the bridge to use silicone. But the genesis of the bodily objects started with a couch that reminded me of a sheep, so I made her latex nipples, which was the material I was experimenting on around that time.

Then I made a human chair; I'm very happy with how it came out. I started playing around with making other objects that blend with human anatomy. I made a brush with my armpit hair, and I did a foot with the mechanical thing you put inside shoes.

I didn't know it was gonna turn out to be such an investigation into the relationship between objects and humans, but it became an endless perspective, a way of viewing the world. You just start seeing more and more similitudes and that the symbiotic relationship.

Photography: Dylan Pierce

You do work that's about the relationships between the body and the things that we use, but would you say tend to focus on things that are ergonomic, or rather things that cause sensations like pleasure or pain?

I focus much more on the sensorial relationship, as well as the aesthetic similitudes. With the dress it was sensorial as well, I had the pajama dress that I was wearing every single day, because in quarantine, you're just wearing your pajamas, right?

Then I started to feel very attached to this dress. I would get a tan line where the dress ended. The dress started smelling like me, it had all of my dead cells that it was carrying for days. It is symbiotic, so I'm honoring and giving life to this thing that’s making me feel comfortable and nice.

The gap between myself and that object felt thinner and thinner day by day, I felt such an urge to just impregnate my body with the dress and fuse them as one.

silk dress, silicone, wooden hanger

One could read the work as a feminist critique of gender roles, but I think it's interesting that it's more about comfort and the symbiotic relationship between an object and the body.

The chair is the most feminist. It represents a woman supporting herself. It is such an elegant and feminine object and yet it is so strong. But there are other feminists ones much more subtle. The armpit speaks about framing a stigmatized part of our body, like a hairy armpit, and framing it as if it's precious.

I was inspired by this particular artifact you insert inside high heels. The barbaric machinery mimics the painful positions that our hidden bones have to overcome every time we wear high heels, so when I combined it with my foot, that was a feminist story for sure. I made it look so painful.

The Second Skin Series is different, it is much more about gender equality. If I can treat the body of a male and female equally, and I can swap it around and abstract the prejudice that comes with the body, in a way I am trying to level things. I'm just treating them as no more than just a sack of skin on top of a soul. I'm focusing on the soul of every individual instead of the differences.

Photography: Dylan Pierce

How did moving back to Venezuela change your practice?

Right now I'm working in my dad's studio, the place where I first saw an artist in action. I feel more connected to my roots than ever before, when I was away I learned some things about Venezuelan culture that are unique to us and that I can’t find anywhere else, things I took for granted as international, like our warmth, and our hedonistic philosophy. Similarly, studying in America for 4 years inspired me to do things so foreign to me, aspects I integrated into my identity, like the fight for gender equality, honoring my identity for what it is, and the freedom of speech. Those were keepers.

Photography: Genesis Cabrera

“Working against the grain of society feels like an activist movement, even if it has already been accepted in many parts of the world. ”

As for my art practice, it has also been interesting. Nudity is perceived differently because machismo overrules our views and that has been a challenge I am willing to accept. Working against the grain of society feels like an activist movement, even if it has already been accepted in many parts of the world.

I’m realizing in this spot and at this time, Venezuela needs this type of content to start some conversations such as the objectification of the female body, gender equality, colorism, fat-phobia and many more.

Do you feel like you connect more with the community in Philadelphia?

I don’t think more or less. I think I connected deeply with many amazing people that made me feel at home. I felt foreign many times a day, every day, but I am not ashamed of who I am and my differences, or even my mindset about a lot of things. My partner of that time was a non-binary queer LGBTQ+ activist, they introduced a part of the world that shaped me into who I am today.

Would you say that aspect of your practice developed after you left Venezuela? And how did going to school in the states affect your practice?

When I started studying in America, I felt a sense of freedom, like, “wow, I can actually do these things that nobody's gonna judge me for.” It felt very rebellious. The freedom of doing these things made me do it, even more, to see what the limit of art is. And maybe it wasn’t necessarily America’s fault, but more so the idea of being away from home, you can fuck it up more in my eyes, There were no expectations from anyone, which allowed to me fail freely and therefore have a higher chance of success.

Would you say that your father’s work influenced yours? And could you talk a little bit about his practice?

He passed on his love for techniques. He is known for his experiments using materials such as metal oxidation, paper, inks, resins, glass, lights, even organic matter such as seeds, dirt, and living plants. He’s also such a handyman kind of dad, he has all the tools in the world. He likes mixing and doing collage with all the things that he finds in the street and antique stores.

Do you feel like any part of that really relates to the found objects aspect of your art?

That found objects aspect absolutely is coming from my dad. I think that's the thing that connects us the most. Growing up, he would always just show me around all the things in the studio and say “do something with this.” I would  run with it, making any project I wanted, and show it to him. Our house is also filled with artifacts and one-of-a-kind objects that really inspired me.

In terms of the idea that we're all just skin, what is your relation to beauty and skin?

I don't want to devalue the word beauty by just saying all skins and all shapes are beautiful, but beauty shouldn’t be the only thing we are looking for... Skin is a canvas filled with stories; freckles are witnesses of sun kisses. Or maybe you have a weird mark in your armpit, and that's what makes you, you. Wrinkles for all the smiles and experience and years on this planet. Every single stretch mark is unique to a specific moment of your life in which you were bigger, and then smaller, then bigger.

It's showing your evolution, your trajectory to who you are now. Body hair, skin color, body shapes, so many phenotypes have been passed from your ancestors to you. Honor every single one. That is so beautiful to me, uniqueness and stories. Much more captivating than a photoshopped body in a magazine.

Photography:  Genesis Cabrera

I also noticed that there are no faces.

That's more of a technical thing. I'm scared of plucking people's eyebrows and eyelashes. But I already learned how to do it with special products that prevent that from happening. I have done some molds of faces, This is a spoiler but, I want to do a mask that you can just swap between people. And there's going to be a video of people swapping faces in rotation, just turning them to the left or the right, an endless circle of face swapping.

What is the difference between working with your own body and working with other people’s bodies?

It's so different. I feel like I have the freedom to do whatever I want with my body, and nobody's gonna ever feel like it was too much. I can put my pubic hair in a mirror and nobody's gonna feel like “wow, you're putting someone's vagina in a mirror frame and showing it around the world.”

But with other people’s bodies, I feel much more protective. I feel weird selling someone else's body. The chair where my body’s showing, I sold it easily, I was so happy. But with the others I'm very conflicted - do I want to sell someone's body? What does that mean? But by using someone else's body I offer diversity. I can't just have a bunch of white girls’ torsos for a whole exhibition, that isn’t what my art is about, it's about the exact opposite of that.

Second Skins series

I think it's interesting because in the second skin installation shots, they're hanging on clothing racks as if they're retail.

I think that's what I wanted to do. In this utopia, you can try on someone else’s skin as if it was a thrift shop. You just try them on and swap them with people. I have had experimentations with that, and I posted them on Instagram, which is where everyone sees my art, and then it's been banned.

But the main point of the Second Skin series is for them to be almost costumes and be a performance act in and of itself. Otherwise, they feel very dead, there's no breathing behind it. Then the moment someone puts them on, that's when they come back to life. That's when they start to be my vision.

Second Skins series

“Then the moment someone puts them on, that's when they come back to life. That's when they start to be my vision.”

And speaking of performance and costume, can you talk about performances you’ve done with the skins?

There have been a lot of performances that were very subtle and ephemeral; sitting on myself in that chair was a performance. I did a fashion show where everyone was wearing crazy dresses, and then my friend and I made molds of our bodies and wore them so we were pretty much walking in the show naked.

After I graduated, there was a collaboration with my friend who’s a dancer, Nitsan Margaliot, in which I made a mold of his skin and we made a second skin suit.

What was it like to have your skins have so much life in them?

It was a miracle for me. I didn't realize I wanted it so bad until I saw it happen. When he took it off and it was on the floor, it felt even more dead, like it was abandoned.

The bodies I make look so dead when they are not being activated. They look pretty lively for an object, much more alive than a painting or a lamp, yet for looking “so alive” it looks so dead.

If there's an art piece like a lamp, you're not thinking whether or not that thing is alive or not. It's a lamp, your brain is not waiting for a heartbeat.

But when we can relate to the figure, we expect it to inflate and exhale, to smell, to tickle. So  when there isn't any life to it, it's very much like there's no soul. It doesn’t bother me, because it supports my idea that we are spirits having a human experience.


Choreography and performance: Nitsan Margaliot, 
Music: Cello Steuart Pincombe,
Photography: David Bachar and De-Da Productions

“But when we can relate to the figure, we expect it to inflate and exhale, to smell, to tickle. So  when there isn't any life to it, it's very much like there's no soul.“

I saw some of your older works on Instagram, like the one with thorns. Your Instagram has a lot of like nature in it, and I was wondering what is your work’s relation with nature?

I still do a lot of art with nature, I just don't show it on Instagram. I still feel like I was always interested in the aspect of performance and metaphors, like the relationship between nature and myself. So the bra with thorns, it's carrying the idea of protecting my body from something that I don't want to be touched by through the language of nature. With the nest that was the idea of making a nest for myself, like I am taking responsibility for my adulthood. It’s like I'm the mama bird nesting myself. It felt like I was adulting, so I was leaving my real nest in real life.

Photography: Genesis Cabrera

It feels like your work dealing with the body and nature versus the body and objects uses the same kind of language in talking about how we relate to those things.

Yeah, it's very metaphoric, I feel like I changed the aspect of nature and I made metaphors with objects instead. It feels like the same language still, right.

Are there any specific artists that you look to as an inspiration or would you say you get a little piece of something from many places?

I love David Altmejd, and I like Neri Oxman, she does material experiments. And Ana Mendieta, who’s a Cuban artist. I love the way Marina Abramovic makes her body suffer for the name of art. Nick Cave and also the Quay Brothers, who are these bizarre filmmakers.

Do you plan to move back to the States?

I don't think to the States. I think my time there is done, but I'm probably gonna move to Berlin. Maybe it's not gonna be my place to live for the rest of my life, but I want to try it so bad.

Visit Manuela Benaim’s artist page.

︎: @mango_benaim

︎: @genesiscabrerav

all images (c) Manuela Benaim