ART + CULTURE: Toeing the line between the beautiful and the grotesque, Madame Peripetie’s world is one where fantasy dominates
Images: Sylwana Zybura aka Madame Peripetie
Interview: Emma de Clercq
Sylwana Zybura’s photographs explore and subvert the boundaries between fashion, beauty and art. Working under the pseudonym Madame Peripetie – ‘Peripetie’ meaning a theatrical reference to twists and turns of a plot – her name is well suited to the intrigue that her images evoke. Drawing inspiration from a diverse array of sources including philosophy, robotics, surrealism and science fiction, her images transform the human body into the ultimate prop. Materials more often used to beautify the face and body -such as hair and make-up – are instead used to distort, obscure and embellish it. As well as working with clients including Hunger Magazine and Topshop, Madame Peripetie’s personal photography culminated in the release of her book ‘Dream Sequence’ in 2014.
The book’s motto ‘if it can be imagined, it exists’ is very apt, with each image revealing a different fantastical character, constructed through a bold mix of costume and prosthetics. The results are vibrant and visceral. While some characters are beautiful, others are terrifying, faces are often concealed, bodies modified and distorted. Perhaps surprisingly, very minimal retouching is used. Instead, each image is built up by hand, with each material and prop – be it paper, paint, hair, even plants – stretched to its full creative potential.
Hair features prominently and is often used as a raw material, teased and woven into elaborate shapes and props. The colour is always significant. As she explains, ‘different colours evoke different emotions in people’. This is indicative of her thoughtful and layered approach to image building. The viewer’s gaze is always considered: how does it make us feel? Do we feel enamoured, repulsed?
We spoke to Zybura about the role that hair plays in some of her favourite images.
Dream Sequence – Waterfall
This image is a part of a series that revolves around the concept of the beautiful and the sublime. The idea was to transform the human body into a big rock with a cascading waterfall, using the hair as its allegory. The water effect was achieved by using waxed hair pieces that ‘pour’ from the mouth and onto the upper body. The character was based on the Germanic water spirit; I used the colour red, based on the common belief of its protective power against evil influence.
Ignant Blog – Monster
I see this as a monster from the Swiss Alps. I used two separate pieces of human hair that I dyed in 4 different colours from dark green to yellow (representing nature) and brown (representing earth). I like the idea of hair being very animalistic and strong, with a direct connection to fur – a natural protection and barrier from the outer world. It could also be seen as a disguise or costume, used for some pagan rites deep in the Alpine landscape.
Tata Christiane – Bird Series
This image was created for Tata Christiane, a French fashion designer and DJ. The “hair” is actually a jacket by Moga and Mago used as a head piece, which I liked because of its texture and beautiful pigmentation. I was exploring the idea of the mask, and the objectification of the body it evokes. As soon as the face is covered the body turns into an almost uncanny prop.
Pughatory – Chimney Sweeper
This image is part of a series centring around sculpturally extended anthropomorphic figures, combined with inanimate matter. You don’t know exactly where the object ends and the body begins. I used heavily textured African hair, wrapped around the face of the model and placed around the pipe. It evokes the idea of heavy smoke and smut, transformed into something beautiful – almost an organic part of the body.
Selfridges – Let Your Hair Down
This window was created for the Beauty Project Hello Beautiful at the Selfridges Wonder Rooms. The intention of the project was to explore the definition of ‘Beauty’ with six weeks of pioneering talks, immersive beauty experiences and installations.
I was asked to create a window filled with cascading hair in pastel hues spreading from a mannequin to the walls. Each piece had to be hand-dyed and sewn together with the help of my team. It was a very laborious process, as the pigment had to be pressed into the hair sections, brushed out (resulting in a loss of colour intensity) and pressed into them again. Even the full protective wear and mask didn’t insulate our bodies enough from the intrusive dust that we all found on us for days after the final instalment.
As we were working with synthetic hair we found a technique of brushing the long pieces with african combs to make them look expensive and avoid turning them to a massive hair ball. We were very aware of the fact that there would be no post-production to make the hair look neat and tidy and it was a huge challenge to make it look organic, beautiful and high-end but also preserving the texture and its natural flow. The whole process was very laborious and I still remember the words of my hair stylist friend Acacio de Silva, whom I asked for advice before the project started: “Hair is like a baby – you need a huge amount of patience with it.”