Dawn Whitmore: Guns of Desire

Hello Kitty, from the series Gun Love. © Dawn Whitmore, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

By Grace Aneiza Ali

In her provocative photography project Gun Love, Washington, D.C.-based photographer and visual artist Dawn Whitmore transforms weapons of destruction into objects of desire. This collection of gun portraits is unapologetically about glamour and bling. What it’s not is a celebration or glorification of gun culture despite how it may appear at first glance.

Encased in gold, bejeweled, bedazzled, imprinted with Hello Kitty stickers, adorned with a breast cancer ribbon, designed with floral prints, embossed with the Louis Vuitton logo, or simply bathed in bright pink, these decorated firearms, intentionally manufactured and marketed for their “feminine mystique” are a striking commentary on a troubling American gun culture and the modern woman.

In what is a layered artistic process, Whitmore sources and prints the images of these (real) guns found online, sets them against elaborate print designs, and re-photographs the combination of gun and background. The result is a disturbing yet compelling beautification of the gun, leaving the viewer entranced by the shiny, glitzy, deadly object.

Gun Love also features staged portraits of women modeling as various characters and holding replicas of the real decorated guns Whitmore found online. Many of the models had never held a gun before. Whitmore gave no directions on how they should pose, only asking the women to portray the stance they felt a woman with a gun should embody. The portraits reveal, according to Whitmore, how a gun can immediately transform one’s sense of power.

Whitmore, who has a background in environmental conservation, was no stranger to gun culture and grew up around a hunting community in rural Maryland. It was a particular kind of hunting of animals that ignited Gun Love. In a controversial strategy that made headlines in 2013, the National Park Service responded to a problem of too many deer in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park that were threatening the park’s ecosystem, by hiring sharpshooters to kill them. Whitmore began making work in response to these “managed hunts” and in doing so encountered images of women hunters, decked out in camouflage outfits or pink gear, full make-up, and posing with pink rifles, or at times, their bloody kill.

Whitmore questioned this growing visual imagery — women with guns dressing provocatively in hunting scenarios. Wondering whether this portrayal of women with decorated guns was coming from a male or female gaze, Whtimore began to formulate Gun Love. She exhibited the project in 2015 as an artist-in-residence at the Arlington Arts Center in Virginia.

We first encountered Whitmore’s work on the cover of Montana Ray’s collection of poems, (guns & butter), which is also featured in The Gun Issue. This Spring, in an interview with Whitmore over Skype, we talked about our culture’s use of women with guns as a marketing tool to sell sex and power.

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