Women Power Protest: Gender and Diversity

12 December 2018

Independent Curator, Sara Roberts, reports from our recent Curators’ Day event programmed alongside Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s current National Partners Exhibition, Women Power Protest.

Visiting Women Power Protest at Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) for the ACC Curators’ Day was a way of connecting with old friends, making new contacts, and discovering unexplored aspects of the Arts Council Collection. Lucy Gunning’s video Climbing Around My Room (1993) is the naughty school-friend it’s so great to catch up with – the idea of dressing up in party gear and clambering around your room at picture-rail level, in order to gain new perspectives, is awkward, subversive, still funny after all these years.

Of course I have never actually met Melanie Manchot’s mother, but it was glorious to see her again, in her oversize, honest, intimate photographic portrait Mrs Manchot, Arms Overhead (1996). I had wanted to see, but had never before, Mary Kelly’s hugely influential and pioneering account of early motherhood, Post-Partum Document (1973-79), painstakingly etched into slate, I guess in all those sleepless hours.

I nominate Eliza Gluckman to be my new friend. She is engaging, persuasive, a bit angry. She delivered to the group of curators a rapid, taut account of a coherent body of feminist curatorial action: Liberties, (2016) curated with Lucy Day, an exhibition of contemporary art by 24 women artists reflecting on the 40 years since the Sex Discrimination Act; Taking Up Space, (2018) curated with Dr Laura-Maria Popoviciu, profiling women artists from the Government Art Collection who challenge public space; A Woman’s Place, (2018) allowing women a new voice in the National Trust property Knole, home to, but not inherited by, for misogynistic primogeniture reasons, Vita Sackville-West.

All this, backgrounded by really startling statistics about gender balance in public art. We are aware of the Guerilla Girls’ actions in US art collections, but the figures in the UK are equally sobering. Eliza helpfully supplied some: the Fawcett Society’s 'Great East London Art Audit' (2014) audited public artworks on display in London: 70% were by male artists, 30% by women. More shockingly, of 43 pieces of public art in East London, 14% were made by women artists, 86% by men. There are 386 public works of art on display in Westminster and the City of London, of which 8% were made by women artists and 92% by men.

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Scheduled in this year marking 100 years since the first women won the right to vote, Women Power Protest goes some way to redressing the imbalance, with its 100% female line-up. It covers historic and contemporary works and is structured around slogans from the Suffragette flag: Purity, “obviously”, according to BMAG curator Emmalee Beddoes-Davis, “...now updated to Activism”, Hope and Dignity.

The layout is sensitive to the vulnerabilities of visitors, with distinct areas for works which may offend or trigger memory of past experiences, and appropriate advisory panels and designated maps to enable planned visits. The massing of works caused by this process juxtaposes Sam Taylor-Johnson’s glorious Gothic letterpress 'Cunt' printwork. (1994, from the Other Men’s Flowers print portfolio) with distressing works about Rape (Margaret Harrison, 1971), and childhood sexual abuse (Sonia Boyce, Mr close-friend-of-the-family pays a visit whilst everyone else is out, 1985) (Pictured).

Arts Council Collection: Women Power Protest: Gender and Diversity
Arts Council Collection: Women Power Protest: Gender and Diversity

Speaking to the group, and surrounded by graphic representations by Stewart Easton of Emmeline Pankhurst, Malala Yousafzai, Christine Coriado-Peres and athlete Ellie Simmonds, arts educator Jon Sleigh gave the context underpinning the social constructs of 21st Century feminism in its global, intersectional forms. Jon advocates an inclusive curatorial approach which “holds us accountable as practitioners” and creates a safe, ‘consensual’ learning space, which was arrived at by working with marginalized communities, such as Shelter/trans/disability groups.

I also nominate exhibiting artist Michelle Williams Gamaker for new-friend status. Her bewitching film, House of Women (2016) (pictured) layered process and product, past and present, into a re-examination of gender and inappropriate racial casting in the original 1947 film Black Narcissus. Her Indian and British Asian female and non-binary actor ‘hopefuls’ iteratively state their case for inclusion in the film and recite scripted lines. Williams Gamaker in her presentation described her work as ‘fictional activism’; returning to much-loved but flawed artefacts (period films), and providing an aesthetic and restorative overlay, all the while making the processes of scripting and filming utterly transparent.

Finally, ACC Senior Curator Natalie Rudd sketched out first thoughts on an ambitious programme of exhibitions, research, lending, collection care, acquisitions and learning activity designed to redress gender balance across the Arts Council Collection, with a particular focus on sculpture. The Arts Council Collection holds a strong range of sculpture by women and has many interesting stories waiting to be revealed.

There are multiple ways in which conscious and unconscious bias can conceal work made by women across time, including some you may not have thought of, such as conservation - if a work undergoes a fallow period of not being borrowed, it is consequently not prioritised for conservation. This in turn delays digitisation, rendering a work invisible on the website. Natalie, in her call for collaborators, hoped the project will strengthen "…multiple voices, not the single narrative.”

Further details about the project will be shared on the Arts Council Collection website in early 2019; you can also contact Natalie on: sculpture@southbankcentre.co.uk

 

Women Power Protest, an Arts Council Collection National Partners Exhibition, is at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery until 31 March 2019

Arts Council Collection: Women Power Protest: Gender and Diversity

Artwork image credits:

Sonia Boyce, Mr close-friend-of-the-family pays a visit whilst everyone else is out, 1985. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © Sonia Boyce. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2018.
Michelle Williams Gamaker, House of Women, 2016 (Installation view). Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist

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The Arts Council Collection is the UK's most widely seen collection of modern and contemporary art.

With more than 8,000 works by over 2,000 artists, it can be seen in exhibitions and public displays across the country and beyond. This website offers unprecedented access to the Collection, and information about each work can be found on this site.