Liberties: Women Artists Explore The Sex Discrimination Act Of 1975

Women's Art

Curators Day + Gluckman have put on an exhibition of work by women artists. They have called it Liberties and they have hung it on a hook. The hook is the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. That, coupled with the fact that the exhibition is sited in a prestigious law firm not far from the Inns of Court, is a headline grabber, of sorts. That is to say, cute, but not particularly meaningful. In fact, if I think about it for too long I start to find it not so much cute, as problematic. It’s tricky, that’s all, historicising with this kind of thing. It’s all a bit too neat and tidy. A bit too patriarchal you might say.

But beneath all of that, beneath the lumbering PR machine with all the subtlety of a brick, this is essentially an exhibition of works by twenty-four artists: ‘a snapshot of the evolving conversations that continue to contribute to the mapping of a woman’s place in British society. Body, femininity, sex, motherhood, economic and political status are explored through film, photography, sculpture, performance and painting.’

Artist EJ Major shares with us an Excerpt from Mary Richardson’s Laugh a Defiance (2011). Laugh a Defiance is the autobiography of the militant Suffragette responsible for the slashing of Velazquez’ iconic Rokeby Venus whilst it hung in the National Gallery in 1914. The excerpt referred to in the title, outlines, in part, Richardson’s motives for attacking the Venus in particular, as opposed to any other high-profile object. The first line reads: ‘Law and it’s application reflected public opinion. Values were stressed from the financial point of view and not the human. I felt I must make my protest from the financial point of view, therefore, as well as letting it be seen as a symbolic act.’ Now, this work by EJ Major hangs in a law firm, priced at £360 for one part of an edition of 5. Evidence, if evidence were needed, that the system has in no way been overthrown. Rather, it has subsumed its opposition. Inevitably. An oppositional stance is no stance at all. We need a new way.

Alice May Williams presents We Can Do It! an eight minute film from 2014. It asks penetrating questions about identity from a starting point of Rosie the Riveter. Rosie the Riveter represents the American women who worked in factories during World War II. In the famous image, Rosie’s hair is covered with a red and white polka-dot head scarf. She stares defiantly at the viewer as she rolls the sleeve of her blue work-shirt up over her bicep. On the surface of it, we know what this means. Beyond that, what the film asks is: ‘From whom did we learn this? To whom does it belong?’ These are really important questions. ‘Who is the we that we become when we gaze at her painted face?’ The point is, we don’t even know where you end and we begin, so anything that sets a you against a we is meaningless. And not only that. Now, we can buy, in Top Shop, mass produced blue shirts with the sleeves already rolled, pinned into place. ‘Our gesture has been bought up and sold back to us.’ Over and over again.

A film from 2013 by Jemima Burrill expresses similar disillusionment with The New Model. A woman lifts the lid on the boot of an old Mercedes. From the inside. She is inside the boot. She blinks into the sunlight. She wears a floral frock, pearls, neat red court shoes, a white pinafore and rubber gloves. She climbs out of the boot. She is at the Five Star car wash.  She is to be given a thorough clean. A young man hoovers her down: hair, legs, lips, everything. She walks around the corner. She stands perfectly still. Water is sprayed at her from a high pressure hose. A different man removes her rubber gloves. She is soaped, scrubbed with the chamois leather. Her lipstick is lost. She goes under the drier. Her face is distorted by the power of its blast. We get a sense of her liberation. She walks out into the sunshine, arms wide, a broad smile. She looks fresh and new, optimistic and full of hope. Then another man appears at her side. He is carrying her red court shoes. He bends, offers them to her feet, helps her in to them, one at at time. He paints the lipstick back on to her mouth. Badly. This time it doesn’t fit. Her smile begins to wane. Doubt flickers across her eyes. Her apron appears from his pocket. He ties it around her waist, slides the rubber gloves back over her hands. She stares at them unhappily. He lifts the lid of the boot.

These are works from a new generation, a generation that questions the old ideals, a generation ready to look deeper. It’s the next phase. The movement, if I can call it that, is maturing.

It’s an interesting collection of works that makes up Liberties. If the system has subsumed the opposition then Day + Gluckman are fighting the system from within. They may not ‘fix’ anything. They may not intend to. But it’s interesting to watch.

Words: Beverley Knowles Photo Jemima Burrill The New Model Courtesy Curators Day + Gluckman