Two Decades of British Women Artists Striking Back

LONDON — Something like a piercing siren or a baby’s cry — persistent and unsettling — reverberates through Tate Britain’s Women in Revolt! upon entering. The sound soon reveals itself to be a film of musician Gina Birch performing the aptly titled “3 Minute Scream” (1977) on loop. This howling urgency characterizes this landmark show, which details the efforts of feminist artists engaging in sociopolitical protests in Britain between 1970 and 1990; a still from the film of Birch’s anguished face is the chosen exhibition poster image. 

Room one begins with the statement, “In the early 1970s, women were second-class citizens.” It makes the point that British society, and by extension the artistic canon, were so exclusionary that women responded by utilizing inventive, non-traditional methods to make themselves heard. The show’s press materials point to its focus on these women’s impact on British “culture” at large, rather than solely on “art.” For not only does the work on view — spanning political pamphlets, household objects, crochet, and protests — sit outside traditional modes of making and displaying art, but it embodies and reacts to British culture itself.

The resulting chronological survey of major events within these two decades begins with the first women’s liberation conference in the UK, progressing through Miss World protests, the formation of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, demonstrations against nuclear development at the Greenham Common, and the punk movement. The show tells a micro-lesson in British history through copious archival material; the video content totals around seven hours, including information about key political meetings and documentation of women’s experience in the workplace, as in Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt, and Mary Kelly’s installation Women & Work: A Document on the Division of Labour in Industry 1973–75. The sense of a call to arms, of activism and grassroots movements, is extended into the exhibition wall texts themselves, which are pinned onto pseudo-makeshift bulletin boards alongside slogan buttons and pamphlets, and extra wall space erected inside the galleries which takes the form of temporary wooden boards.

Naturally, because women’s rights intrinsically concern sexual and bodily autonomy, much of the work is intensely personal. The artists unflinchingly use the female body to protest against sexism, social exploitation, and confinement to domesticity, as in Helen Chadwick’s In the Kitchen series (1977) in which she wears PVC costumes designed to look like household appliances. Others take a more intimate approach in laying bare many women’s stigmatized physical experiences. Susan Hiller documents her pregnancy in attentive detail in her print series Ten Months (1977–79), and Mary Kelly captures her own pregnant belly, cropped and up close in the black-and-white looping film “Antepartum” (1973).

The show is essential viewing for those keen to understand the history of British feminism, providing artistic context for its continuing evolution. Its wall text reminds us that the Equal Pay Act went into effect in 1975, and there were no statutory maternity rights or legal protections against gender discrimination in the workplace until 2010. Its afterword caption urges us to continue fighting for progress, acknowledging the impossibility of crafting a single definition of “feminist art,” but that, as the artist Kate Walker said in 1974, “We must invent it as we go along. Here is a start, please carry on.” In my mind, it is thus moot to critique such a show on artistic merit alone. The sheer breadth and range of voices expressing themselves through whatever means possible indicates that being heard, and heeded, is feminist art’s key purpose.

Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970–1990 continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, London, England) through April 7. The exhibition was curated by Linsey Young, Zuzana Flaskova, Hannah Marsh, and Inga Fraser.

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