On Saturday 5th March I attended the opening of Hand Maid, an exhibition organised by Sweet ‘Art taking place at Hoxton Arches Gallery from 6th – 9th March 2016 . Founded in 2012 Sweet ‘Art aims to create a network that promotes artists from all walks of life at various stages in their professional development through fun and thought provoking events and exhibitions (http://www.wearesweetart.com ). Hand Maid was the collective’s third annual exhibition in aid of International Women’s Day, with art, feminist critique, vagina cupcakes and gin, I figured what better way to celebrate! The opening evening did indeed feel celebratory, with a fantastic turnout and more punch than myself and the two friends I brought along could ever hope to consume.
Owing to the open submission of works to the show, it was a really mixed bag. All the artists shown responded to the loose brief of exploring femininity, feminine identity and women’s day. I found that among the 86 artists represented, the most interesting pieces in this show were about the tender elements of femininity, the pieces in which the aim did not seem to be provocation. I must state that being provocative is most definitely not a bad thing, but I find it increasingly difficult to engage with the plethora of Sarah Lucas–esque constructions in tights and red wool that continue to pop up in exhibitions dedicated to exploring femininity.
This criticism is not directed towards Hand Maid alone, nor even feminist art today; but for me reflects an enduring and problematic representation of the female body that is contorted and bleeding. The first time that work such as this was made, the first time women spoke out to say “yes I have a vagina and it bleeds” it may well have disrupted the status quo of a patriarchal society where women do not speak of menstruation. Today however, this statement feels a little tired. While I would never say that monthly pain and bleeding is not a nuisance; nor that the taboo surrounding this uniquely female trait had been dispelled; I think there is far more to be lamented.
Griselda Pollock, heard in discussion at Camberwell University on 8th March (International Women’s Day Panel 2016) drew attention to the women all over the world who are in need of support, for instance the thousands of women and girls who have been displaced by conflict, whose families are forced to take drastic matters to protect them from violence. (Find out more here http://www.globalfundforwomen.org/women-and-the-refugee-crisis) Right now we are not experiencing wide spread feminist rebellion such as we have seen at points throughout the last 100 years, but this is not to say that there aren’t issues that must be addressed. Despite being relatively privileged compared to many women around the world, we still face challenges here in the UK. Our girls and boys are not provided with sufficient sex education to prepare them for adult life, and cases of domestic violence against women – some of which do not result in sufficient conviction – continue to add up. (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/mar/08/domestic-abuse-court-female-victims-bbc-documentary)
One artwork at Hand Maid did address this issue directly, with Helen Taranowski’s simple presentation of diagrammatic data showing women killed by men in the UK in 2014. Another piece making effective use of stark graphic presentation drew attention to the enduring rejection of objectification of the female body. Charlotte C. Lam’s work OBJECT/OBJECT involved a play on grammar to express a simple but powerful declaration of intent.
Naomi Chasse also showed work that was particularly engaging for me, a video depicting a woman assuming a pin-up pose, naked against a red curtain. Initially the projected image seemed to be static – but then you saw her blink. As the piece went on the viewer became more and more aware of her body and of the physical discomfort of the contorted form she took as she began to breathe more heavily. The woman in the film became visibly more uncomfortable until eventually one could almost feel her crying out, and then the video would start again, looping over and over again. I found this picture of the female form that acknowledges the male gaze while also being feminine, glamorous, naked, to be an arresting picture of the tension that young Western feminists face today. After all, the enlightened feminist woman should not feel guilty for wanting to attract men.
Another piece in the show that highlighted the vulnerability and tenderness of the female figure was by Sally Hewett and consisted of beautifully crafted breasts protruding softly from the taught surface of fabric stretched across embroidery rings. The embroidery silks beneath the surface of the fabric captured subtle veins, and the nipples were so intricately sewn, one could not help but be captivated by these works. Drawing up notions of women and craft, these works also operated on a purely aesthetic level, the sight of them almost akin to touch. Sensitivity and texture were also central to the experience of Shannon Lane’s work which consisted of beautifully glossy oyster/vagina hybrids complete with pearls laid out on an ornate glass plate. The work, Aphrodisiac, was displayed simply atop a light box, presenting not only notions of a female sexuality that is offered up to be taken, but also a tender and sexually charged portrait.
An enjoyable and thought provoking evening, Hand Maid certainly lived up to Sweet ‘Art’s aim both to celebrate Women’s day and to encourage conversation on the difficult issues that women face today.