Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990 at Tate Britain
This is an extremely dense exhibition, crammed with a myriad of information through nine rooms. The Tate says that it is the biggest show they have ever put on, featuring works from over 100 artists and collectives. It starts with the explosion of second-wave feminism in 1970, which manifested with a protest against Miss World and the first Women’s Liberation Conference held at Ruskin College in Oxford, the pictures of it by 20-year-old Chandan Fraser shown here. The resourcefulness with which trailblazers created their art and spread their message is impressive, using photography, photocopying, collage, small sculptures – anything they could get their hands on.
It shows their dissatisfaction with a woman’s lot, namely to be dominated by the phallocentric patriarchy that policed their bodies and their minds, kept them in the roles of wives, mothers and caregivers without much choice or alternative. A thought-provoking painting, Phallic Culture (1970) by Monica Sjöö, depicts men building a grey rectangular city with the sky dominated by a penis. The patriarchy’s lifeblood is conformity. This scattershot, rag-tag collection – riotous, messy, confrontational, surreal – is the antidote to that. The whole thing has a galvanising soundtrack of Gina Birch’s 3 Minute Scream (1977), which is what you might expect.
A lot of the works are intensely personal while also being political. Some draw attention to the fact that capitalism relies on women working in the home and caring for children for free. That contribution to society is still not adequately recognised, yet another way women’s work is rendered invisible.
It’s hard to pick out highlights as there is so much to go through, but Anne Bean, Bobby Baker, Rose English, Penny Slinger, Cosi Fanni Tutti, Aileen Ferriday, Elizabeth Radcliffe, Tessa Boffin and the Neo Naturists provide particularly striking images.
It’s hard not to feel some anger moving through this exhibition as you realise how much of what they were reacting against still exists. You need only be slightly different from the patriarchal expectation of a woman, be that in looks, thought or both, to feel the full force of it come down on you. From childhood, women are fed contradictory ideas: be as beautiful as you are able to be but never acknowledge it. Be sexually competent or you’ll be laughed at, but if you are too good at it, you are a whore. If you get yourself raped, then you better make damn sure you are dressed in the right way and sober, if not then you will almost certainly never see justice. And on and on and on. Is it any wonder that a lot of women go “mad”, or at least end up with divided identities, as Rose Finn-Kelcey points out.
Some expectations of women have evolved, finding new ways to encroach on their time and threaten their health, like the current trend for people who do not earn their livings as performers to wear make-up that takes two hours to apply and the preponderance of the BBL, an increasingly normalised surgery that has by far the highest mortality rate. The patriarchy fought back against any ground gained and that retaliation was called the Kardashians.
So this is an essential, furious exhibition. The only problem is that ever-present paradox of protest art: that those who really need to see it and have their views challenged would never bring themselves here. This show may be about a particular, long ago time, but there is still a lot left to fight.
Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990 is at Tate Britain from 8th November until 7th April 2024. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.