In London this month, there are two shows dedicated to women’s activism. Tate Britain’s ‘Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990’ is an exhaustive walkthrough of 20 years of protest, soundtracked by Gina Birch’s guttural 3 Minute Scream (1977). Richard Saltoun’s ‘Women’s Work is Never Done’ features artists since the post-war period who use art as a political tool. As proven in both, fighting for women’s rights is arduous work.
Penny Slinger’s Bride’s Cake series is also at Tate. The photographs depict the artist surrounded by a giant cake that reveals her genitals. The works adeptly combine the bride’s presumed lily-white innocence with her sexual and domestic responsibilities. When the images were shown at Flowers in 1973, the police shut down the exhibition.
Slinger often used her body as the site of protest. “I was my own billboard, not advertising the latest perfume, but broadcasting my desire to be truly seen as the fully sentient, multi-dimensional being that I am,” she says. “I am currently chipping away at that next glass ceiling: the way in which women in their older years are viewed. I am not willing to accept the invisibility that emerges to swallow a woman who is no longer the sexually magnetic creature she was.”
‘Women’s Work is Never Done’ features 20th-century heavyweights such as Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse. The show highlights the power of art to fight political oppression. “Things are constantly being negotiated,” says curator Catherine de Zegher. “We cannot say that we have reached an equitable outcome, and, of course, this is not unique to the condition of women. Hard-fought victories are often lost and must be struggled for again. I am very conscious of the work involved in this, and the cost to an individual life, but I believe in the potential of what may be.”
Ideas of community are present throughout both exhibitions, not only in the multitudes of activist groups but their engagement outside the art world bubble. “These are artists who have opened matters that have come to be critical to our thinking of the world,” considers De Zegher. “Artists such as Anna Maria Maiolino and Cecilia Vicuña who, after lives of working unacknowledged, have received the Golden Lion in Venice, a life achievement award. Often very slight, daily gestures have astonishing consequences.”
Women in Revolt! will run from 8 November 2023 – 7 April 2024.
Women's Work is Never Done will run from 14 November 2023 - 27 January 2024.