Linder, Untitled, 1976. Purchased by Tate in 2007. © Linder.
If you’ve ever wanted to walk through a show that highlights the multitude of daily fights women take on, with Gina Birch’s (understandable) ceaseless screaming as background sound, then this is an exhibition for you.
Women in Revolt! starts with a painting entitled Mother and Child at Breaking Point by Maureen Scott in which you can see a screaming infant and his mother, obviously exhausted, trying to ‘get on with it’ just as she is expected to do. Alongside it are posters and placards with the words “We’re not beautiful. We’re not ugly. We’re angry” by the feminists who flour-bombed the 1970 Miss World pageant, as well as photographs by Chandan Fraser of the first Women’s Liberation Conference, held at Ruskin College in Oxford.
From the get-go, one can feel that this exhibition is different. It does not put one single (more-often-than-not, white male) artist on a pedestal, but rather showcases a movement. A movement made of hundreds of women who were determined to make a difference: by protesting, attending conferences, making music, creating movies, photographing, talking, sewing, screaming… and finding creative ways to amplify their voices: tagging over advertisements, distributing flyers and zines, marching, and disrupting. Through their creative work, often based on their personal experiences, these women made significant contributions to fights against different forms of injustices.
Women in Revolt! is a collection of works from more than 100 women artists and collectives active in the United Kingdom between 1970 and 1990, a period during which they were largely erased by mainstream art institutions and historical narratives. The exhibition takes you on a semi-chronological journey divided in six sections. Each explore a loose theme, although there are plenty of overlaps over the entirety of the show. They include motherhood, Marxism, Punk and Rock, the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, the Black Women’s Arts Movement, and LGBTIQA+ issues, seen through the horrors of Section 28 and the AIDs pandemic.
Helen Chadwick, In the Kitchen (Stove), 1977. © The Estate of the Artist. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery, London and Rome.
Whilst the exhibition showcases works by iconic artists like Erica Rutherford or Chila Kumari Singh Burman, the exhibition also highlights works that have, in some cases, never been publicly displayed. Some works were considered too radical for their time, like Janis Jefferies’ carpeted Double Labia. Some of the works were found in basements and have been restored, like Nina Edge’s Snakes and Ladders in which the artist wanted to represent brown-skinned women as self-governing. Other works were entirely destroyed and have been made again for this exhibition, like Marlene Smith’s representation of Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce, who was shot by police in her home. The text over her portrait reads “I am not bulletproof”.
Many of these artists did not work in what one might envision to be a typical artist’s studio. They were forced to work in less-than-ideal environments, perhaps over the kitchen counter, with a child in one arm and a paintbrush in the other. They did not have access to regular resources and would use anything available to them: like Rita McGurn’s fabulous crocheted women, for which she used wool from jumpers, or Penny Goring, who created Shock-a-Lolly Dolly using fabric from a gown she wore to the nightclub ‘Blitz’ where she told a guy she loved him to which he answered that he didn’t believe in love. They made do with what they had and created poignant pieces that perfectly capture the turmoils of womanhood.
This is a truly fantastic exhibition. It is infuriating, funny, demented, and disruptive. It is enormous (going as far as the Tate’s gardens with the restaging of Bobby Baker’s iconic installation An Edible Family in a Mobile Home) and time demanding, but it earns it all. The amalgamation of these works is a monument to British art and feminist activism in the 70s and 80s, and a celebration of the women that laid the foundations for subsequent generations of artists and activists to build upon.
It will, however, leave you with a bitter-sweet aftertaste. Whilst feeling full of admiration for all these women as well as, perhaps, feeling a sense of relief in knowing that they are finally being recognized for their contributions, you will also realise that we are far from achieving their dreams: women today are still less-well paid in the workplace, still doing most of the child labour, still being harassed and assaulted by men. Women of color are still marginalized and so are individuals going against gender and sexual norms. In a world where beauty pageants like Miss World are still being broadcasted and watched by millions, what has changed beyond the Tate?
Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990 is at Tate Britain until the 7th of March 2024.
Afterwards, it will transfer to National Galleries Scotland: Modern, Edinburgh between May 25th 2024 and January 26th 2025, and will then go to the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, between March 7th and June 1st 2025.
Tate Collective members go for £5.
Edited by Samuel Blackburn