Women in Revolt! at Tate Britain

A retrospective exhibition celebrating the role of British female artists from 1970 to 1990

The establishment of women artists in the institutional art system was not a simple process.  Back in 1989, the Guerrilla Girls asked a brilliant and provocative question: do women have to be naked to get into a museum? The statement referred to an unfaithful statistic: “less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female”. At that time, they were addressing the Met’s collection in New York. Today, in London, an unprecedented retrospective exhibition finally celebrates the role of British female artists in witnessing the radical cultural and social change that occurred from the Seventies to the Nineties.

Historically referred only as “inspiring muses”, a beautiful passive object of representation, women gradually gained their access to actual self-representation, and this was a complete game-changer. Women in Revolt! at the Tate Britain in London gathers together the feminist art experiences in the UK from 1970 to 1990, shedding light on how women, networking with each other, shared and spread the seeds of revolutionary and rebellious ideas. In fact, since the 1970s, a backdrop of extreme social, economic, and political change had unleashed a chain-effect of liberation, which forged the creative practice of many women. Through the reappropriation of an autonomous voice for women and of a proper female self-representation, this individual and collective progress brought to light the unseen and untold expressive forms of many minorities who used to have no voice. Of the more than 100 artists on display, many have never reached notoriety, despite their fertile production (additionally, many of them are exhibited today for the first time since the Seventies). This is because, although individual awareness grew, the institutional system and art criticism have for a long time excluded these voices from the dominant cultural discourse.

Jill Westwood Potent-Female c. 1983 © Jill Westwood

Curated by Linsey Young with Zuzana Flaskova, Hannah Marsh and Inga Fraser, the exhibition is on view until 7th April 2024: a great opportunity to admire works which are otherwise difficult to find or almost unpublished, not only from established British artists such as Sonia Boyce, Susan Hiller or Chila Kumari Singh Burman, but also those artists that belong to a subsidiary narrative that has never been credited by the institutional system (as it should have). Through a variety of media – painting, drawing, photography, textiles, engraving, film, sculpture and archival materials – the show reconstructs an atlas of these rebellious and dissident practices, as well as their role in shaping and representing a historical period of profound social changes.

Designed to follow a chronological order, the exhibition temporally begins from the first conference of the liberation of women in the United Kingdom, the protests of Miss World and the formation of the Brixton Black Women’s Group. In the Seventies, women are finally questioning the social and gender roles that had hitherto been given and accepted without question and a priori: many female artists reflect this topic in their work – see Margaret Harrison, Penny Slinger and Monica Sjöö. Moreover, the social and political implications of raising children are addressed by Tina Keane in works such as Who’s Holding the Baby (1978) and Clapping Songs (1979). Again, some collective works – such as the postal project by Kate Walker, Monica Ross and Su Richardson – begin to raise the issues of female solidarity, expressed in communities of women who found ways to work collaboratively without formal infrastructure. A large space is given to reflections on the domestic environment: it is impossible not to mention the replica of Bobby Baker’s iconic feminist installation An Edible Family in a Mobile Home, originally installed in 1976. Visitable during the final four weeks of the exhibition (8th March – 7th April 2024), it reenacts a 1970s East London home and features life-sized family figures formed of garibaldi biscuits, meringue, and various flavours of cake (including a vegan option) specially baked by Lily Vanilli.

Melanie Friend Greenham Protest 1984, reprinted 2023 Format Photographers Archive, Bishopsgate Institute

Influence from the punk and post-punk wave shapes the works by artists and musicians such as Marianne Elliott-Said (A.K.A Poly Styrene), The Neo Naturists, and Gina Birch. While the theme of sex becomes a creative tool in many women’s artistic practice – from Cosey Fanni Tutti to Jill Westwood – the AIDS epidemic breaks out: some women artists do their part by documenting the campaigns through their camera lens, as is the case with Format Photography Agency, Mumtaz Karimjee, Bhajan Hunjan and Caroline Coon. And later, intersectional feminists met the struggles for civil rights, as witnessed by women artists who were involved in key movements like the BLK Art Group. The exhibition closes with the last years of the Thatcher administration, focusing on the response of women artists to Section 28 (a legislative designation introduced by Margaret Thatcher that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” – in effect from 1988 to 2000 in Scotland and from 1988 to 2003 in England and Wales). The result of the exhibition project is a complete and touching overview of three crucial decades full of social changes, through the gaze of a generation of women who have made British history.

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Laura Cocciolillo
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