Nick Moss reviews Women In Revolt - Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990, at the Tate Britain until 7 April 2024. Image above: Houria Niati, No to Torture (After Delacroix 'Women of Algiers') 1982-83
The national women’s’ liberation conference, held at Ruskin College in 1970, was held at a time when wives could still be lawfully raped by their husbands, when there was no statutory maternity pay, no sex discrimination protection, when sex assigned at birth could not be changed, and prior to the establishment and effective funding of domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centres.
The 1970 conference began what Sally Alexander (activist, a founding editor of the History Workshop Journal and one of the founders of the Night Cleaners Campaign) called “a spontaneous , iconoclastic movement whose impulse and demands reached far beyond its estimated twenty thousand activists.”
Red Women’s Workshop, 1974-1990, 7 Demands, 1974
This inspiring exhibition focuses on how feminist protest used art as a form of activism and how feminist artists looked to organize outside and against the commercial art market. The exhibition serves both as evidence of a new world coming into being through struggle, and an alert to us, to show how the gains we make can be reversed.
The refusal to separate art and politics – the refusal to surrender to the idea that aesthetics and aesthetic judgement can be divorced from the political or the culturally contingent – distinguishes much of the art shown here from that which fills galleries today. Just as importantly, much of the art was a product of a collective ethos – See Red Women’s’ Workshop, the Hackney Flashers, Format Photography Agency, BLK Art Group, Autograph-Association of Black Photographers, and Panchayat.
Alison Lloyd, SUPPORT THE MINERS, Solidarity will win! 1984
Much of the art was produced as a contribution to ongoing struggles – Wages for Housework, Women Against Pit Closures, Greenham Common Women’s’ Peace Camp/Women for Life on Earth, Gay Liberation Front. The photographer and Autograph founding member Ingrid Pollard sets out the animating character of the artists as “We weren’t expecting to get exhibitions at the Tate; in the 1980s, people set up things of their own. We did shows in alternative spaces –community centres, cafes, libraries, our homes. We occupied spaces differently.”
That work here – the photography, the artwork produced for Greenham Common Women’s’ Peace Camp such as literature, Gee Vaucher’s works, Thalia Campbell’s banner works, Margaret Harrison’s installation – jolts us to reflect on the significance of the camp and the various links in the chain of solidarity that led to it and follow from it.
Without the inspiration from the 1970 conference and the networks of activism it generated, the forms of self-organization it gave rise to-it is unlikely that the women’s’ march from Cardiff to the Greenham base would have happened. Without the renewed awareness of the history of feminist militancy that the movement produced, it is perhaps also the case that the specific suffragette-inspired decision by the marchers to chain themselves to the fence would have occurred.
Today we are faced again with the possibility that the nuclear states may consider a first strike a risk worth taking. As Alison Assiter wrote in 1983:
The culmination of militarist thinking is militarist problem-solving: war.....(In a nuclear war) everyone becomes a combatan, in the sense of being a possible target, but also a non-combatant insofar as he or she plays no active role in military action or decision-making. - (Over Our Dead Bodies, Virago 1983)
Thus, we come full circle. Every gain can be reversed; every battle has to be refought. Now also we face the prospect that global warming will be the human-generated locus of our own extinction. To quote Kate Soper, from the same 1983 volume:
We have somehow to summon up within ourselves the will to confront this possible death of human existence. ...I do not think one can dwell on this impending disaster very long without awakening the need to rescue humanity from it. This at any rate is my ‘optimism of the will.’
Jill Posener, Fiat Ad, London, 1979, reprinted 2023. Courtesy of the artist
There is so much by way of optimistic resource that can be drawn on in Women in Revolt. The art here, and the political actions to which that art related, fearlessly and wittily challenged capitalism, patriarchy, rape culture, homophobia, militarism. From flour-bombing Bob Hope at the 1970 Miss World competition, via Jill Posener’s photographs of feminist, anti-consumerist graffiti, to Lubaina Hamid’s white, male, unicycling, carrot-dangling idiot in Carrot Piece, the oppositional culture here is not afraid to mock the enemy.
Alexis Hunter, in The Marxist Wife Still Does the Housework, captures the hypocrisy of leftist gender politics with a series of photographs of a woman’s hand wiping down a poster that shows a picture of Marx with text that reads “Karl Marx, Revolutionary Man, Thinker.” It reminds me of those left groups that failed to address the issues raised by feminist, gay liberation and anti-racist struggles, and then decried as separatist those who decided to organise around these issues anyway.
Linder, Untitled, 1977
It’s worth noting the extent to which the artist groups represented here recognized the necessity of fusing artistic /political theory and practice, as a means of challenging each other and pushing on and developing their ideas. Debates took place in the pages of Spare Rib, Red Rag, and Peace News and also in local bulletins and journals devoted specifically to issues raised by artistic practice, such as Feminist Arts News, Feminist Review, Heresies, Autograph, Contra-Diction, In Print, Outwrite, Shakti Khabar, Square Peg,Ten-8, Woman’s Art Journal, and Women Focusing.
It was in these journals that what became adopted in academia as “critical theory” – Barthes, Foucault, Cixous, Kristeva, Derrida – was first put to effective use as a way of challenging/confronting the ubiquity of the male gaze. Here also, Juliet Mitchell and Laura Mulvey made use of psychoanalytic theory,Lacan in particular, to explore what Mulvey set out as “the realisation that biological difference becomes overlaid by a cultural concept of sexual difference suited to the needs of a particular social order.”
Not all of the artists here accept a primarily political understanding of their work. Mocica Sjoo, for example, insists that:
What I was seeking was a form which expressed what I wanted to say about my experience and women’s experience generally. Without that excitement and tension, an image does not convey the message you want to get across. Painting is holistic, it reaches different layers of consciousness. Painting is a shamanistic act.
Sjoo has used her work, which includes powerful images of God Giving Birth, the Sheela-Na-Gig, and The Goddess of Avebury, to rescue a feminist mythology – The Ancient Religion of the Great Cosmic Mother of All:
Men want to see women as beautiful and sweet and lovely, as seductive and heterosexually alluring, a sort of Pre-Raphaelite image. To see powerful women who are not pleasing and sexually titillating to men is seen as aggressive.
There is some brief focus on women in music and Rock Against Sexism, but this is probably the area where the exhibition is at its weakest. Gina Birch of the Raincoats is represented, with a video work of her 3-minute scream, and it is good to see Linder Sterling recognized for her work as a musician in Ludus as well as her wonderful collages. But despite the inclusion of Gee Vaucher’s collages, there is little reference to Crass, who, at their best, represented an assault on capitalist-patriarchal norms using sound, graphic art, text and video.
Cosey Fanni Tutti appears as performance artist but not as (anti) musician with Throbbing Gristle. It is also the case that the attempt to present the materials here chronologically means that the works produced by the Black Arts Movement, and by lesbian and gay artists, mostly feature separately from the earlier works produced by white artists, which inadvertently reproduces the fissures that black and LGBT artists had to organize against.
Throughout the exhibition, we encounter women using art as a weapon to respond to a constant ideological warfare intended to shore up the institutions of patriarchal capitalism – section 28, anti-gay propaganda around HIV/AIDS , the constant battle to preserve abortion rights, the attack on militant trade unionism, the crackdown on black and Asian resistance. What all of this makes clear is that what we today call the “culture wars” is a constant. What Althusser called “ideological state apparatuses” include the visual representations across various media of capitalist relations of production in the workplace and reproduction in the home as normative. Women in Revolt shows that it is both possible and necessary to establish a constantly renewing counterculture in response.
As Supta Biswas and Marlene Smith state in the exhibition notes, in relation to the struggle against institutional racism:
We have to work simultaneously on many different fronts. We must make our images, organize exhibitions, be art critics, historians, administrators, and speakers. We must be the watchdogs of art establishment bureaucracies: sitting as individuals on various panels, as a means of ensuring that Black people are not overlooked. The list is endless.
The emotional weight of so many of these works hits hard. Susan Hiller’s poignant work, 10 Months, consists of shots of her pregnant belly taken over the duration of her pregnancy, and texts written at the same time. Amongst these she simply records that “It is easier to describe despair than joy.” Marlene Smith’s Good Housekeeping 111 is a protest at the 1985 police shooting of Cherry Groce that consists of a portrait of Cherry Groce and a family photograph, alongside a text painted onto the wall that reads “My mother opens the door at 7am. She is not bulletproof.”
Sutapa Biswas’s Housewives with Steak Knives gives us Kali, with a garland of severed heads, wielding a steak knife and holding decapitated male head. The painting is a reference to Hindu culture as originally matriarchal. It is also, simply, a painting of a woman who refuses to submit- like the women in the miners’ support groups, the women at Greenham, and Jayaben Desai, leader of the 1976 Grunwick strike, whose photograph is shown in the exhibition.
The last words in the exhibition go to Kate Walker, whose “Feministo” postal art project began in 1974 with Sally Gollop, features. They are fitting to end (begin again) with here:
In the absence of a feminist art we must invent it as we go along. Here is a start, please carry on.
Nick Moss is an ex-prisoner, published poet, reviewer and playwright. His book "Swear Down" is published by Smokestack Books, see here.