A landmark exhibition of feminist art opened last week at Tate Britain in London (runs until 7 April 2024). Showcasing work by over 100 women artists and collectives living and working in the UK, this is the first major survey of its kind. Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970 – 1990 includes painting, drawing, photography, textiles, printmaking, film, sculpture and archival materials created during a time of extreme social, economic and political change. As well as celebrating the work of well-known artists such as Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid, Helen Chadwick and Margaret Harrison, Women in Revolt! shows women artists, who despite long careers, are not as well known as they should be.
The exhibition does an excellent job showing how interconnected networks of women used radical ideas and rebellious methods to make an invaluable contribution to British culture. The Women’s Liberation Movement first made a major public impact in 1970 when American comedian Bob Hope hosted Miss World at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Over 100 million people worldwide watched Bob Hope on TV being flour-bombed by protesters from the Women’s Liberation Art Group, co-founded by artist Margaret Harrison, who wore a racy black plastic bra with orange fur nipples for the occasion.
The exhibition is presented chronologically, starting with the Miss World protests and the formation of the Brixton Black Women’s Group. The 1970s saw a dramatic evolution of the relationship between women, work, and the domestic environment. Frustration with an expectation of domestic labor is the subject of work by Bobby Baker and photography by Alexis Hunter. Sculptures by Rita McGurn and Elizabeth Radcliffe offer glamorous imagined images of the self, using techniques like crochet: often under appreciated because of its connection to domestic labor.
The 1980s continued with women artists inventing headline-grabbing ways to call out the patriarchy. In 1981, when US nuclear missiles were stored at Greenham Common, Berkshire, a group of women established a peace camp that would last for two decades. Margaret Harrison’s installation, recreated for the Tate Show, references the fences of the Greenham Common military base.
The exhibition explores the creative impact of punk and post-punk with collage, photography and film from artists and musicians like Marianne Elliott-Said (A.K.A Poly Styrene), The Neo Naturists, and Gina Birch. The consideration of sex in the practice of artists is also explored, from Cosey Fanni Tutti’s performance work to Jill Westwood’s Potent Female, 1983. Protest led by women is a core theme throughout the show. Banners, posters, and journals from the Greenham Common and Section 28 protests, and anti-racism and AIDS campaigns are accompanied by documentary photography from Format Photography Agency, Mumtaz Karimjee, Bhajan Hunjan and Caroline Coon, affirming women’s central role in this activism.
The impact of women artists who were involved in key movements like the BLK Art Group is well documented here. One of the founders of this group, Marlene Smith, has contributed one of the most disturbing pieces of this show, a remake of her 1985 portrait of Dorothy “Cherry” Groce who was shot at her home in Brixton in 1985 during a police raid. On the wall behind her are the words “My mother opens the door at 7am. She is not bulletproof.”
Alongside works by key figures like Lubaina Himid, Sutapa Biswas, Claudette Johnson, Pratibha Parmar, Joy Gregory and Rita Keegan are works which were specially conserved for the exhibition such as Nina Edge’s Snakes and Ladders 1985, an installation made of batik on paper and ceramics, which despite featuring on the cover of fellow exhibitor Maud Sulter’s landmark 1990 book Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity, has not been shown in over three decades.
The exhibition closes with work made towards the end of the Thatcher administration, focusing on women’s response to Section 28 (laws across Britain that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality”), the visibility of lesbian communities, and the AIDS epidemic by artists including Del LaGrace Volcano, Tessa Boffin and Jill Posener. Women in Revolt! concludes with works that reflect on the changing economic landscape and women’s place within it by Franki Raffles and Roshini Kempadoo.
Few would argue that women in the west have more rights, for the most part, than they did in 1970 but the Miss World competition does still exist. Ponder that when exploring this thoroughly engaging exhibition but leave with the show curator Linsey Young’s positive reflection “the most important lesson is how much can be achieved by women when we work together. It is women’s strength to collaborate, we need to use it.”
Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970 – 1990, Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG Until 7 April 2024. Tickets £17.