Contemporary feminist artists will soon be taking over the Gas Hall at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Opening on 10th November 2018, ‘Women Power Protest’ marks a century since the first women won the right to vote. Through paintings, sculpture, photography, installation art and more, this exhibition asks the important question: just how much has changed for women?

Feminists in force

Over 55 artists who have explored protest, social commentary, feminism and identity in their work, will be showcased in the exhibition. Notable names include Shani Rhys James, Lucy Gunning, Margaret Harrison, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Sonia Boyce, Susan Hiller, Lubaina Himid, Marion Coutts, Mona Hatoum and Mary Kelly.

contemporary feminist artists
Claudette Johnson reacts against racism and sexism in the (art) world with works such as her ‘Trilogy’ series, included in the show.

Progress vs challenges

This exhibition will draw attention to the progress made since the first women were given the right to vote 100 years ago, and the immense challenges women still face today.

Through debate, protest and radical endeavours, women fought for their right to voice their opinions in a public realm that systematically silenced women. ‘Women Power Protest’ showcases female artists whose work has highlighted their personal experiences and continued to push for women’s rights over the last seven decades.

Birmingham, the Black Country & protest

Birmingham has a history of female protest and the exhibition includes works from the city’s collection. Works include Louise Bourgeois’ ‘The Bad Mother’ (1998) and Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Four Figures’ (1951).

All three works in Claudette Johnson’s ‘Trilogy’ series (1982-86) also form part of the exhibition. The large-scale portraits were created when Johnson was a member of the BLK Art Group in the 1980s in Wolverhampton and her empowering paintings aim to make black women visible in the art world.

contemporary feminist artists
Shani Rhys James subverts the traditionally ‘feminine’ genre of still life and portrait painting with powerful, psychologically charged images, such as ‘Caught in the Mirror’.

Shani Rhys James 

One of my favourite pieces included in the show is Shani Rhys James’ subversive oil painting ‘Caught in the Mirror’ (1997), which belongs to Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

It is a startling self portrait of the Jerwood Prize-winning artist. Her image is reflected in a dressing table mirror propped against a table in her studio. Her figure appears isolated amidst the inanimate clutter of her materials. On the floor are discarded surgical gloves which she wears to protect herself from the toxic paints which she applies with her hands and palette knives.

I recently spoke with Shani Rhys James about her practice, this painting and inclusion in this show. She explains:

“The painting ‘Caught in the Mirror’ is me as the artist in the studio, I’m dwarfed by the objects, and there is just a sliver of me in the mirror, objects on the table ,under the table, objects used in the still lives.

I am very pleased to be included in the show, there are so many exhibitions at the moment featuring women celebrating hundred years of posh women having the vote, it took another 18 years for all women to have the vote.

I don’t see how any woman couldn’t be a feminist, it is ridiculous that we are still fighting for equality. Inequality comes in so many subtle ways innuendo, exclusion, terminology, even in words like ‘how can you do such big paintings when you are so small?’, or being accused of being an ego maniac because you want to achieve”.

Shani Rhys James is represented by Connaught Brown, and you can see more of her sensational work on the gallery’s website here. 

Arts Council Collection

Many of the other artworks are drawn from the Arts Council Collection. These look at the experiences of becoming and progressing as a woman amongst varying degrees of opportunity and oppression in relation to race, class, geography and sexuality.

Childhood & Motherhood

A work from the iconic ‘Post-Partum Document’ series by Mary Kelly (1978/79) is displayed in the exhibition. The 18 slate tablets, resembling miniature Rosetta stones, are the part of a six-year exploration of motherhood and Kelly’s relationship with her son.

Meanwhile ‘For the Fallen’ (2001) by Marion Coutts transports the viewer back to their own school years through a wooden vaulting horse recognisable to many from P.E. lessons. Engraved with the words For the Fallen it turns the object into both a war memorial and a monument to embarrassing childhood experiences.

Power, abuse & relationships

The exhibition does not shy away from difficult issues. An early work from Sonia Boyce, ‘Mr close-friend-of-the-family pays a visit whilst everyone else is out’ (1985) is a charcoal drawing which depicts a challenging scene, that explores the abuse of trust experienced by a young woman, and reflects some of Boyce’s concerns about power relationships.

Margaret Harrison’s ‘Rape’ (1978) uses media texts and images to boldly highlight the injustices against women in rape cases.

The theme of identity and heritage continues in Mona Hatoum’s ‘Plotting Table’ (1998) – a fluorescent green map which viewed in the dark turns the world into a board game designed for territorial wars.

Meet the curator

Emalee Beddoes-Davis, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Birmingham Museums Trust, said:

“This exhibition acknowledges the monumental step taken for women’s rights 100 years ago, but through challenging contemporary artworks it explores some of the experiences common to being a woman in 21st century society, and the progress still to be made. Feminist activism continues as women across the world strive to have their voices heard and this is an ideal time to reflect and showcase these artworks in Birmingham.

As women, not all the artists featured in this exhibition have gained the recognition they deserve. The exhibition recognises the historic bias in collections and how we have to continue to strive to ensure female artists, and in particular those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, are given the platform they deserve.”

contemporary feminist artists
Barbara Hepworth believed that art should be ‘gender-free’

Special events

The exhibition will be marked with a weekend of thought-provoking events and activities from Friday 16th – Sunday 18th November, including performances, spoken-word poetry, debates and talks. Throughout the exhibition there will also be a range of events responding to the theme of Women, Power, Protest.

Highlights include:

Life Drawing Special with Harnaam Kaur

Gas Hall, 24th Nov 2018 1 till 4pm

Free but pre booking advised, capacity 50, online or in person on the day

Harnaam Kaur is a British model, anti-bullying activist, body positive activist, life coach, and motivational speaker. She uses her profile for numerous body positive campaigns and to promote awareness of body shaming, cyberbullying, and mental illness. The museum will be running a life drawing session where with Harnaam as model and muse for your drawing. Led by Artist Rob Conway, this drawing session combines quick fire drawing response to Harnaam responding to artworks in the collection, followed by a static and intensive drawing session studying Harnaam through sketching.

All materials are provided, you are welcome to bring your own materials however please be advised that only dry materials are to be used and space is limited. No model nudity.

Uncomfortable Art Tours with Alice Proctor

Gas Hall, 19th January 1pm till 3pm

Free drop in  for adults, 40 max

Alice Procter is a national historian of material culture based at UCL. In 2016 she couldn’t get a job, so she started an irreverent and low-tech art history podcast called The Exhibitionist. That turned into Uncomfortable Art Tours, unauthorised guided tours of national galleries exploring how major institutions came into being against a backdrop of imperialism.

Alice’s academic work concentrates on the intersections of postcolonial art practice and colonial material culture, the curation of historical trauma, and myths of national identity. She is currently writing on protest, disruption and rule-breaking in art galleries.

Join Alice for a fascinating tour with a difference, looking at the role of women in art history contrasted with contemporary works from the Arts Council Collection.

Food Carving Art Session with Benny Semp 

Gas Hall, 30th March 1 till 4pm

Free drop in for adults

Artist Benny Semp returns to lead this carving class with a difference inspired by the exhibition “Women: Power and Protest”. This adult carving session is a prefect Saturday afternoon to explore being creative with food, carving directly onto fruit, vegetables, chocolate and cheese!

All materials provided and tools, plus the inspiring company of one of Birmingham’s leading art teachers.

A range of other events will also be listed on the exhibition website. 

‘Women Power Protest’ will be exhibited in the Gas Hall at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery from 10th November 2018 – 31st March 2019. Please visit the exhibition website to keep up-to-date with the exhibition and all events, and to book onto them. 

Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is an Arts Council Collection National Partner and Women Power Protest is part of the National Partners Programme 2016-19. 

This is going to be one of the best Birmingham exhibitions of 2018/19. See you there!

Ruth x

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