Review: Tate Britain’s Women in Revolt exhibition disappoints in merging politics and art

    Title: Women in Revolt! A Flawed Attempt to Unearth Feminist Art and Activism in the UK


    “I don’t know whether to hug or punch you: you’re from Tate!” So declared Bobby Baker, 73, on opening her door to Linsey Young, the curator of Tate Britain’s new show Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990. Young embarked on the task of interviewing scores of women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s to uncover works created for and within the community, rather than for collectors or curators. Many of these women, like Baker, had felt excluded by mainstream institutions such as the Tate. Young succeeded in gaining their trust, transforming their urge to lash out into a collaborative hug, and displaying works in the Millbank gallery that their creators never dreamt would be shown there. However, the effects of this endeavor are highly diverse.

    The Witty and Engaging Discovery:

    Baker’s contribution is undoubtedly the most amusing, dramatic, and captivating of the discoveries in the exhibition. Her work, titled “An Edible Family in a Mobile Home,” recreates an installation that was originally showcased in Baker’s prefab house in Stepney in 1976, lasting only one week before all the art was devoured. The installation depicts a teenage son, made of diamond-shaped Garibaldi biscuits, reclining in the bath, while a meringue-fantasy daughter listens to music amidst a room plastered with Jackie magazine covers. The fruitcake father slumps before the television, and the baby, donning an iced nappy, lies in a cot. Meanwhile, the pink-dummy mother, with overflowing breasts, is refillable – forever giving and feeding.

    A Benevolent Sit-In:

    This hippy-inspired Hansel and Gretel house, sitting on Tate’s lawn, becomes a political act where devouring the nuclear family is celebrated. It possesses an imaginative generosity and unpredictability that seem to be lacking in the rest of the exhibition. Despite being billed as a “major survey” of feminist art in the UK, Women in Revolt! falls short in showcasing the work of notable artists who emerged during that period, such as Paula Rego and Cornelia Parker. Instead, it primarily focuses on women’s activism, ultimately making for a duller and more challenging subject matter.

    Informative Social History:

    As a documentation of social history, the exhibition manages to be informative. Sue Crockford’s film, A Woman’s Place, captures the exhilarating first Women’s Liberation Movement march in 1971. The extensive coverage of Greenham Common protesters exudes a passionate commitment, with white-haired “Grannies against Nuclear Winter” and veiled girls from “Brides against the Bomb” symbolically marrying and then deflating a giant blow-up Trident missile.

    The exhibition also pays homage to the power of documentary photography, a medium where women excelled from the start. Melanie Friend’s “Mothers’ Pride” provides a gripping study of desperate and defiant teenage mothers. Brenda Agard’s “Portrait of Black Women” sensitively explores resilience and diversity, challenging racist assumptions. The Hackney Flashers’ photo-essay about nursery facilities, titled “Who’s Holding the Baby?” from 1978, remains relevant today.

    The Casual Everyday Sexism of the Period:

    On the positive side, the exhibition effectively evokes the casual everyday sexism prevalent during that era and portrays the struggles that women aimed to overcome. It highlights the issues women were challenging and the means through which they did so – the homespun aesthetic of the 1970s is brought to life through screen-prints, textiles, collage, and graffiti. Jill Posener’s “Spray It Loud” features gleefully defaced advertisements, including Fiat’s provocative slogan “If it were a lady, it would get its bottom pinched,” accompanied by a scrawled response: “If this lady was a car, she’d run you down.” See Red’s poster “Protest” shows a woman fiercely defying Miss World stereotypes. Through such protests, those who lived through the 1970s will nostalgically remember a time of seemingly innocent activism.

    The Failure of Parading Ephemera as Art:

    However, a little of this nostalgia goes a long way. The exhibition includes hundreds of works that seem trivial, puerile, or even hate-fuelled, leaving one perplexed as to how they made their way into a museum. Examples include Poly Styrene’s condom-filled and cartoon collage “Germ-Free Adolescents” and Brenda Prince’s photographs showcasing the banner “Angry, Manhating, Lesbian & Proud.” Additionally, numerous trite objects like a baby’s bottle with a gift tag and a gingerbread man inscribed with “Men to Me Memento”, collectively called “Postal Art,” from the period of 1975-76.

    Misjudgments like parading such ephemera undermine the exhibition’s potential and represent a missed opportunity. The 1970s were an astonishing period for women’s art, where second-wave feminism intersected with the emergence of conceptualism. This could have been a fascinating subject to explore.

    Recognizing the Exceptional:

    Among the ordinary and mediocre, one work stands out in terms of quality and seriousness, deeply rooted in a British tragedy. Marlene Smith’s “Good Housekeeping III” is a larger-than-life multimedia relief/sculpture portraying a black figure with a Picasso-like mask, dressed in white, firmly attached to a wall alongside a cheerful family snapshot. Above the figure, the caption reads, “My mother opens the door at 7 am. She is not bulletproof.” This figure represents Cherry Groce, who was mistakenly shot and paralyzed by police officers, an incident that sparked the 1985 Brixton riots.


    In its attempt to blur the lines between art and activism, Women in Revolt! pushes the boundaries of what Tate has been striving for in recent years. But unfortunately, it ends up being a politically-driven, incoherent mess. While the exhibition successfully provides social history and sheds light on the struggles faced by women during the 1970s and 1980s, the lack of aesthetically distinguished works by renowned artists and the inclusion of trivial and forgettable pieces ultimately diminish the impact of this endeavor. A greater focus on the remarkable art created during this period, coupled with insightful commentary and curation, would have made Women in Revolt! a more enriching and thought-provoking experience.

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