Creativity out of protest?

I’ve got a postcard with this heading and the statements below it on the wall at home. Displayed with a somewhat tongue in cheek intent of course, it does act of a reminder, not just of my ardent feminism in the 70s, but, on International Womens’ Day (today) perhaps it’s appropriate to look at the history of these statements, and the role of women using art as protest. The text is from a 1988 poster, and is in the MoMA archives.

Art and protest are inextricably linked, and have been for centuries, but the connection is both complex and difficult. For women protesting about oppression and war, protest is traditionally aimed at the masculine oppressor.

Nancy Spero (currently exhibiting at the Serpentine and an OCA gaggle visiting soon) wrote at the height of ‘womens’ lib’ in 1971 ‘The enemies of women’s liberation in the arts will be crushed.’ Even today Spero says that her work has operated as acts of protest throughout her career. Rebecca Belmore is a prominent Canadian artist who works in installation, performance, and multi-media art. She developed a performance that commemorated a number of women who had gone missing in downtown east Vancouver, many of them victims of alleged serial killer Robert Pickton.

There are few women artists who have not at some point in their careers focussed on an examination of their role as a woman artist, and the struggle to find a market niche in the face of the male dominated art world. Beyond the world of ‘art’ women have always protested and found forms of protest that may not have had artistic intentions but have inflamed creativity through deep seated commitment to a cause. The Guardian newspaper this week led an article on protest in Libya with a piece about the rise of womens’ voice in the protests. The images were of women painting their faces to symbolise their place in the protest against the regime. In Bahrain, hundreds of women wrapped in traditional black tunics stood up to the authorities in the demonstrations against the government. Women in Egypt are energised into protest despite rampant sexual harassment and deep seated oppression. Meanwhile the BBC videoed a makeshift protest art gallery in Libya last week, I searched for examples of protest art by women but I suspect there was none there, but it is events like these that eventually do find avenues for womens’ voices. We will see more interesting forms of creativity emerge from these forces in the Middle East.


  1. anned 9 March 2011 at 9:32 am

    Thanks for this article Jane, I read Laura Cummings review, of the Nancy Spero exhibition in the Guardian. I found it interesting that her work is all on paper, the review says “Such was the culture of second-wave feminism, with its subversion of archetypes and its repudiation of patriarchal traditions, including the predominant form of easel painting.”

    Which prompted me to wonder about artists such as Karla Black, and Tracy Emin – how much of their artwork is informed by feminist concerns? Moving on from that its interesting to wonder how much artwork displayed in our museums such as the Tate is made by female artists these days? Perhaps that’s one of the reasons behind some of the curatorial decisions made – reflecting these legitimate feminist concerns.

    Its all very well saying that art can’t change but if we went back 100 years ago you and I would be chained to the kitchen sink:(

  2. roberta 9 March 2011 at 5:30 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this post, especially the reasons to be grateful… it made me smile, but a rueful smile.

    There is a dilemma – if a women artist were to create images predominantly around a feminine theme, then it would lend fuel to the line “whatever kind of art you make it will be labelled feminine”. On the other hand, in some form or other women artists need to remind the world they are there. There is an irony for me in reading another line, “Knowing your career might pick up after you’re 80”. I am studying the art of Frances Walker, a Scottish artist who reached that age last year. She has spent a lifetime making and teaching art in Scotland. There is one work of hers in the National Gallery collections: a print which is kept locked in the print collections (these can only be seen by special request as the print room is no longer staffed) and does not show up in the general catalogue. I only discovered its existence when I went to the desk to express my surprise at this gap in the NGS collections.

    I wish I could believe this is a solitary exception but the line from the poster tells otherwise.
    On the subject of women artists in Egypt: I heard an Egyptian woman interviewed briefly on Today (radio 4) this morning. She was describing how little say the women activists are able to have in the newly forming body that will shape the new institutions of government. Those invited to be part are all men. They needed to be knowledgable in the relevant fields and apparently were unaware that there were any women with the appropriate knowledge and qualifications. It seems the same has happened before, women helping bring about a change of government but not given a place in what happened after. Melting back into invisibility.
    Despite all this, I think it is still necessary to go forward in hope and not become cynical when the next mountain to climb turns out to be beyond the crest which looked like the top!

  3. Peter Haveland 9 March 2011 at 11:25 pm

    Remember that the Guerrilla Girls started out by asking “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met museum?” Frankly it is a question that still need asking. For all the exhibitions by artists who happen to be women, the permanent collections are still skewed towards men.

  4. rhonda 11 March 2011 at 9:40 am

    Thanks Jane for this great article I am with you in what you say and in the replies you’ve had so far. We have come a long way but still have much to do to make the changes we so strongly desire. I think of all those who still are not able to have a voice in our times. Mona Hatoum, Lebanese artist, and Sherin Neshat, Iranian artist, are worth a look. I am so looking forward to the Nancy Spero exhibition visit.

  5. linmathias 9 March 2015 at 2:55 pm

    Protest art is mainly targeted at the male oppressor? Maybe we should be looking at our own solidarity? Having faith in ourselves.
    Last year I did a women only cycle ride for charity (2000 + women) & I was outraged that a bloke had the job of starting the ride…. It was our charity event & we gave that role to a bloke… What are we like? Shame on us – let’s be stronger, take credit for what we do & have self belief. We don’t have to ask the men if it’s OK.
    They will just go to war.


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