Last Saturday afternoon a small group gathered in front of the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park. After a brief exchange of information –how far we had travelled, our connection with the OCA, what courses everyone was on – we were straight in. We were here on a mission — to respond to Nancy Spero’s life work, and, guided by OCA tutor Rhonda Fenwick, respond we did!
Within minutes of entering the gallery, questions were being posed. Why the label “woman artist”? Why not just “artist”? Was there still a need for special exhibitions of “women’s art”? Ideally not, but in the prevailing male-dominated art world it was still necessary. Wasn’t it the case that men have an inbuilt (over?) confidence and women constantly struggle with the sense that they are not “good enough”…? We were now on a bit of a roll.
The anger in the images was relentless. We didn’t actually “like” the work, but that was hardly the point. Utter sincerity — no hint of postmodern irony here. We admired Spero’s courage in sustaining that level of passion and anguish, but at the same time there was a difficulty in relating to it. Was it necessary to be so angry? But yes, at the time it was absolutely necessary. Issues such as the horrors of the Vietnam war and the torture and oppression of women were not being conveyed by the media.
Moving on to the later collage works — a sense of relief. Colour at last! Was the work beautiful? Some thought so, Rhonda didn’t. I wasn’t sure. In these works, images of the Egyptian Sky Goddess Nut replaced images of women as victims of torture. Was this some kind of resolution, a celebration of women? The images, despite the colour, were still “dark” — it didn’t really feel like a celebration….
And then a totally different work – “Women breathing”. Quiet, full of space, the undulating folds suggesting the subtle rhythm of breath. Was this a celebration at last of the feminine principle? Or rather an expression of women’s invisibility and (self-)effacement? In the context of Nancy Spero’s work, probably the latter….
After all that hard work, we felt justified in moving on to the café where the debate continued. Although we are better informed these days, abuse and torture have not gone away, so where are the protest artists today? Rhonda cited Mark Wallinger, who exhibited in Tate Britain as a response to the Peace Protester Brain Hoare. He has camped outside of the Houses of Parliament since the start of the Iraq war. Also artist Jeremy Deller with his installation piece in the Imperial War Museum of a bombed out car from Iraq. This work considers death and dismemberment as the realities of war. As we sat over tea and cakes in the afternoon sunshine, we reflected upon our privilege. The freedom of expression that we now enjoy is not yet afforded to the majority of women. Rhonda talked about her work with about women’s role in the Middle East and her own experiences of travelling there. Rhonda is currently making a new body of work concerned with the politics sensitivities of that part of the world.
After this brief, intimate and engaging time together, suddenly we were saying our goodbyes and moving off in various directions to tubes, buses and trains. This gives a flavour of just some of the conversations and ideas exchanged. There were more, and it’s now over to the members of that small group to expand on or fill in the gaps!.