‘One of Audre Lorde’s poems talks about the master’s tools will never dismantle a master’s house. I think there was a real conscious use of imagery to use not the master’s tools but women’s tools, which were traditionally the broom and the vacuum cleaner. It was about looking at power and agency differently, and using women’s ways to create change.’
- Suzy Stiles, worker at the Lenthall Road Workshops.
If you stepped through the ordinary-looking front door of 81 Lenthall Road in the 1970s and 80s, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d stumbled on a covert military operation. In this shabby townhouse down a quiet street in Hackney, East London, you’d find women kitted out in boiler suits, respirator masks, and thick gloves moving around chemicals and heavy-duty equipment. The artist Claudette Johnson, a member of the Lenthall Road Workshop, recalls feeling like ‘guerilla fighters’, ready to ‘change something in society’. The revolution they were planning, however, was a peaceful one: their weapons were cameras, screen-printing materials, and the power of a community united by desire for social change, and they were fighting to ‘change how women were viewed in society’. Posters and other printed material made by the group are currently on display in a small but inspiring exhibition at the Hackney Museum, which traces the history of the feminist Lenthall Road Workshop from its beginnings as a community silkscreen and photography service in 1975, to its collaborations with groups such as Women’s Aid, the Black Lesbian and Gay Support Group, and Hackney Urban Studies Centre throughout the 1980s, and ending with its ultimate loss of funding in 1993.
The workshop was set up as a reaction against the invisibility of women, and, in particular, BAME and disabled women, in male-dominated, white, heteronormative representations of public life. From its inception, the Lenthall Road Workshop focussed on empowering, rather than speaking for, the community – Suzy Stiles notes that the group wanted to give women ‘access to the means to enable their voices to be heard’. To achieve this, the Workshop arranged skill-sharing sessions and offered affordable classes on screen-printing and photography. By learning these skills, ordinary women gained the tools they need to gain both a place for themselves in society and a platform to shout about issues affecting their lives and communities. One section of the exhibition is dedicated to the Hackney Girls Project, a youth initiative set up by the Lenthall Road Workshop to provide a safe space for girls to play sport and hang out with friends, but also to learn practical skills such as self-defence. Crucial to the Hackney Girls Project and the Lenthall Road Workshop’s wider mission was the sense that activism and revolution start at home. To empower women in their everyday lives, the group organised lessons from electricians and other tradespeople; members could gain the skills they needed to improve their own homes and also become more employable. In Eithne Nightingale’s memories of the workshop, she fondly recalls learning to make curtains to liven up her grotty flat.
Perhaps the most striking element of the exhibition is the Lenthall Road Workshop’s total commitment to accessibility and inclusion. Posters that the group created to promote the many feminist festivals, screenings, and workshops they helped organise throughout Hackney consistently proclaim that events support LGBT members, are accessible to wheelchair users, and include crèche facilities. The exhibition includes images publicising a vast range of causes and initiatives, from the Lesbian and Gay Employment Rights’ Black Lesbian and Gay Support Group, to the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and photographer Gonul Zeki’s prints and t-shirts declaring slogans like ‘HETEROSEXUALITY IS NOT NORMAL, IT’S JUST COMMON’. Equal representation was something that the Workshop viewed as an ongoing process: by the mid-1980s, its core group of organisers were all black working-class women, in an effort to encourage more women from this section of the community to participate. In this way, a genuine concern with engaging and empowering local people was consistently at the heart of the Lenthall Road Workshop’s operations. Beyond offering practical skills, it also facilitated a supportive network for working-class women. The exhibition repeatedly reminds us that it functioned as a crucial space of communication and exchange in a pre-internet era, a place where women could share stories, discuss ideas, and build confidence together. One poster promoting Shintaido lessons features a quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road, which encapsulates a key part of the Workshop’s ethos: ‘all these are the powers and privileges of friendship’.
Stepping out from the museum back in to the Hackney of 2019, it’s hard not to feel a sense of frustration. The racist, sexist, and ableist society that the Lenthall Road Workshop challenged seems sadly all too familiar: rising hate crime against minority groups, the hollowing out of London’s youth services, and a racist, chauvinist egotist as our soon-to-be prime minister make it seem like little progress has been made. Conversely, Lenthall Road today feels like a completely different world – now a smart street with houses selling for well over a million pounds, it’s impossible to imagine that this could be the site of radical activism and community action. ‘Women on Screens’ ends on a call to harness digital technology and online platforms in the continued struggle for women’s empowerment and freedom of self-expression, yet it’s worth bearing in mind that in-person activism and print publications such as OOMK, Gal Dem, and Doll Hospital are still essential agents for change in our digital age. ‘Women on Screens’ is an important reminder that small acts can revolutionise our everyday lives, as well as the need – now as much as then – to build bonds in and across the community, share knowledge, and leave no one behind.
Women on Screens: Printmaking, photography and community activism at Lenthall Road Workshop 1970s-1990s, at Hackney Museum, London, between 14 May – 31 August
Words: Lottie Whalen