Exhibition Review: Women on Screens – Printmaking, photography and community activism

Print-it-Yourself, courtesy of Hackney Museum

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. 

Claudette Johnson at Lenthall Road Workshop, courtesy of Hackney Museum

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. 

Reclaim the Night (1980), courtesy of Hackney Museum

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’.

Rolling Sisters, courtesy of Hackney Museum

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.

A is for ‘Ackney (c. 1970s), courtesy of Hackney Museum

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

Spotlight: The Gee’s Bend Quilts

Gee’s Bend is a small piece of land, surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. In this location, a community have crafted quilts for decades. In 1966, 150 quilt-makers in the rural area formed the Freedom Quilting Bee co-operative. In light of the Civil Rights Movement, this co-op represented a chance to earn a living from the creative output being generated. This collective approach was led by makers Callie Young and Estelle Witherspoon. However, as Linda Hunt Beckham suggests in her article Quilt Story: Black Rural Women, White Urban Entrepreneurs, And The American Dream there is a tension between the maker’s output and the power dynamics of the contemporary art world. Something the quilters are currently seeking to rectify. Although there has been some financial reimbursement and a larger audience for their work they have also impacted by the shady dealings of art-world gate keeper Bill Arnett. Arnett has historically decided which of the Gee’s Bend quilts have ‘artistic merit’ (unsurprisingly the one’s his family owns make the cut and which spoke reductively to ‘modernist’ sensibilities) and has simplistically painted the community as an ‘unchanging’ backwater. But there has been innovation and engagement with the political nature of their work. The Gee’s Bend tradition has been carried on by women like Loretta P. Bennett, whose mother introduced her to quilt-making. Her contemporary take on the quilt uses bold, sparse geometric shapes, hot pinks and cobalt blues, and materials like corduroy and velveteen, as in the piece ‘Two Sided Geometric Quilt‘. The Gee’s Bend quilts are emblems of a tradition of women’s craft, community creativity and Civil Rights.

I came to realize that my mother, her mother, my aunts, and all the others from Gee’s Bend had sewn the foundation, and all I had to do now was thread my own needle and piece a quilt together.

– Loretta P. Bennett
Housetop and Bricklayer with Bars quilt , ca. 1955 by Lucy T. Pettway, Gee’s Bend, Alabama 
Photo credit: Regan Vercruysse
Blocks and Strips, 2002 by Mary Lee Bendolph, Gee’s Bend, Alabama
Photo Credit: Collection of Tinwood Alliance © 2007

‘I never thought that a quilt would be in the art world. People would think that was beautiful, that something we’d done could be shown all over the world and people get joy out of it’

– Essie Pettway
Housetop Variation with Half-square Blocks, 2003, Gee’s Bend, Alabama
Credit: Collection of Tinwood Alliance © 2007
Pieced Quilt, c. 1979 by Lucy Mingo, Gee’s Bend, Alabama
Denim and Corduroy blocks quilt, n.d. by Flora Moore, Gee’s Bend, Alabama
Photo Credit: Gina Pina
Roman Stripes Variation, 1975, by Willie “Ma Willie” Abrams, Gee’s Bend, Alabama
Photo Credit: Rocor

Editorial #1: Craft Power!

Welcome to the first issue of ‘Decorating Dissidence’, an online magazine dedicated to exploring the political, aesthetic, and conceptual qualities of craft and the decorative arts, from the early twentieth century to the contemporary moment. Casting a spotlight on overlooked artists, who work in experimental or non-traditional modes of making, it will explore the legacy of craft’s hidden histories and the alternative practices of contemporary artists. It asks questions such as: how can craft disrupt the spaces of ‘high’ art and culture? Can the decorative be political? What might a feminist genealogy of decorative art and craft look like?

In this issue, we are delighted to introduce you to the work of three exciting contemporary artists whose work utilises craft and traditional modes of making to confront socio-political issues. Jade French interviews multimedia digital sculptor, writer, and curator Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark, who combines styles ‘[borrowed] from the decorative traditions of Renaissance sculpture’ with digital technology to create striking works that challenge the commodification of race and gender. Similarly, artist Pinkie Macclure draws on traditional methods of making to explore modern day stereotypes: ‘Beauty Tricks’ reworks styles typical of medieval stained-glass narratives to critique the beauty industry’s harmful effects on women and the environment. Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė also disrupts decorative notions of femininity with her unique embroidered metal objects. Mixing domestic and industrial textures, her work highlights the labour-intensive nature of embroidery and challenges the distinction between public and private space. Her work is in dialogue with the post-Soviet landscape of her native Lithuania and the craft of her mother and grandmother.

Lottie Whalen’s article on Geta Brătescu (1926-2018) highlights the work of a wonderfully innovative multidisciplinary artist, who created tactile, colourful worlds that explore the interconnected relationship between art, the body, and everyday life. The staggering length of her career (which lasted right up until her death aged 92) and its combination of modernist influences with conceptual techniques sets up an interesting link with Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012); like Brătescu, Tanning continued to create innovative, timely work that encompassed both twentieth-century avant-garde practices and early twenty-first-century innovation. Working across mediums, both artists decentre notions of modern art and invite us to contemplate alternative genealogies of feminist art. Polly Hember’s review of Tate Modern’s thrilling Tanning retrospective explores the artist’s representation of ‘unknown but knowable states’ across her diverse body of work. Finally, Suzanna Petot’s review of Lee Minora’s recent show ‘White Feminism’ looks at the ways that the actor’s portrayal of tone-deaf stereotypical pop-feminist Becky Harlowe shines a spotlight on how we are all guilty of crafting woke personas. As we work to construct new feminist cultural genealogies, Petot reminds us that is vital to reflect on our own practices and to be mindful of ‘how can we be better allies to our fellow feminists of all backgrounds.’

We also chatted to the brains behind modernist digital humanities project ‘Navigating the Avant-Garde‘ who are bringing Mina Loy’s archive to a whole host of new researchers and unpacking the many strands to her life as an artist.

We warmly encourage submissions from all disciplines – art practitioners, curators, makers, activists, academics, writers – as we strive to break down disciplinary boundaries and find new ways to intervene in feminist art history. Take a look at our Call for Submissions and get in touch: decoratingdissidence@gmail.com.

“Who’s ready for Becky’s Time!”: How Lee Minora’s ‘White Feminist’ Crafts and Deconstructs Identity

Lee Minora. © Kate Raines. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Middle fingers up and pink pussy-hat on – Becky Harlowe (Lee Minora) makes her entrance into the room. She stands tall and smiles with a wide grin as she coos “Don’t be afraid, I mean well…” like a horror movie villain who has just broken into your house. Sporting a perfectly styled blonde wig, hot pink lipstick and three-inch high heels, she tells us to sit back, relax and “watch her make progress”.

Lee Minora is an American theatre-maker, solo-performer, comedian and commentator who “dissects red hot political and feminist issues with scalpel sharp humour and stealthy smarts.”[1] Presented as part of The Sick of Fringe: Care and Destruction three-day festival at the Wellcome Collection in April 2019, Minora’s incredibly witty and uncomfortable show White Feminist does exactly that. First developed during Minora’s residency at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, PA, the show has also toured to San Francisco’s Fury Factory and the Edinburgh Fringe. It is no wonder, then, why Minora was asked to bring the show for its London debut as part of a festival that sought to showcase some of the most exciting voices looking at how the body is in dialogue with a world in pain, societal injustice and systems of oppression

Through her character Becky Harlowe, a well-intentioned but vain talk-show host, Minora beautifully crafts and embodies the quintessential “white-feminist”. To be brief, white feminism is the label given to feminist efforts and actions that uplift white women but that exclude and fail to address issues faced by minority groups, especially women of colour and LGBTQ+ women.[2] Over the course of the hour-long show, Minora simultaneously dissects this identity before our eyes, using audience participation to draw awareness to the problematic behaviours of white feminists. As Harlowe demands us to repeat with her upon returning to the stage, “we are all Beckys today.”

Becky Harlowe’s persona draws direct characteristics from former American daytime talk-show hosts Megyn Kelly and Kathie Lee Gifford, such as her sleek blonde hairdo, constant references to her family and white wine drinking habit. The entire talk-show setting and “live audience” environment was crafty way to hold this critique of mainstream feminism and capitalist liberalism. Minora skilfully incorporates elements of the female talk-show to construct Becky’s character and identity. The “Becky’s Time” set has all she needs: a high table for where she can comment on the important topics, flowers to keep it feminine, a low side table for those more intimate side-segment moments, and a big “B” to remind us all who is the star of the show.  

Throughout the performance Becky speaks in slogans, pulling out all the right words and phrases from the stereotypical, liberal non-intersectional feminist playbook, such as promising that she is always “100% real” on her show and referring to the audience as her fellow “citizen heroes”. She makes an apology for promoting a non-inclusive makeup brand and is devastated to find out viewers did not find it convincing. Becky asks us “Who participated in a march? Who signed an online petition? Who is tired of Brexit?”. No matter our answer, Minora’s skilfully improvised remarks ensures our eyes, and judgement, remain on Becky. Becky took up space at the Women’s March, Becky too suffers from outrage fatigue. Through her performance, she holds up a mirror to contemporary activism and its shortcomings, from the trendiness of protesting and ubiquitous well-meaning online acts to how racism and sexism fall on both sides of the aisle.

These crafted segments of the show continue to weave together the deplorable yet seemingly well-meaning image of Becky in front of us. Does Becky really feel this way or is she a feminist only when convenient?

Lee Minora in White Feminist © John C Hawthorne. Courtesy of Lee Minora.

Then we begin to see something of the ‘real’ Becky behind her TV persona.  She moves to a segment for reading the live twitter feed and we begin to see her distress at the escalating language used by the commenters, starting with honest criticisms tagged with #boycottbecky to increasingly startling remarks promoting violence against women. This prompts Becky into the finest part of her character’s development where we see her inevitably start to break down over her confusion about what she has done wrong – “What do I do? I’m sorry white women voted for Trump! I’m sorry we stole yoga, but I don’t know how to give it back!

We are all laughing at Becky: her narcissism, her ignorance and then ­– silence. In a true moment of weakness Becky discloses her own #metoo trauma. Minora uses this moment to gather our sympathy for Becky and demonstrate her character as both the oppressor and oppressed.

It works brilliantly. We start to feel sorry for Becky, for the traumatic experience she has gone through. Have we been to too harsh in our judgement of Becky? Perhaps this confession is the beginning of her journey towards change and real intersectional feminism. But then Becky goes back to reading the live twitter feed with a returning smile from all the tweeting supporters who commend her bravery and pledge their allegiance to “#Becky’sArmy”. Wearing her pink pussy hat like a crown, Becky announces that she is proud to lead the “#metoo” movement and stands defiantly towards the camera as if ready to “save” the world. That moment of potential enlightenment for Becky is gone.

Minora presents a wonderfully crafted and very convincing embodiment of the problematic and harmful “white feminist.” Her excellent in-character improvisation from audience interaction makes it clear that each performance is its own tailored experience creates a sense of intimacy within the audience and comfortability with Minora, especially as she covers some pretty uncomfortable topics. Minora’s success in White Feminist comes from her ability to both present and dissect a completely believable and recognizable character, who embodies the toxic ignorance inherent in white feminism.

However, there is a danger the show is merely preaching to the choir: a performance with a title such as this is likely to attract those already conscious of the limpness of white feminism. Another criticism is the lack of women of colour directly in the show, other perspectives to this weighty topic. That is something I had wished there was more of, and who knows – perhaps in the future “Becky’s Time” will have some well-needed guests to the conversation about race, gender and privilege.

The importance of this performance is how it acts a reminder that no matter how liberal or feminist or “woke” you think you are – especially white women – there needs to be a constant awareness and rechecking of our privilege: where can we improve and how can we be better allies to our fellow feminists of all backgrounds.

White Feminist was as part of The Sick of Fringe: Care and Destruction three-day festival at the Wellcome Collection in London on 6 -7 April 2019. For more information about the performance and Lee Minora, click here.

Words: Suzanna Petot, a freelance curator and writer based in London.


[1] “Lee Minora: White Feminist – The Sick of the Fringe London 2019”. The Sick of the Fringe.com. Accessed 15 April 2019. http://thesickofthefringe.com/london2019/lee-minora

[2] “White Feminism” Definition. Dictionary.com. Accessed 13 May 2019. https://www.dictionary.com/e/gender-sexuality/white-feminism/


Spotlight: Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė

OBJECTS TO COMPARE. 2009. Iron details, cotton. Cross stitch, drilling

The embroidery works of Lithuanian artist Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė takes texture to a new level. She takes metal as her starting point – buckets, spades, even cars – and stitches into them. Challenging the domestic association with embroidery, these found objects are placed into the public realm. The kitsch cosiness that Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė associates with cross-stitching is given a twist as she pokes through metal gives new life to discarded objects. She draws on a post-Soviet landscape in Lithuania in her work, as she writes on her website “in the postwar years, our grandmothers stitched tablecloths in the villages, and the paths were so decorated, and in the Soviet era, our mothers made crossed cushions and napkins through household lessons”. This intergenerational skill-sharing is then developed in her practice, to question sentimentality and access to embroidery practices. She doesn’t want to make “private kitsch for private interiors” but rather expose the work, patience and mindfulness that goes into the cross-stitch practice. Taking the floral designs from hobby magazines, these “popular culture citations” make us look back at the origins of the techniques. These established traditions recontextualise the objects they adorn – whether that’s on broken gun shells or metal spoons. Imbued with new use, these forgotten objects might tap into a nostalgic aesthetic but actually point us towards history in a new way.

WITH LOVE FROM…”. 2018. WWII FlaK anti-aircraft gun shell. Cross stitch embroidery, drilling.
WITH LOVE FROM…”. 2018. Detail

Every Stick Has Two Ends, 2012. Shovel parts, wood, cotton. Cross-stitch, drilling.
MORNING TRIO. 2014. Metal pan, cotton. Cross-stitch, drilling.
MORNING TRIO. 2014. Detail
Greed, 2012. Metal spoon, cotton, Cross stitch, drilling.
After Party, 2013. Tin can, cotton. Cross-stitch, drilling.
Between City and Country, 2009. Metal bucket, watering can, milk can. Cross-stitch, drilling. 

Words: Jade French

All photos: Modestas Ežerskis.

http://www.severija.lt

Pinkie McClure Makes Stained Glass Sing

Pinkie McClure is an artist using the allegorical power of medieval stained glass as a vehicle for contemporary expression. Stained glass was invented in the 12th century to communicate to a largely illiterate population, its vivid colours having a seductive quality that’s hard to resist. However, its narrative role has been largely abandoned in recent years, which is something she hopes to change by making work that reflects the world around us today.

Artist Statement: On ‘Beauty Tricks’

My goal is to seduce the eye, but crucially, to deal with contemporary subject matter, telling darkly humorous stories from modern life.  When I started work on ‘Beauty Tricks’ I wanted to make something beautiful. This led me to question interpretations of beauty and immediately a multitude of thorny contradictions popped up.

I decided to explore the way the beauty industry affects us and our environment. The central figure is based around a classic madonna, but she has liposuction lines on her torso and  hypodermic needles and scalpels adorning her halo. Her nipples have been censored. Two little girls gaze up at her beautiful pink frock from a grey world of abandoned plastic containers. Above her, medieval scales traditionally used to symbolise the ‘weighing of souls’ refer to  the long-running L’Oreal ad ‘worth it, not worth it’. A woman fires a gun at a mirror, smashing it to smithereens. To her left, a ‘kindly’ grandmother knits a web of Barbie dolls and to her right is a bulimic Rapunzel. The palm trees refer to the palm oil industry, the roses symbolise feminine beauty. At the top, Satan is hopping across the towers of Oxbridge with a pile of books heaped on his back, stealing all the knowledge while the women are distracted.

Other work:

‘Landfill Tantrum’ (2013)
Self-portrait Dreaming of Portavadie (2019)
‘The Storm’ (2017)
‘Stop Go.’ (2015)
Rewilding at the Clootie Tree (2016)

https://www.pinkiemaclure.net

Geta Brătescu: The Dance of Form

At the 2017 Venice Biennale’s Romanian Pavilion, Geta Brătescu’s exhibition ‘Apparitions’ cemented her status as a rising star on the international art scene. Aged ninety-one, Brâtescu was something of an unusual art world darling, yet she was well-known in her native Romania for a rich, multidisciplinary body of work that she would develop up until her death in September 2018.

Geta Brătescu: The Dance of Form

Surreal chats with Aleksandra Kingo

Aleksandra Kingo takes hyper-real photographs that hinge on the surreal. Her influences feel like they take away from the likes of 70s fashion and New Wave cinema, with a generous helping of pop-culture in-between. Whether its commercial work, personal or editorial, Kingo’s images pop off the page (or screen). Unique, colourful and unmistakably hers, these juxtapositions will transport you. We caught up with her to find out what makes this designer tick.  Surreal chats with Aleksandra Kingo