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  • Writer's pictureMegan Stevenson

Women in Revolt! A photography review of the new Tate Britain exhibition

Exhibiting the work of over 100 artists, Women in Revolt! is an expansive tour of women’s activism in the UK from 1970-1990 through the lens of artistic production.

To the left of the exhibition entrance, a poster by See Red Women’s Workshop sets the tone for what is to come: a woman’s mouth hangs wide, stereotypical figures of womanhood falling from it. The word PROTEST underlines this inner purging of the bride, the housewife, and the pageant contestant among others. Posters by See Red Women’s Workshop punctuate the entire exhibition, and this theme of purging tradition, of women demanding something better, of protest, is at the core of the works on display.

See Red Women’s Workshop, Protest, 1974, photo by author

This review is focused on the photography in Women in Revolt!. Photography uniquely straddles the worlds of documentary, art, technical experimentation, and imagination. Photographers used all these aspects to expresses the desires of women, take an activist stance, and further women’s rights.

The first room in the exhibition explores what sparked women to engage with activism and fight for women’s rights in the early 1970s. Anne Beans’ series Heat presents a woman trapped in nine frames, seemingly nude and on fire. The close up of the woman’s face, gasping for air, and her hands pushing against the glass, as if trying to escape the photo, produce an incredible claustrophobia. The moving of her body in the flames speak to a fury that is impossible to contain. In the context of this room the image seems to cry out in fury at the experience of women, and their desperation for change.

Anne Bean, Heat, 1974-1977, photo by author

Documentary images also prominently feature in the first room, contrasting the inner turmoil shown in Bean’s experimental photography techniques with a real-world view of the people in the protests and strikes of the 1970s. Format Photographers Agency’s images from the Grunwick photo processing lab strike show Jayaben Desai leading the strike, highlighting the importance of workers’ rights in the context of women’s activism, and emphasising that this exhibition is not only about ‘women’s rights’, but about all form of activism women rallied around in this period.

Format Photographers Agency (Sheila Gray, Val Wilmer), Photographs from the Grunwick Strike, 1976, photo by author

The second room in the exhibition focuses on art which helped women reclaim agency in their lives, all displayed with the soundtrack of Gina Birch’s 3 Minute Scream resounding through the space. A large piece in this section was Jo Spence’s Beyond the Family Album, in which Spence reworked the traditional ‘family album’ to consider the ways we present our-selves and our lives, and the different impressions these can make on people. On one page she presents us with three portraits of herself, and questions how one could truly represent her character or personality when each is so different, taken in a different context and imbued with different meanings, from the romantic to the professional to the medical. Even more relevant in an age of social media and constant self-construction for external consumption, Spence’s piece was a thoughtful and humorous take on women’s presentation.

Jo Spence, section from Beyond the Family Album, 1978-1979, photo by author

The third room tackled subcultures, from Neo Naturists to queer punks, and how these groups challenged conventional attitudes, and this flowed into the fourth room, where the topic was Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp.

This room had the potential to do so much more. An entire exhibition could easily be dedicated to Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp (in fact, it has been. Greenham Women Everywhere travelled the UK in 2019). The camp, which lasted from 1981-2000, was not only a protest against nuclear weapons, but also produced a multifaceted and generation defining culture, especially as a key part of the history of lesbian rights in the UK. The documentary photographs in this room were striking but remained distant. They did not pull me into the distinctiveness of the camp’s culture and community.

Format Photographers Agency (Raissa Page), Dancing on the Silos at Dawn on New Year’s Day, 1983, photo by author

This speaks to a wider stopping point in the exhibition: a show covering so many areas can only scratch the surface of each. I know about Greenham Common, and so felt this acutely here, but it is also true of the other protests exhibited. The show requires wider reading if you really want to learn about the activism these women were engaged with, and how this activism played out. The art gives a taste of the contemporary conflicts, but not the whole story.

The next two rooms in the exhibition highlighted black feminist art in the UK, especially that of the British Black Arts Movement, founded in the early 1980s. What I really appreciated in these rooms was the opportunity to learn more about the community and network of Black artists, and events that were being held to support their work. Tender portraits by Brenda Agard show her sitters closely cropped in a moment of unselfconsciousness. Displayed next to one another, sitters facing each other, it was as if the women photographed were sharing a moment of mutual contemplation. These images were displayed in the first exhibition by the Black Women Artists Collective, titled Mirror Reflecting Darkly, held at Brixton Art Gallery in 1985.

Brenda Agard, Untitled from the series Portraits of Black Women, 1985, photo by author

The final section, titled ‘THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS SOCIETY’, has a text panel reflecting on the impact of Thatcher’s Conservative government on the art world. Photography dominates one particular part of this final section, and that is the area covering queer artists. I’ll confess, queer women’s photography is my area of expertise, and so I had a lot of fun here. Icons of queer photography such as Del LaGrace Volcano, Ingrid Pollard, and Jill Posener all feature, and I was excited to see work by Tessa Boffin on display, who is a master of staged compositions and narrative pieces. Her AIDs-epidemic focused series Angelic Rebels, Lesbians and Safer Sex presented the narrative of an angel discovering safe sex with her partner through a series of striking studio compositions.

Rosy Martin’s series Transforming the suit: what does a lesbian look like? was a brilliant sartorial satire of suit-wearing culture and what is interpreted as lesbian fashion, playing on stereotypes both within and outside of the lesbian community. Like PROTEST, the first poster in the exhibition of the woman purging womankind’s stereotypes, Martin’s series of photographs is an act of freeing herself from the various connotations of dress.

Rosy Martin, Transforming the suit: what does a lesbian look like? Part V: The Madonna The Flirt The Femme, 1987, photo by author

The hidden gem of this section was Poulomi Desai’s Our Asian Lesbian Gay Black bodies, Our Tea, Our Chintz. One of the images in this series shows Desai and her girlfriend underneath their bed canopy, enjoying afternoon tea and asserting their playful presence within a historic context of British colonialism. This image is subtle, smaller than most on display, intimate and yet deeply political. In an exhibition full of loud activism, this image was a quiet moment of relief. Desai’s work is also featured in Room 3 of the exhibition, where the text panel introduces her to us as the cofounder of Shakti, the UK’s first South Asian LGBTQ+ campaign group, and a member of the punk band Fag Ash. In a busy and eclectic exhibition, I appreciated being able to see multiple sides of a photographer’s work, and learning about them as an activist beyond their art.

Poulomi Desai, Our Asian Lesbian Gay Black bodies, Our Tea, Our Chintz, 1989, photo by author

The women in this exhibition communicated their activism through art, but they also brought it into all the other areas of their lives. They lived as activists and produced art. The throughline of this exhibition is the purging of an old way of life, and the fight for something better. This brings dark and difficult topics to the surface, but also allows us to revel in the community that brought about change which continues to impact us today.

If only for the photography, I would say go to this exhibition. Even better, there are paintings, prints, textiles, sculptures, film, and multimedia experiences we haven’t touched on in this review that together with the photography on display produce an inspiring overview of women’s activism.

Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990 runs at the Tate Britain from 8 November 2023 to 7 April 2024.

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