Archive

Tag Archives: feminism

Mo Mowlam (for Kelly)

I’ll admit I know less about Mo Mowlam than I should. So, I suspect, do you.

A classic example of an influential woman, whose wide-reaching and astounding achievements were overshadowed by the personalities of bullish men in positions of power.

Mo, who in her younger years worked for Tony Benn, became the MP for Redcar in 1987 and appointed to the Shadow Cabinet in 1992 under then Labour Leader John Smith. Following Smith’s death, she became the principal organiser of Tony Blair’s leadership campaign, and after his successful election to PM in 1997, was given the role of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. At the time, this was a huge task to undertake, the Troubles were still ongoing and the devastating Omagh bombing in August ’98 illustrates just how inflammable the situation still was. Mo approached the challenge head-on and unafraid, credited by contemporaries as “the catalyst that allowed politics to move forward which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. She cut through conventions and made difficult decisions that gave momentum to political progress.” (Peter Hain 2005)

There’s no doubt that Mo’s work in Ireland during this time was key to the peace process which followed; she ensured Sinn Fein were included in the dialogue leading up to the agreement, helped to restore an IRA ceasefire and visited the notorious Maze prison to talk with loyalist prisoners (many convicted murderers) in an attempt to connect with the ordinary people whose lives her work would be affecting. By all accounts, her ability to empathise and to forge a relationship with the ordinary people involved in the situation, particularly the women, opened up an avenue of dialogue to her which remained closed to others. It was instrumental to her role of negotiator, and is why many people are convinced that the peace process would not have happened without her.

Her part in the development of the agreement began to be deliberately overshadowed by Blair as the links with Unionist parties began to sour. Around this time she remarked to then-US President Bill Clinton: “Didn’t you know? I’m the new tea lady around here”, a clear indication of how she felt to be sidelined, as the men took the glory. In 1999 she was replaced in her role by Peter Mandelson and demoted to Cabinet Office Minster, not exactly deserved recognition for a woman of such astounding achievements.

It is notable how during this process the male position gave with one hand and took away with the other, depending on how it served them best. At the time of her death, Blair rightly said “It is no exaggeration to say she transformed the politics not just of Northern Ireland itself but crucially of relations between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, and it was this transformation that created the culture in which peace-making could flourish … suddenly nationalist, republican and Catholic Ireland had every preconception of the English up-ended and rendered out of date. She didn’t have to talk about equality. She exuded it, naturally and with an absence of affectation that was marvellous to behold … she bowled everyone over.” However in April this year, on the anniversary of the agreement, her name was noticeable in its  absence. Not a single mention for the woman who unlocked the door for the future of peace in Ireland?

Mo’s stepdaughter Henrietta Norton, a filmaker, wrote in an article earlier this year of how she has been trying to get a story about Mo commissioned as a film piece to “celebrate and explore her legacy for contemporary women”. Responses ranged from “no one would be interested” to, we “couldn’t see who would watch it”. Erm…yes they would, I would, and so would most other women I know. It highlights the level to which her role in history has been degraded and overshadowed by the actions of men who did less. A common theme throughout history, and one which we must continually try to combat.

My friend Kelly asked me to produce a portrait of Mo for an exhibition in Dartford celebrating the 100 year anniversary of votes for women. In wondering how to portray her, I instinctively wanted to avoid any obvious signs of the illness for which she is sadly so well remembered, but which must not define her. A number of people said they didn’t recognise her without her thinning hair. My point exactly; I wouldn’t have either. But I will now. I hope people can look closely at her face without the signs of her illness and see in her eyes the determination and bravery of a truly remarkable woman in history.

Produced for Stephen Oliver’s Votes for Women exhibition at his gallery in Dartford. Pencil on paper.

Installation View. Photo: Stephen White

Installation View. Photo: Stephen White

I’ve always liked Sarah Lucas. I both envy her clever creative wit and admire her ability to piss a lot of people off just through honest artistic communication. To offend meaningfully can be an inert skill in itself, often misused and derided by many but undoubtedly a significant catalyst in the creation of conversation, dialogue, debate and sometimes venomous expulsions. Tracey Emin, whose very name has become a dirty word among some cliques, is a contemporaneous example of this type of artwork; honest, too honest for most, but her works are the results of sad and poignant catharsis, sifting chaotically and urgently through the memories of a troubled childhood and beyond. Sarah Lucas, although addressing similarly taboo notions of sex and society, does so with far less heart-rending effect. Her works intend to provoke, flinging an upturned middle finger at critics and misogynists. Viewing them feels a bit like how I would imagine watching the Sex Pistols live would; a vicious, funny but unsettlingly serious piss-take.

Lucas’s recent retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery placed many older, familiar pieces alongside her current offerings. Well-worn but still fabulous classics such as Au Naturel quietly stole the thunder of recently completed wall prints, but in general the work continues with the subject matter and treatment she became famous for in the 80’s and 90’s during her time as a key member of the YBAs. Lucas treats her materials as punk musicians treated their lyrics; their presentation harsh and biting but ultimately forcing you, the recipient, to confront uncomfortable representations of a very everyday thing: sex, sexuality, the human body (or in the punks’ case, political and societal affairs).

Au_Naturel, 1994

Au_Naturel, 1994

It’s interesting what still makes us gasp today. In a tale as old as time (even beauty & the beast were at it in the end) it’s still sex which raises eyebrows and fuels the raging psychotic fury of Tea-Party loons, with half a second of nipple at the Superbowl inciting the blisteringly outraged complaints of half a million Americans. So despite our entirely natural urges and the booming global porn industry indicating that perhaps we should just give in to this one, it’s still, amazingly, a prime subject to ignite controversy. In some pieces Lucas uses skulls and teeth to represent the vagina, tapping into a commonly held belief that men are in fact afraid of it and highlighting the fact it is rarely positively portrayed. She’s certainly not the only person to call attention to this, feminists across the world have been saying it since the 60’s and actress Evan Rachel Wood recently made a similar complaint about public attitudes to the vagina following the editing out of a scene from her new film in which her character received oral sex “Accept that women are sexual beings, accept that some men like pleasuring women,” she said. “Accept that women don’t just have to be f**ked and say thank you. We are allowed and entitled to enjoy ourselves”. Facebook reactions to my sharing the artwork of avant-garde artist Casey Jenkins proved to be similar, consisting of a surprising (to me at least) mix of disgust, shock, anger and hilarity at the use of the vagina in art. Lucas challenges and mocks our repressed and discriminative stereotypes of sexuality through often brutal parody. Teeth as vaginas; scared of it now? A huge wall of penises; shocked yet? She cleverly references the insulting colloquialisms of popular culture with objects such as fried eggs and kebabs, transforming the slang from verbal to visual. Through forcing us to confront images which may embarrass us or which address negative stereotypes through distasteful representation, such as the sloppy fish for a vagina, she desensitises us to the very ordinary reality of our own bodies. Her less explicit works continue to explore sexuality, with humour abounding in pieces such as the headless self-portrait, which I at first took to be a balaclava, the exposed nipples staring brazenly at the viewer like the squinty eyes of a post-party raver.

Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992

Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992

Self-portrait

Self-portrait

My trip around the exhibition concluded with overhearing a fellow visitor whisper ‘is she a lesbian?’. I was (perhaps naively) surprised to hear this as her sexual preference had not even come close to crossing my mind, although the fact it came up at all serves only to hammer the point she is making about sexual stereoptying and association. Because although her work deals with this topic, it is not, unlike Emin’s work, primarily concerned with the emotional aspect surrounding sex, or even about relationships in any way. It is almost primeval in its exploration of our sexual selves and speaks to me virtually exclusively about social stigma and attitude. The day a carefully situated kebab fails to cause offence is the day our society will have finally learnt a valuable lesson. But what would Lucas teach us then?

At 11.30am last Sunday morning, when by all rights I should have been curled up in a duvet having my brain comfortably numbed by T4, I was instead watching a large man have ink punched into the skin under his chin with what initially looked like a shark’s tooth tied to a piece of wood. I witnessed this bizzare sight at the Great British Tattoo Show, being held for the first time this year at the Olympia in Hammersmith.

I was soon informed by the boyfriend that this was the traditional form of Maori tattooing, using sharpened albatross bone, dipped in ink, tied to a stick and tapped with another piece of wood to break the skin and insert the dye. Although a bit of a self-confessed tattoo lover, I admit this was a pain barrier too far for me. Not so for many others, though, who rushed to get their names down for the next booking. The Maori tattooing was one of the better stalls at the convention, which was overall sadly disappointing and had a cheap, amateur and chucked together boot-fair aura to it, but did spark some interesting topics of debate.

I was struck at this ‘convention’ by the seemingly unshakeable bond between the tattoo sector and half-naked women writhing around in their underwear. The ‘entertainment’ seemed a bit gratuitous. Actually, very gratuitous. Whilst watching some young, clearly inexperienced girls on stage trying to dance seductively and failing miserably, I got a familiar uncomfortable feeling. That same feeling of discomfort I got whilst walking through the red light district in Amsterdam in broad daylight – that this was seedy, surreal and above all, awkward. It’s a shame, as the tattoos themselves were fabulous. I am by no means a prude, but I wished that the girls would wear shorts and strappy tops and just be the canvas for the tattoos, without all the sleaze. It gave me feminist rumblings in my soul which I couldn’t ignore. If only the tattoos were about the tattoos, whether they are on young or old, man or woman, breast or beer belly.

                 The whole idea of woman as sex object is entrenched in this atmosphere though – one of the most popular types of tattoo is the pin-up girl, or the naked woman with the impossibly big breasts. These types of tattoo were displayed by men long before it became acceptable in modern society for women to take part in this culture. They could have and still could be seen as, men attempting to possess the image of woman by having them permanently represented on their body. When do you ever see ‘pin up men’ tattoos? Ironically, a Google search for that exact phrase gave the top result as ‘pin up girl tattoos for men’. It may be tradition, but surely this just perpetuates the now hopefully outdated view that the purpose of the female body is purely to satisfy the male gaze.

The flip side of this argument, of course, is that this is the empowerment of women and the reclaiming of our bodies. Women who choose what they want to do with their bodies and have pride in who they are and their femininity. Absolutely. To be on an equal footing with men in this culture, we should be able to produce art on our bodies in the same way and be viewed in the same way. You could say this has improved somewhat as tattooing has become more socially acceptable, but the idea of the tattooed woman as loose and trashy is ultimately still portrayed today. Tattooing is still seen as a predominantly male experience and women who have tattoos are seen as trying to be like men. This association antagonises every conservative echelon of society and inevitably results in women with tattoos automatically tagged as ‘bad girls’. A book on the philosophy of tattooing by Robert Arp discusses this idea and looks at how “The idea of tattooed women as sexually promiscuous or deviant remains an enduring misogynist stereotype”. I agree, and by linking tattooing to naked women and seductive ‘seven veils’ style dancing, we only serve to perpetuate that view.

So why isn’t tattooing given more credit as an art form? Why is it forced to showcase itself in this ‘alternative’ way? I know the answer really, it’s art elitism. It’s Brian Bloody Sewell. In my view, tattooing has to be one of the most technically skilled art forms. The artists get one chance to produce. No rubbers, no new pieces of canvas. They have to get it right that first time or you are marked with a bad tattoo forever. I know this does happen, inevitably, but there are many great tattoo artists out there who create stunning pieces of art on the canvas of the human body day in, day out.

                

Tattoo has become an art form in itself, but in the same way as graffiti art has, ie. it is a self-confessed art form. Before the Banksy explosion brought graffiti art to the masses, it was a separatist movement, with equal animosity between the artists and the art establishment. In many ways it still is, but you now often see these works in gallery settings, something you rarely or never see with tattooing. Perhaps this is how they want it, and in many ways I don’t blame them. Why should they bow to the elitists? Why ‘sell out’?

But I would love to see a coming together of the art world and the tattoo world. Throw off the biker clichès and the stereotypical prosecco-filled private views and merge together to create a new form of display. Somewhere between Gormley’s static figures and Emin’s humanism, with the tattoo culture at its centre. With the body as canvas we are the art. We are both the messenger and the recipient – from Us to Us. When you look at it like that, what could be more empowering?