It’s not every day you approach a room full of art enthusiasts with a tray of breast and vagina shaped cupcakes in one hand, and marzipan tampons in another. However, this is exactly what was asked of me on the opening reception of Sweet ‘Art’s most recent pop-up exhibition. ‘SHE’, as it was appropriately titled, explored the themes of femininity, feminine identity, and issues faced by women locally and internationally. The exhibition worked as an international affair rallied by London’s Sweet ‘Art, which included the collaboration of galleries Pink Monster (Texas, USA) and Sao La (Saigon, Vietnam). Over the event’s two day period, replications of the same curated works were exhibited simultaneously at all three locations. SHE’s London location, or ‘SHE HQ’ if you will, was housed in a stunning two-story Victorian warehouse on Tanner Street, as a part of the Perform Gender Festival hosted by Ugly Duck. The building itself was a work of art, with wood panelled flooring and quirky strips of coloured flamingo wallpaper. Although not a classically feminine building, it had character, and worked as the perfect location to house the works of over 60 artists.
At its core, SHE explored the idea of what it means to be a woman. Whilst some artists chose to celebrate notions of femininity in our society, others critiqued them. Regardless, the exhibition undoubtedly felt like a safe space for women to express any and every one of their thoughts on the matter. Female sexuality and empowerment was perhaps one of the most prevalent topics of discussion. Many artists pieces worked to celebrate the female form (amongst other things) – those of which included Peter D’Alessandri’s ‘Arrangement on Red Carpet’ and Laura New’s ‘#Freethenipple’. In a world where there are so many restrictions and limitations on the female body, I’m not afraid to say that it was good to see a few dozen ‘free nipples’. Whether one was staring up at you from the ground (in the case of Seana Wilson’s boob pile – ‘Cairn O Mam’) or being shoved into your mouth covered in icing, there sure was a hell of a lot of them.
Two pieces that I found quite extraordinary were Seana Wilson’s ‘Cairn O Mam’ and Marnie Scarlet’s ‘Vagball’. The two works, despite being completely different in shape and medium, had a strikingly similar effect on me. On one hand, Seana Wilson’s ‘Cairn O Mam’ consisted of 20-30 odd plaster cast ceramic breasts that were positioned in a somewhat neatly arranged pile on the ground of the venue. On the other hand, Marnie Scarlet’s ‘Vagball’ was a large inflatable vagina – imposing, strong and bold in colour. Both pieces begged to be acknowledged and unapologetically made female sexuality the topic of discussion – a topic that many people may automatically shy away from. They were clever in the way that they incorporated elements of surprise, curiosity and purpose. And, as a result, it was impossible to walk into a room without your focus automatically being drawn to these two pieces.
(Above) Seana Wilson’s ‘Cairn O Mam’, (Below) Marnie Scarlet’s ‘Vagball’
Whilst a wide variety of themes explored by SHE artists felt all too familiar to me – such as gender based stereotypes and expectations, the pressure of beauty standards imposed on women, menstruation and contraception (the list goes on) – there were also other themes, like loss, that I could not yet fully comprehend. Deeply personal pieces like Deborah Griffin’s ‘Mothership Connection: artist, artist’s daughter, artist’s uterus’ truly struck a chord with me. Deborah explained that the uterus in her photo is in fact her own. The effort to which her and her family went to legally obtaining it and transporting it are extraordinary – everything from bike-riding through London with it carefully balancing it on the handlebars, to it unexpectedly not fitting in their fridge.
Many thanks to Deborah and her family for sharing their story with me.
Artist Deborah Griffin and artwork (‘Mothership Connection: artist, artist’s daughter, artist’s uterus’)
SHE, however, was not solely focused on themes involving women, but it was also greatly focused on international connections. The collaboration between galleries Pink Monster and Sao La also allowed for more minor collaborations to take place between solo artists. Here, 5 artists from the UK were selected by Sweet ‘Art and paired up with 5 artists from either Vietnam or the USA. The aim of the collaboration was for each pair to create an artwork across continents without ever meeting in person, in a celebration of international connectedness and difference. Although the artist’s often struggled to work around the time differences and constraints of technology based communication, the collaboration was ultimately a very rewarding experience, one that undoubtedly paid off. What I can say personally (as a facilitator of one of the collaborations) is that the experience of discussing different artistic styles and appreciating cultural differences allowed for, at least for me, a better understanding of the experiences of women on an international level, and art as a whole.
In conclusion, we are living in a tricky period of time where the change we as a society are demanding is not physically obtainable. It is no longer about passing new laws, but instead, about trying to change the way people think about things. Through new wave feminism and the current fight for civil rights, the only way in which we can provoke change is to educate ourselves and each other on matters of discrimination and inequality. Even in some small way, events like SHE help to do that.
SHE successfully combined art, femininity, and international connectedness in an exhibition which was both inclusive and fun. Between the company and the free booze (cheers for that The Five Points Brewery) it was hard not to enjoy and genuinely appreciate what the exhibiting artist’s had to offer. Everything I’ve mentioned and more will be included in our soon to be released hard backed archive documentation of the entire SHE process.
Written by Sweet ‘Art’s Melina Payne