I learnt a lesson today about feminism; particularly about white feminism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always learning; I always try to be open to learning. I try to accept that the more I know, the more I know nothing, in everything I do. I try hard at this; I’m always making mistakes. Sometimes I’m more open to accepting I’ve made a mistake than others. Sometimes I can’t admit it at all, but today I really learnt something important and I want to admit it openly.
Sweet ‘Art was and continues to be something that I have put my all in to. Along with Charlotte, I have worked endless hours with no pay. I have borrowed money for Sweet ‘Art and lent money to it, to ensure every show was right, back when it wasn’t able to sustain itself. I have asked good, capable people deserving of fair pay to work for free, which is hard and which they have done. I have endured abuse, from white men who feel we leave them out due to our values and mission to privilege the voices of women and those marginalised in the arts. I have suffered abuse from artists who are frustrated that despite our tireless efforts, we just somehow didn’t get it right for them. I have also endured criticism from artists who we have not been able to accept into our shows, as we keep artistic standards very high, despite the difficulty we experience in rejecting artists. We hate excluding anyone but we are passionate about good accomplished art and about critical intersectional feminist thinking. We don’t just exhibit the work of everyone, despite this being a way that we could be more financially stable. Of course we have also endured nasty misogynistic abuse from trolls on the BBC online, but that was actually quite fun!
Despite it all I have kept going because although we always have so much to learn, I always felt it was doing something important for activism, for the arts and for women. I really truly believed in it.
Sweet ‘Art launched in 2012 on International Women’s Day with Show #1. I decided I wanted to create an art event that celebrated women’s day as there were none in London at the time, at least that I could find to attend. I wanted it to be a show that addressed women’s issues and I wanted to make vagina cupcakes. That was it, that was my plan. I think we did well; over 400 people came out to the opening, everyone was buzzing; we had booze sponsors and press interest, but we also fucked up some. I only made white vagina cupcakes as it didn’t cross my mind to make vagina cupcakes that may belong to women of colour, and the idea that not all women have vaginas, or that not everyone who has a vagina is a woman was nowhere in my consciousness at all at that time. Not at all. My black friends didn’t mention the cupcakes, the utter lack of my even considering a skin like theirs. A skin that wasn’t like mine. An experience that wasn’t like mine. I noticed this myself half way through the event as I proudly handed them out, I was mortified. On INTERNATIONAL women’s day!
I still make the vag cupcakes for some of our events; some women do have vaginas and we like the cakes. I make them in all different skin tones now and froth when I order the fondant icing online, with the off-pink being categorised as ‘skin colour’ and the brown as ‘teddy bear brown’. NOT ALL SKIN IS PINK! But I was there once. I did that once.
So that was one lesson out of many but the one I want to share now, like most lessons well learnt had to come at the expense of my feelings, not that of anyone else’s. Ironically, considering the lesson.
It was a lesson learnt through realising that there can be a type of feminism that only serves a certain type of person. That it can be well-meaning but it comes from a place of privilege and a complete lack of outward-looking; a lack of acknowledging one’s privilege and keeping it in check; a lack of consideration that what is good for you may not be good for others; a lack of realising that feminism is about all women (and men coz ya know patriarchy sucks for us all right?). That if it doesn’t serve us all then it doesn’t serve any of us. I knew this before, but I’m not sure I totally KNEW it. I always felt anyone calling themselves a feminist was a good thing; that any type of feminism is a good thing; any action in its name is good. Lets not in-fight, I always thought.
As I have noted we struggle as an organisation, we are a feminist not-for-profit arts organisation, I mean of course we would struggle, the struggle is the point right?
Well when one of our interns pointed out that an arts organisation run by two white guys, on our doorstep in Shoreditch were calling for artists to take part in their next Nasty Women exhibition, that will take place this time on International Woman’s Day 2018, I struggled with this news, actually my heart sank. The last Nasty Women exhibition this organisation hosted as far as I can tell was a great success in terms of turnout. As far as I know all artists are exhibited for free. I also believe that all art that is submitted will be exhibited.
Firstly if all artists exhibit for free the money must come from somewhere and this organisation, that sprung up a couple of years ago seems to have a lot of it. Good for them I say! They also seem to have good contacts, good sponsorship deals and even give profits for the Nasty Women shows to charity. Good for them I say! I’m sure they work hard but I know for a fact that they won’t have had to work as hard as us and they will have had privileges we haven’t…. but ya know….good for them!
…but unfortunately it will be bad for us. Despite the fact that we have been doing this for years, that we are women that live the feminist cause (I write on the subject and lecture on integrating feminist intersectional thinking into art psychotherapy practice. I have worked front line with women who are survivors of all that the patriarchy has had to throw at them and been a casualty myself.) Despite the fact that we curate seriously, we don’t just exhibit everyone, because a naïve belief that all art by any women is feminist art is dangerous in terms of activism. We don’t just pop #feministart next to all of our insta posts and hope it makes it so. We actually do a fair bit of thinking.
Despite all of this, of course artists will not pay to exhibit their work with us, so we can cover our costs, when the big boys are doing it for free.
So…the irony that a rich white male run organisation will host a ‘feminist’ exhibition on International Women’s Day and sink and ultimately silence an actual women run feminist not-for-profit arts organisation in the process, does not escape us. You have got to love that patriarchy right?! In fact this organisation seems to be hosting quite a few ‘feminist’ exhibitions now, it seems to have become their thing.
Nasty Women was and will be curated by a woman, it isn’t all men at the helm as I’m sure they will argue. I am of course glad a young women is interested in feminism and wants to host this show, but surely I can be forgiven for being slightly irked when I read her instagram posts, naïvely asking if people have been watching the news lately about Harvey Weinstein. “It’s so relevant right now. (heart eyes emoji) It’s important in society today and bringing this to London, it’s important to me that women have their voices heard”
It’s so relevant right now…. Let’s listen to women’s voices….. Well listen to this….
This is what privilege does, it makes you feel everything is yours for the taking and every thought you have is the first; that you are doing it all for the right reasons and that you will save everyone with your idea. It makes you throw money at a fashionable skinny white girl version of a ‘movement’ that actually silences the voices of some women, of the people who have been slogging away for years at this so “relevant now” cause, and it enables you do it all without even noticing, because you haven’t looked further than your own instagram likes, read a book or acknowledged the shoulders on which you stand that laid the foundations for you to do it all in the first place.
So as I pondered the situation, of two white men taking our thing for the lols, it suddenly hit me, all of a sudden I KNEW, something that before I had only known, and I felt a bit ashamed.
I knew that this is what it feels like to be silenced by your lack of privilege by people who have that privilege and just don’t see it, in the name of a movement you thought could do no wrong. I wondered if at Sweet ‘Art we ever did that. I wondered if I ever did that. I thought about women of colour who talk about white feminism. I thought about trans women and sex workers who talk about feeling excluded from a certain type of feminism.
Its not the same, I’m in no way saying it’s the same but it none the less made me KNOW a bit more.
We may or may not host our own women’s day show again in 2018, but what ever we do, we will do it with this knowledge and if we continue we will continue to honour our values. We will try harder to reach out more, to look out more, and we will continue our dedication to partnership. We will try and build stronger relationships with other feminist arts organizations, particularly those that are run by women of colour and trans women. We will do better, because we have a lot to learn.
I’m sure the Nasty Women IWD show will be a great success. I hear from lots of sources that the curation and organization of the last one was, well, interesting! It takes experience to get it right, it takes years of getting it wrong, and I hear the curator is very new to feminist art show curation, so let’s give her time. If only she had a women run feminist arts organization with years of curating experience, just on the doorstep that could have and would have been happy to help!