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New exhibition celebrates female artist who have explored protest, social commentary and identity to ask just how much has changed for women

Feminist artists who have explored protest, social commentary, and identity in their work, will be showcased in a major new contemporary art exhibition at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery this November. In the anniversary year for women’s suffrage, this exhibition asks just how much has changed for women?

Women Power Protest includes bold contemporary artworks from over 55 artists drawn largely from the Arts Council Collection, along with pieces from Birmingham’s collection. The Arts Council Collection National Partnership exhibition looks at the experiences of becoming and progressing as a woman amongst varying degrees of opportunity and oppression in relation to race, class, geography and sexuality.

Through debate, protest and radical endeavours, women fought for their right to voice their opinions in a public realm that systematically silenced women. Women Power Protest showcases female artists whose work has highlighted their personal experiences and continued to push for women’s rights over the last seven decades.

Cotton.com (2002) © Lubaina Himid. Image courtesy Stuart Whipps (photographer) and Spike Island.

Lucy Gunning, Climbing Around My Room, 1993, Video, 7:30 minutes. Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.

Including notable names such as Lucy Gunning, Margaret Harrison, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Sonia Boyce, Susan Hiller, Lubaina Himid, Marion Coutts, Mona Hatoum and Mary Kelly, the exhibition will draw attention to the progress made since the first women were given the right to vote 100 years ago, and the immense challenges women still face today.

A work from the iconic Post-Partum Document series by Mary Kelly (1978/79) is displayed in the exhibition. The 18 slate tablets, resembling miniature Rosetta stones, are the part of a six-year exploration of motherhood and Kelly’s relationship with her son. Meanwhile For the Fallen (2001) by Marion Coutts transports the viewer back to their own school years through a wooden vaulting horse recognisable to many from P.E. lessons. Engraved with the words For the Fallen it turns the object into both a war memorial and a monument to embarrassing childhood experiences.

The exhibition does not shy away from difficult issues. An early work from Sonia Boyce, Mr close-friend-of-the-family pays a visit whilst everyone else is out (1985) is a charcoal drawing which depicts a challenging scene, that explores the abuse of trust experienced by a young woman, and reflects some of Boyce’s concerns about power relationships. Margaret Harrison’s Rape (1978) uses media texts and images to boldly highlight the injustices against women in rape cases.

Four Figures, 1951. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness. Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust.

Marion Coutts, For the Fallen (2001). Photo by Roger Sinek © Marion Coutts.

A work by 2017 Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid – Cotton.com (2002) – uses pattern to explore the conversations that may have taken place at the time of the Cotton Famine between workers in Lancashire’s cotton mills who defended the lives of African slaves in America.

All three works in Claudette Johnson’s Trilogy series (1982-86) form part of the exhibition. The large-scale portraits were created when Johnson was a member of the BLK Art Group in the 1980s in Wolverhampton and her empowering paintings aim to make black women visible in the art world.

Works from the 90s mark the rise in the popularity of female artists at this time. Lucy Gunning’s Climbing Around My Room (1995) was her first video work and is on display in Women Power Protest, alongside Tania Kovat’s Grotto (1995), a playful 2-metre high cave-like structure. Kathy Prendergast’s The End and the Beginning (1996), is a small intricate work in which three generations of human hair are wound around a wooden cotton spool. The theme of identity and heritage continues in Mona Hatoum’s Plotting Table (1998) – a fluorescent green map which viewed in the dark turns the world into a board game designed for territorial wars.

Untitled (Woman’s Identity) ©Angela Kelly.

Birmingham has a history of female protest and the exhibition includes works from the city’s collection. Works from the collection include Louise Bourgeois’ The Bad Mother (1998), Barbara Walker’s Bliss (2012) and Barbara Hepworth’s Four Figures (1951).

Emalee Beddoes-Davis, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Birmingham Museums Trust, said: “This exhibition acknowledges the monumental step taken for women’s rights 100 years ago, but through challenging contemporary artworks it explores some of the experiences common to being a woman in 21st century society, and the progress still to be made. Feminist activism continues as women across the world strive to have their voices heard and this is an ideal time to reflect and showcase these artworks in Birmingham.

“As women, not all the artists featured in this exhibition have gained the recognition they deserve. The exhibition recognises the historic bias in collections and how we have to continue to strive to ensure female artists, and in particular those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, are given the platform they deserve.”

Jill Constantine, Director of the Arts Council Collection, said: “Representing the work of female artists in the Arts Council Collection is an important aspect of our work. Last year, for the first time, we acquired more work by women than men and in this important year for all women, I am delighted that our National Partner, Birmingham Museums Trust is exploring their contribution in this exhibition.”

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