The Home Strike exhibition at the L’etrangere gallery in Shoreditch brings together four women artists as they trace feminism from the 1970s to our contemporary political scene. While distinct in medium and style, each artist subverts gender norms, producing artwork that challenges what it means to be a woman, then and now.
Paula Chambers created the exhibition’s largest and most striking piece of art work: Domestic Front is a barricade built out of mismatched vintage furniture, and protected by gun bearing women, from children, soldiers and even Princess Leia. Chambers is also responsible for Peter Rabbit-esque ink drawings that look as though they were ripped out from your favourite children’s book, until upon closer inspection you realize that they all depict female characters abusing or murdering their children. The stark contrast between the delicacy of the drawings and their violent content results in a harsh realization that even evokes feelings of guilt for initially finding the drawings charming.
On this theme, Chambers also created shanks out of kitchen utensils and brightly coloured tights. The most shocking element of this piece is how pretty it is; you find yourself wanting one until realizing that they are, in fact, weapons. By creating weapons out of domestic items, and making them look desirable, Chambers expertly challenges what we think about when we think ‘woman.’ Kitchens and domesticity, while made up to be appealing, have the power to be dangerous: perhaps an apt metaphor for women today.
Malgorzata Markiewicz created The Resistance Kitchen, a home made cooking tutorial made up of poisonous ingredients, with delicate tea towels to match. Similarly to Chambers, Markiewicz tea towels looked incredibly sweet. Upon finding out that the flowers and mushrooms they depicted were lethal, we were taken aback. This artist did well in subverting our preconceptions of women; why do we expect work created by a woman to be innocent? The reactions evoked by Markiewicz’s art have her audience questioning how we view women – and leaves us pleased with being proven wrong.
Su Richardson creates crocheted and embroidered work, such as Burnt Breakfast, turning feminine domesticity on its head. By taking a typically feminine craft, depicting domestic scenes such as breakfast and sandwiches, but then burning the breakfast and placing faces of babies within the sandwiches, Richardson threads a dark twist through domestic life. Richardson is also responsible for crocheted bleeding and lactating breasts, and a crotched female body with her heart ripped out. Like Chambers and Markiewicz, Richardson’s work is beautiful, despite presenting graphic and implied violent images.
Finally, artist and activist CANAN’s video of her lactating breasts, along with dripping sound effects, was so striking in its candidness. It transformed breastfeeding from something discrete by putting it unashamedly out in the open – as it should be. The video also broke down the sexualization of breasts, and instead offered them up as purely biological. Also, although lactating breasts are a symbol of motherhood, by hanging her breasts down from the top of the screen, CANAN created an almost phallic symbol, again overthrowing the passivity of ‘woman.’
After speaking with the artists and finding out that they had been making some of this work since the 1970s, I was startled with how contemporary the art still feels. Usually, artists would be incredibly proud to have created timeless pieces. However, in this case, it is disheartening that feminist art from around 40 years ago is still so relevant. Contemporary feminism is still dealing with some of the same issues from long ago, particularly in breaking down the image of the woman as wife, mother, queen of the domestic. This collection of artwork is exciting, vibrant and diverse – and painfully important.
Home Strike is on until the 21st of April at L’etrangere, 44a Charlotte Road, London, EC2A 3PD, for more information, head to www.letrangere.net.