When South London Women Artists (SLWA) were approached by Parliamentary PR at WoW, the Royal Festival Hall during International Women’s Day in March 2013, we were asked to put a proposal together to become Parliament Week Partners in response to the 2013 theme Women & Democracy. Our immediate response was YES. As to what we would actually do for a project so open, broad and exciting to us as an all-woman art group, in truth, we had no idea where it would lead us.
Eight months later, with the involvement of 22 of our members, we started a new movement, theWHYfront , asked the general public in key areas of London how they have been affected by sexism and what changes would they like to see? Organised and gave 5 educational & art workshops in three secondary schools (boys and girls), performed art flash-mobs #APublicAiring 15 times in London, held an event and show entitled, ItsInTheBag! at Hide Gallery Leathermarket London, detailing our research and petitions, got on our Soapbox at Speaker’s Corner and read out the general public’s responses to our petition questions and have now been asked to perform back at WoW, The Royal Festival Hall #APublicAiring in March 2014.
Led by SLWA’s Projects Director, Laura Moreton-Griffiths, a lengthy period of research began from investigating the Reform Act (1832), the historical political background from 1832 onwards, we looked at female artists, actors, poets past to present, female MP and Lords past to present, feminist groups and organisations, unknown women of influence and the history of flash-mobs and choreography. Two things emerged that we began to focus on. One was on a visit to the Houses of Parliament; we became interested in the Petition Bag. We liked it visually and conceptually, so decided to make a replica of it. The project came together further when a person kindly helping with the research greeted a group of SLWA artists with the words what have we here, Miss World contestants? Thus Endemic Sexism, the sort that can be perceived as ‘friendly’ or funny as well as the more sinister, harsher kind was to be our influence for a flash-mob.
SLWA’s Jackie Brown out and about with the Petitions Bag collecting petitions at Canada Water, London
The flash-mob was led by SLWA artist Kim Thornton. Drawing on the expression ‘airing your dirty linen in public’, it was decided to use the task of the weekly laundry to air the sexist comments. Historically laundry was done on Mondays when women would gather together to chat whilst doing the washing. The performances take place on Mondays to mimic this task. To bring humour to the performance, a dance informed by the tradition of handkerchief waving Morris dancers was choreographed during which carefully stitched underwear is pegged onto a washing line. Each lovingly made laundry item is soiled with a sexist comment shouted over it as it is hung and the dirty laundry is aired in public. At the end of each performance the washing line full of comments is archived, scrolled in the manner of vellum Acts of Parliament. Parliamentary ceremonial dress, as well as the judiciary inspires the costumes worn for this act to give the performance mock gravitas.
One of the first things we discovered is that on the first International Women’s day in 1971 several hundred women marched to Westminster to hand demands to the Prime Minister, Heath. This was the first Women’s Liberation march in England. They had been gradually formulating the demands, through a series of gatherings. 600 women from across the UK converged at Ruskin College, Oxford, to attend a conference, then met each year, sometimes several times a year up to 1978. During their heated and passionate debates, they agreed a set of seven demands. Four were given to Heath, the rest came later. The authors of reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement, Kristin Aune and Catherine Redfern, contemporize these demands as a result of their recent research into whether or not feminism should be reinvigorated or possibly even rebranded, because they found that the demands are still current. Women want :
1. Liberated bodies
2. Sexual freedom and choice
3. An end to violence against women
4. Equality at work and home
5. Politics and religion transformed
6. Popular culture free from sexism
7. Feminism reclaimed
WHYbomb – Feminism Reclaimed, tied to a railing close to Parliament Square, Westminster
#APublicAiring and beyond
We won’t be hanging up our gowns and wigs just yet. With performance dates at Peckham Space in December 2013 and the WoW Festival, Royal Festival Hall 8-10 March 2014, as part of International Women’s Day, we are keen to promote the project at other events too. What we have discovered apart from the power of the collective is that art can be fun, is fun and by using subversive humour, we can connect to an audience in a direct way and get our message across. The personal is political for everyone, for both men and women, and listening to the views of school children to the people of Peckham, Deptford, Canary Wharf, the Southbank and Westminster has highlighted endemic sexist comments that we face all the time. As theWHYfront say at the end of their performance … now that’s been aired, let that be an end to it!
Washing lines are rolled like Parliamentary scrolls and labelled with the date and time of each performance, exhibited 15-21 November 2013 at HIDE Gallery Leathermarket
The petition postcard distributed to the general public in key areas of London which were read out as Speakers Corner on 17 November 2013 and exhibited at Hide Gallery Leathermarket, London 15-21 November 2013
Chair, South London Women Artists
SLWA are the SAFTA Awards winner for the Visual Arts 2013