THIS EXHIBITION on Identity’ was formed from an open (unselected) submission by girls and women living and/or working in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Organised by Tower Hamlets Women’s Art Forum, the exhibition was also part of the East End Festival 88. There were 60 contributors of different ages, experiences and abilities, including the five collective contributions from the Asian Cultural Centre for Women; Burdett Matchbox, Coventry Cross & Cubbitt Town Girls Groups; Burdett Estate Women’s Art Group; Island History Trust; and Triangle Women Artists.
In contrast to the ‘Women’s Images of Men’ ICA exhibition in 1983, this exhibition reversed the gaze of its contributors on the opposite sex to the consideration of how they might represent their own. Like the ‘Women’s Images of Men’ show, the works produced for Chisenhale engaged with the question of identity from a multiplicity of viewpoints, perspectives and media. In poetry, video, slide/tape, photography, painting and sculpture, many aspects of women’s identities were the subjects of the works. They ranged from women’s experiences both within and outside the home, and the family (Kathryn Faulkner, Doreen Fletcher), to the recovery of women’s participation in the collective political struggles of the East End; from women’s attitudes to their own bodies as they age (Tyra Till, Frances Schwartz) or have children (Emma Gunningham, P. Levine) to aspects of women’s nature viewed mythologically as goddesses (Michelle Sinnott), and the feminine represented abstractly by seeds, vessels and oval forms (Cath Goldstein, Susan Barclay).
The contradictions and difficulties of roles, situations and expectations of both ‘being a woman’ and attempting to represent that which is usually rendered invisible in our culture was explored in many works. In The Invisible Woman by Jane Clark, a series of ‘storyboard’ photos represented the invisible labour of women’s domestic work by the accumulation of what it produces: still-lifes of the piles of shopping and finished gardening. Another vision of domesticity was presented by Rosemary Taylor’s Sunday Prisoner, where a photo of an anxious woman silhouetted against a brightly lit window accompanied a poem, which began ‘These are the days when I feel/Oppressed by the tyranny/of unwashed dishes/ unmade beds/and still more laundry …’
Two beautifully embroidered tablecloths by Mrs Sarker, by contrast, served to demonstrate the acquisition of certain skills within the ‘feminine’ realm of the home. Richenda Power’s work On the Table, a poem written across a chequered tablecloth, pointed however to the constraints on time, and the lack of a mental and physical space of one’s own that looking after a family frequently places on women’s creativity. The poem began ‘Ravenous dutiful wolves eat into my day …’
The line ‘The child is the mother of the woman’ became a theme developed by two artists in the exhibition. Joan Key juxtaposed two large ‘imagined’ portraits of a girl in pink and a boy in green, contrasting the positive assertion the boy is the father of the man to that of the girl as mother to the woman. This was emphasised formally by the solid modelling of the small boy in contrast to the indefiniteness of the girl, where a line around her face appeared to demarcate the prescribed space in which she had been given to grow. In Patsy Hans’ photo-text piece, The Child is the Mother of the Woman, photos of herself as a child, head in hands, and as a teenager, were juxtaposed with one of her mother in a Jackie Kennedy-style outfit. The text discussing her feelings as a child and towards her mother, concluded: ‘Now I am 30 … but I still know the feelings I had when I was this child–with some new fears and worries to go with the old ones’.
Viewing of these works also raised the important question, not just of identities, but also of identification(s) between what was represented and those who looked upon it. Implicit in the understanding of some works was an identification between the artist and/or subject and a woman audience; the preference of some artists for a woman-only audience space within the exhibition orchestrated this kind of viewing deliberately. Here, in Tyra Till’s Stretchmarks of Motherhood, the explicit painting of the breast was overlaid by writing across the stretchmarks of the oughts, musts, and shoulds of trying to be the good mother.
In the documentation of the Triangle Women Artists mural at The Poplar Centre and the embroidered and appliqued tapestry of the Island History Trust, part of which was on display, the collective participation of women in the political and social struggles of the East End were represented. Both of these collective projects addressed the historical participation of women in the dockers’ strikes, agitation for the vote, rent strikes, and life in the East End in peace and war.
It was remarkable how few works addressed themselves to contemporary political issues concerning Docklands or the East End, although many works touched upon broadly feminist concerns, like women’s role in war/peace (Clare Newton). The single exception to this was Jean Fraser’s photographs, Are there any in Tower Hamlets? Lesbian Stereotypes on Location, framed as a protest to the kinds of images and projects that would be suppressed under Clause 29. Was it only because lesbian identities are under attack politically that I saw this as the only work making political, personal identities? Or was it that, although this exhibition as a whole affirmed women’s creative endeavours, identity was most commonly conceived as personal, individual, and subjective? Or is this observation a reflection of two predominant strands within the cultural aspects of the women’s movement, firstly of the desire to validate, often uncritically, women’s personal experiences within a feminist perspective, and secondly, the concentration in feminism on the psychic construction of femininity, rather than the political?