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January 26

BODY MATTERS

By Julia Jarvis-Knell

The battle cries have been sounded by over two million of us. The trenches dug and the line that has been perpetually stepped over by those maleficent types re-drawn. 



Women’s rights are human rights and what struck me most about the marches last weekend, apart from the pleasure of seeing such large numbers of women, men and children championing equality dignity and justice for all, was the female body at the heart of message, used as a tool for provocation, as an act of artistic aggression to counter viewers’ preconceptions and bring them face-to-face with their own prejudices. 


Barbara Kruger Untitled (Your body is a battleground) 1989

It’s 1989 and women in the US are protesting the arrival of a new wave of anti-abortion laws intended to undermine the 1973 Roe v.s Wade Supreme Court decision (i.e. women’s right to an abortion). Artist Barbara Kruger produces Untitled (Your body is a battleground) for a Women’s March on Washington (sound familiar?!) in support of reproductive freedom. The piece doesn’t mince its words or imagery using the visual language of advertising and commerce to deliver its damning message, everything and everyone is for sale.

"The woman’s face, disembodied, split into positive and negative exposures, and obscured by text, marks a stark divide. The image is simultaneously art and protest."
(via The Broad)

Yoko Ono A Cut Piece 1965 

Ono kneels, motionless on the floor, as members of the audience cut away at her clothing with scissors, taking corners, slices and swatches until a man cuts through her top to her bra and snips the fastening. She remains impassive, impregnable, on the exterior at least. The audience is now complicit in a woman’s undressing - both physically and mentally. It’s a shocking but very effective expression of that dark human desire for total power and control over someone else. 

Linder Sterling Untitled 1977 

Linder has made a career from deconstructing desire. She was at the centre of the radical punk and feminist scene of the 1970s and is best known for her provocative collages, literally cutting out images from porn and glamour magazines to hijack the potency of their message and as a result, their sexualised power and control becomes benign, even funny. 

Wangechi Mutu, The Ark Collection, 2006

Another artist dissecting a worldview through collage is Wangechi Mutu. Born in Kenya but based in New York, Mutu creates visual experiments - female chimeras that explore sexuality, femininity, history, race, and identity. Female forms cut from fashion and pornography mags spliced with medical illustrations or more conventional social imagery in pieces - limbs, textiles, a smiling woman. Her work both seduces and repels, but demands to be stared at. 

“I wanted to mess with those definitive, illogical and irrational descriptions that have been used to oppress people for so long. A lot of it is centred on the face. If you look at science fiction, you’ll notice that when aliens are described, they don’t use the size of their arms to point out the way in which they’re different. But we use the face to describe something we’re not familiar with, or that we don’t look like. That’s where differences are first defined…So these females look like someone you might actually bump into, but what would you say she is and why would you say that?” (via Border Crossings)


Sarah Maple, Menstruate with Pride, 2010-11

Sarah Maple's work is personal, provocative, and at times, downright funny. In our current times, where populism and celebrity rule, she delivers an uncompromising message. Her body is a battleground, a tool to provoke discussions around religion, race, gender and feminism. As British Muslim woman she’s in a unique position to be able to satirise and subvert ideas around the constructs of her identity. From sexualising women in Hijabs to depicting herself menstruating in public or creating an ‘anti-rape cloak’ to highlight the realities of rape culture Maple is unflinching in challenging some of societies deep-seated ideas about what it is to be a woman. She’s had death threats and even made a work called Comment Is Free in response to an outpouring of abuse from a piece about her in The Guardian

Sarah Maple, Anti Rape Cloak, 2015

It remains shocking that we still have to fight for the right for the freedom to express our own views, in whatever way we see fit. Let’s hope in another 35 years women won’t have to march again for what everyone should know is right and fair - and that we’ll have all moved on.

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