Review of Desperate Artwives Exhibition January 2017 – by Hazel Frizell Phd in “Representations of specific Concerne of the Women’s Liberation Movement in British Feminist Art 1970-1978”

My visit to the Desperate Artwives Exhibition could not have been more timely as it coincided with the Women’s March organised in London and other major cities in response to Trump’s inauguration and the issues his views raise for women.

The work on show by nineteen professionally trained female artists and created in various media reflects and questions their experiences as wives and mothers. Brought together by Amy Dignam, they all wanted to continue the creative process following childbirth and within the constraints of the domestic environment. The result is a largely autobiographical narrative both depicting and celebrating their personal experiences infused with the domestic.

Jane Helling’s “Sacred Heart Defect” is a display of several small hearts crafted from pretty fabrics softly stuffed to create 3D forms – which appear to be anatomically correct. In doing so she creates a tension between the rather impersonal meaning of anatomical drawings found in medical books and the very personal association of babies’ soft toys usually seen in prams and on play mats. The viewer thereby creates their own narrative – Is this about a precious child born with a heart defect? Instead of being comforting , the soft hearts bring to mind the anxiety experienced by the parent of a sick child – a more personal and poignant image than that of a medical journal. The term “Sacred Heart” for Roman Catholics refers to the heart of Christ and as such is regarded an object of devotion and perhaps here can be interpreted as reflecting the sacred meaning of a child to their mother.

Aliso n O’Neill’s video “Punctures” visibly, yet more strongly vocally, relays her experiences of miscarriage and childbirth. She focusses on the impersonal reaction of medical staff who simply issue her with a yellow booklet noting they are sorry she lost her baby. In hospital giving birth to her son is equally fraught with process driven behaviour from the nurses as she does not meet the stereotypical image of a mother due to her short cropped blond hair. The lack of control and isolation felt by O’Neill reflects the complaint frequently made that women are neither listened to nor treated as individuals by the medical profession while experiencing pregnancy and childbirth.

“Ephemera” by Sharon Reeves consists of six carbon copy scrolls produced in fine fabric and a carbon copy book both detailing in manual typewritten font parts of conversations exchanged between women. Here she expresses the fast moving snippets of conversation that are short lived yet often infused with emotion that there is no time to explore. They represent the fractured nature of communication between women frequently disturbed by the domestic environment and the multiple identities a mother has to adopt in her everyday life. Issues and emotions can lose their impact when expressed in stinted, shortened bursts. The type written scroll format is similar to that of Mary Kelly’s “Post-Partum Document” of 1974 – 1979 depicting the early years of her son.

Amy Dignam’s “Memory Box” is a delicate and poignant representation of maternal experience relating to each of her three children’s treasured small toys. They have been gilded and placed in a tea box to be displayed as objects of great importance as they relate to items essential to a particular time in her children’s lives. The gold leaf transforms them to the viewer into precious objects to be both kept and admired thus emphasising the importance of everyday experience.

The depiction of female experience and in particular motherhood was a prevailing theme in the work of feminist artist collectives formed as a result of their involvement with the Women’s Liberation Movement of the early 1970s. In particular, the domestic and female experience was depicted in Feministo’s work and was displayed in an exhibition aptly entitled “Portrait of the Artist as a Housewife” at the ICA in 1976. Both Feministo and the Desperate Artwives illustrate the importance of documenting female experience not only as a means of continuing the creative process but as a political tool. The issues facing women highlighted by the Women’s March remain as relevant now as they did in the days of second wave feminism.