The Great Women Artists: Women on Instagram

When I think of a traditional art exhibition I think of quiet, cold spaces, white walls, rustling whispers. Of art I want to understand but sometimes don’t. Of droning voices echoing ‘interpretations’ carefully rehearsed. 

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Not this one. On Thursday evening, Mother London hosted a show curated by Katy Hessel, founder of The Great Women Artists instagram-based blog, and it was crammed.  I mean forget fight your way to the front, it was just plain fight to survive in the crush. Queues to get in, queues to get out – you only really got to see the artwork if you were patient enough to wait to the end to let everyone leave.  This may all sound like a criticism but it’s actually a sign of something uplifting: there is a hunger for the artists, for their subjects, and for their ideas. The art deserved to be looked at - something the space didn’t fully afford it - but I came away curious to find out more about each woman.   

Here are three reasons why. 

1. Brilliant art, curated in a layered but coherent way.

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The exhibition showcased the works of fifteen artists, varying in mediums and styles, but each piece had a point to make and, as a collection, it made for an interesting take on the 21st century. Notions of identity, vulnerability, power, sisterhood, faith were just a few of the things The Great Women Artists exhibition pushed forward. The butterflies, broken glass and upended perspective of Maisie Cousins’ ‘Bonnet’; the firm defiance in the eyes of Manjit Thapp’s subject; Alice Joiner’s tongue-in-cheek illustrative take on Picasso's 'les demoiselles d’avignon'; Unskilled Worker’s rewrite of ‘An English Idyll’; and the powerful portraits by Alice Aedy of a woman in Iran and two young girls in Somalia are all visual stories that I carried with me out of the exhibition. However, there is one in particular that dug itself in deeper and that is Juno Calypso’s self-portraits from her series ‘The Honeymoon’. 

2. It got under my skin.

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I stay with Calypso’s work for this point. The only way I can describe how I felt when I looked at her self-portraits is a disquieting sense of having stumbled across private, ritualistic moments I shouldn’t have. In doing so I became partly responsible for the image I was looking at – made all the more discomforting because you’re surrounded by so many people in your moment of discovery.  Calypso’s works are a continuation of her ‘Joyce’ series in which she re-enacts the under-life of a woman labouring under constructs of femininity. ‘The Honeymoon’ carries ‘Joyce’ on, this time using the kitsch backdrop of a hotel in the US to stage ‘solitary acts of desire and disappointment.’  Saying that I liked Calypso’s work wouldn’t be quite right (confession: I didn’t even give it much attention on the night of the exhibition), but it’s the work I’ve revisited the most since, and I can feel it melding and shifting its way into my view of the world. 

3. I wasn’t told what to think.  

There is nothing more distracting than looking at a piece of work and sensing the niggling white box just to the left or right of it, telling you everything you should know.  Apparently, it’s impossible to decide whether you like art without this crutch. It was refreshing to view work that was curated in a way that didn’t make assumptions about what was important or relevant to the viewer, did not ram interpretations down our throats, and just generally understood that leaving room for curiosity is what will connect viewers to the project. 

That’s not to say The Great Women Artists show was faultless. There could certainly have been a more diverse set of female artists on show. But Katy Hessel has embarked on a mammoth task of connecting people in London to the work and viewpoints of great women artists and it’s a conversation that everyone should take part in.    

Follow The Great Women Artists here.