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The art of protest – and the remarkable women leading the way 

Creative women are taking up the helm of feminist activism. Grace Banks meets some of the most influential and interesting minds behind the fight for women’s rights

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By Grace Banks on

London-born artist Zoë Buckman is no stranger to raising hell. In 2015, she broke into the art world with her controversial multimedia work Girl Found Bound – a comment on the sexist use of rape as a plotline in films and TV shows: “I find myself growing furious at the same old plotlines in which an (often young) female body is found dead while the male protagonists uncover all of her ‘dirty secrets’ to ascertain how she was raped,” she says. The work was quickly followed by Every Curve, a series of beautiful vintage lingerie embroidered with misogynistic rap lyrics. Now, just a couple of years later, and the 32-year-old has crossed over into the mainstream as a bona fide political artist, Women's March member and celebrity in her own right, dedicated to turning her art into activism in a year that's seen one of the biggest spikes in feminist-activist initiatives since the 1970s.

“Protest is becoming fashionable now, but it wasn't always the case," Buckman says.  It’s now been exactly a year since reality-TV star Donald Trump was elected as the 45th president of the United States, and, according to Buckman, all that’s left to do is stand together and mobilise. Through her art, Buckman tries to ignore what she calls the “male gaze” of culture "that tends to sexually objectify the female form or put it on a pedestal, or both" by using her work to spark an interest in women about politics and feminism. A quick look at her Instagram at any given time and there won’t be a link to a review in her profile, but a political cause that she’s championing. Like her current fundraiser for the US organisation Artist Production Fund, for which she's selling her hand-embroidered work Champ Embroidery Edition, 2017 to raise money for an upcoming feminist charity project.

But there’s something bigger at play here than a few political artists making a scene. This isn’t some you-can’t-sit-with-us riot-girl art scene – there's not a drop of hashtag feminism or pink knitted hats here. This is a new feminist movement that’s come off the back of the international Women’s Marches in January and the recent revelations over the decades of sexual abuse of women by Harvey Weinstein and other prominent men in Hollywood. As seen by the marches (in which an estimated six million women protested globally) and a crop of new campaigns, activism is not a student-days pastime anymore – it’s a mainstream feminist act. Alongside Buckman, creative women like Pussy Riot’s Maria Alykohia aka Masha, actress and artist Jemima Kirke and Women’s March Movement founding member, the writer Sarah Sophie Flicker, are placing themselves at the forefront of feminist activism.

Artwork by Mira Dancy

I first noticed these women when I started working on my book Play With Me: Women - Dolls - Art, which looks at a new generation of political feminist artists. As soon as I started researching the book, it became obvious that these women weren't just interested in creating pretty pictures, but working from the centre of political conversations, and I wanted to bring these bold and radical women together – as a group, their work is even more powerful. What many people don’t know is that women like Buckman were crucial in mobilising the first stages of the 21 January marches. “We strongly believe that the arts – whether visual or performing – play an important role in movements for social change,” a spokesperson for the Women’s March Movement said at the beginning of the year. “We also carry our hope in the arts as they serve as a conduit to shift narratives and become records of our social movements.”

Tamika D Mallory is the co-president of the Women’s March board, based in New York. “The Women’s Marches marches showed the power of grassroots activism led by women,” she says. “This is the largest mass mobilisation that any administration has seen in history. But this is also the first global intersectional women’s rights movement that brings everything in.”

This isn’t some you-can’t-sit-with-us riot-girl art scene – there's not a drop of hashtag feminism or pink knitted hats here. This is a new feminist movement that’s come off the back of the international Women’s Marches in January

Masha from Pussy Riot has always loved the power of artistic protest. "I'm an artist first – the whole reason I got arrested is because I was using my art to make a point about the political situation in Russia for women,” Masha told me, speaking about her two-year imprisonment in one the roughest women's prisons in the whole of Russia after being sentenced for attempting to “incite religious hatred” after her art collective Pussy Riot performed their song Punk Prayer inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior church in Moscow. "The fact that our art generated such attention to us shows just how good it can be for activism," she says.

Play With Me: Dolls, Women, Art by Grace Banks

Masha has just released her autobiography, Riot Days, which she partly wrote in prison in isolation in a cell. "I did it for feminism," she tells me, "but also because I believe so strongly in protest. When I was in prison, I never stopped protesting, I never backed down. I'm glad it's becoming more popular for women now. It used to be seen badly or like you were an anarchist.” The truth is now the opposite. Women protestors today are increasingly becoming seen as mobilised and formidable.

Artwork by Mira Darcy

The work of these activists is needed now more than ever. The recent reports by The New York Times and The New Yorker about the years of sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein and other men in Hollywood have finally brought to light the gender inequality in the entertainment world. But it’s also lifted the lid on ingrained sexism and abuse across other creative industries like fashion, photography and art. Following the blacklisting of Terry Richardson, the Instagram account Not Surprised launched with a petition signed by over 1,800 artists, writers and curators across the international art world, including Cindy Sherman, Miranda July and Barbara Kruger, stating: “We will no longer ignore the condescending remarks, the wayward hands on our bodies, the threats and intimidations thinly veiled as flirtation… We call upon art institutions, boards, and peers to consider their role in the perpetuation of different levels of sexual inequity and abuse, and how they plan to handle these issues in the future” – they gained 14,000 Instagram followers in less than a week. Through their campaign, Not Surprised proved that Richardson’s huge popularity as a photographer was at the expense of the sexual abuse of women and that, after the Weinstein allegations, this behaviour simply will not be tolerated.

New York-based artist Mira Dancy has always used her art to bring the women’s rights issues to the forefront. "I'm campaigning for this future woman we don't know yet," she told me. “I am very much driven by a sense that there is a lot to be gained by women imagining themselves in positions of serious power." The female body is her forte – she sees it as one of the most controversial modern emblems of our time: "In my work, I'm trying to find a way to liberate this [this] female body from object status".

Dancy recently made a neon nude sculpture for Planned Parenthood to sell and take the proceedings from. "I started off by just dreaming that places like Planned Parenthood could actually advertise their services as blatantly as strip clubs do," she says. "My first drafts for the neon imagined that a line by the abdomen could flash on and off, dramatising the act of abortion as crassly as the stripper whose clothes come on and off." Dancy has always been militantly pro-choice. Her neon Burn For No One (2014) made thousands of dollars for Planned Parenthood. "It relates to the toxic kind of conversations that exist around abortion and how women can be culturally coerced into thinking she's a monster just because she isn't ready to become a mum," she says.

Collins created a stir in 2015 when an image of her unwaxed bikini line was removed from Instagram for violation of community standards. Since then, her hashtag #freethenipple has acted as a campaign for women’s rights on Instagram

The British feminist activist group Sisters Uncut are a testament to the power of creative protest. “Politics can be disempowering and isolating,” founding member Maya told me of their June 2017 week-long protest inside the old Holloway women’s prison in London, where they set off pastel- and fluro-coloured smoke flares and organised workshops to criticise the austerity cuts to 34 domestic-violence services to women in the UK. “The forces behind austerity, cuts to services, prison expansion and gentrification can seem impossible to fight,” Maya told me. “We managed to challenge this narrative by creating something rather beautiful. I think our action in Holloway prison struck a chord with people because we reclaimed a notorious space of state violence by hosting a vibrant and welcoming community festival, including political-education workshops, bike-fixing sessions and singing workshops.”

Plastic Bodies by Sheila Pree

There are obvious comparisons between this new wave of feminist activism and the second-wave feminist protests, which were a huge influence in helping women get abortion rights, equal pay and the newfound belief among that generation that they had the right to ask for a seat at the table. Like now, second-wave feminism was spearheaded by a lot of women artists, such as Barbara Kruger, whose work titled Your Body Is A Battleground is still carried around at protests as a feminist mantra. In Play With Me, I wanted to highlight how this new generation of feminist artists are picking up where the feminists we owe so much to left off.

“There’s undeniably a militant sense of protest that’s picking up speed and is very similar to the 1960s,” says the photographer Sheila Pree Bright. In her series Plastic Bodies, the American artist calls out the white male gaze in contemporary society, making images of Barbie dolls of colour fused with images of herself. “When I see something negative, I try and get the positive,” she says of the photographs. “I want to educate people and make a case for change.” Her new photographic series, 1960NOW, hits a similar note, with photographs of the 1960s Civil Rights movement protests with images of the Black Lives Matter protests of the last year.

Among all of these women, there’s a feeling now that it’s important to show in large numbers that the fight for our rights as women comes from grassroots movements. "When people come to the Women's March demos, we’re telling people to come, be inspired. But when you go back home, it’s important that we all push forward on the local level,” Mallory says. Mallory agrees that one of the best things about this new wave of activism is, whatever skill a woman might have, they can use it to protest.

Artists like Stacy Leigh and Petra Collins have taken the lead with this. They regularly call out slut-shaming in their work, with Leigh using real-life sex dolls to subvert male standards of sexual desire, like in her multimedia piece Squirt (2015). There’s also Collins, who created a stir in 2015 when an image of her unwaxed bikini line was removed from Instagram for violation of community standards. Since then, her hashtag #freethenipple has acted as a campaign for women’s rights on Instagram.

For Jemima Kirke, this fusion of art and politics has always been crucial. Thirty-two-year-old Kirke, who most people know as Jessa from Lena Dunham’s Girls, sees herself as an artist more than an actress. Kirke’s paintings focus on the stark, Instagram-gloss-free realities of women's lives. She is a loyal advocate of Planned Parenthood. In a video she filmed for the organisation on abortion rights, she said: “We think we have free choice, but there are hoops we have to jump through to get them. It’s the stigma that makes it hard.”

Average Americans That Happen To Be Sex Dolls by Stacey Leigh

“We know that acts of defiance are empowering,” says Maya of Sisters Uncut. For Maya, austerity politics has targeted people who are perceived as powerless and vulnerable, but this global resurgence of feminist protests just proves that “we are those people and will not be silenced”. The Women’s March movement, now the most powerful feminist protest organisation of the millennium, agrees. “Women are so outraged that it has encouraged them to be far more active," Mallory said. “If you can fight for women’s rights, you can fight for rights across the board.”


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