As you walk into Gas Hall, a huge holographic wall stretches out to the left, brandished with the words Women, Power, Protest. We all know BMAG don’t shy away from sensitive subjects (oh hey Coming Out), neither do they do sensationalism. For this show, they've created a space that's accessible for everyone despite the pretty intense subject matter. But joyously, the overtly glittery, pink, "feminine" aesthetics continue throughout.
The exhibition commemorates the 1918 Representation of The People Act, which gave the first women in the UK the right to vote. All the art is either from local artists, the Arts Council Collection or Birmingham’s own collection. They're grouped loosely on the themes of the Suffragette flag, representing dignity (purple), activism (white) and hope (green). Originally, the white represented 'purity', which, in 2018, feels kinda... icky. BMAG is using activism instead, to show how artists use their platform to highlight injustices.
Household names like Barbara Hepworth and Sam Taylor-Johnson are on display alongside pieces by young, local artists like Farwa Moledina and Emily Sparkes, both BCU graduates. Their artworks feel empowered—Emily’s colourful self-portrait (above) is bold and joyful, while Farwa’s striking workof a veiled woman looks at the sexualisation of eastern culture and rejects it.
There's an explanation on the wall with suggestions on how to experience the exhibition, encouraging speaking with positivity, respecting other people's opinions and being open to learning. The BMAG team worked closely with local charities to try and foster as open and inclusive space as possible around very emotive art. Because of the sensitive subject matter, a map has been made to show what topics are covered and where in Gas Hall, so visitors can make active decisions about what they want to see, and can avoid things they might find triggering. And if that sounds a bit buzzwordy, it feels very necessary when in the section exploring sexual violence and racism.
But it's not all heavy going. Plenty of pieces have fun with the idea and mythology around ‘femininity’. Like the larger than life-size self-portraits of Wolverhampton fine art graduate, Claudette Johnson (above), that demand respect with her IDGAF facial-expression, or the highly suggestive, two metre high cave structure called Grotto by Tania Kovats - that requires being sprayed with rose oil every single day to create a perfumed cloud around the work.
This very weekend, BMAG are hosting a celebration day with live music, spoken word and talks from artists and the show’s curator. It’s free, just turn up and get involved.
Imagery: Untitled (Woman's Identity) ©Angela Kelly, Mona Hatoum, Plotting Table 1998 © Mona Hatoum. Courtesy the artist (Photo: Edward Woodman), An Ode to Christian Joy, Emily Sparkes ©, Claudette Johnson, Trilogy (Part Two) Woman in Black, 1982-86. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist