Review: Women in Revolt! at Tate Britain ★★★
Women rise up in Tate Britain’s slightly lukewarm representation of a powerful feminist revolution.
Women in Revolt at Tate Britain presents a retrospective of UK feminist thought, art and protest featuring over 100 artists and collectives from 1970 to 1990.
The pre-warnings from reviews and ticket-checking staff are that the exhibition is BIG, implying it will take a while. The scale of the exhibition is impressive but a lot of the material is quite repetitive, including zines in endless glass-covered tables and lots of hard to engage with video works on small screens with headphones. There is the cardinal exhibition sin of screens opposite glass making it impossible to view the work behind glass without an ugly reflection of the screen. What’s missing is true DIY punk spirit, trans voices and room to breathe.
The truly standout works are lost in the messy DIY curation, including a notebook of seminal punk revolutionary Poly Styrene (Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) pictured above, which was plonked awkwardly next to a screen, with her first name spelled wrong in the caption.
Works like Monica Sjöo’s Wages for Housework (1975) are stunning calls to change. Linder’s eye-gouging woman collage is a powerful reminder of the funny but serious side of the revolution. Gina Birch’s 3 Minute Scream (1977) is a successful shock to the system. Lesley Sanderson’s Time for a Change (1988 – pictured below) is a rejection of the stereotypes around Chinese people in Britain being a “homogenous exotic category’.
The exhibition is strangely silent apart for Gina Birch’s work, with audio confined to headphones or weird telephone receivers. This feels odd for a loud, angry revolution and reminds us that Tate is a corporation trading on punk aesthetic but never really allowing revolution. Their enhanced and invasive security, white cube spaces and a price tag of £2.50 for values-led badges that say ‘FIGHT RACISM’ and ‘PROTECT TRANS LIVES’, make for a sanitised experience that won’t change the world.
The exhibition actively explores lesbian life from artists like Del La Grace Volcano, Black feminist collectives like OWAAD (ORGANISATION OF WOMEN OF ASIAN AND AFRICAN DESCENT) and other hidden narratives. They are put centre stage in a powerful shift from the heteronormative narrative of punk and revolution.
Overall, Women In Revolt tells an important story of women fighting for rights long-denied, and gives a platform for DIY culture in the white box spaces of Tate. The exhibition needs a lot more active feminist revolution built in, as many of the issues facing women are not resolved in 2023.
I am Joint Editor at To Do List. I like free, cheap & offbeat London, especially: cabaret, art, theatre, pop-ups, eating out, quirky films, museums, day trips, social enterprise & much more.