(A Portrait of) A Portrait of the Artist as a Housewife

Below is an adapted version of a paper I recently presented at the Paul Mellon Centre as part of their Summer Symposium. It was great to be part of the ‘Gendered Mediums’ panel and meet like-minded researchers and share my own work.

During the 1970s, second-wave feminism brought with it a heightened awareness of male hegemony in British art, with women artists beginning to develop strategies to challenge these gendered biases. A central idea of second wave feminism was that “the personal is political”, an assertion which led many women artists to develop a more autobiographical narrative and intimate imagery to their artwork. For some this prompted a return to traditional domestic crafts, such as weaving, knitting and embroidery, which are all rife with feminine associations.

Craft has generally been recognised within Western art history as less important in the hierarchy of art practices, with painting and sculpture enjoying a far more privileged status. This is linked to the domestic nature of craft objects, which are commonly found in the home as both decorative and useful items, while more high art objects are usually displayed in art galleries and coded as special and sacred treasures. In their essay “Crafty women and the hierarchy of the arts”, Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock note that “arts that adorn people, homes or utensils are relegated to a lesser cultural sphere under such terms as ‘applied’, ‘decorative’ or ‘lesser’ arts.”

Craft is generally a private activity, taking place within the home and in the context of other domestic chores and responsibilities. It has therefore been historically associated with women and the feminine ideal of a dutiful homemaker. Craft for the home has typically been conservative and formal in nature, for example lace doilies, tea cosies and cross-stitched tapestries, all of which are emblematic of traditional middle-class femininity. Feminism’s relationship with craft is thus a complex one, with some women artists rejecting the tradition of craft in order to liberate women from domesticity, while others utilise craft as a medium for subversion, political protest and institutional critique – an example of which I’ll be discussing here.

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The postal project that would come to be known as “Feministo” began on a small scale in 1974 when Kate Walker and Sally Gollop, both artists and mothers of small children, started to exchange artworks through the post. Due to the constraints of the postal system – as well as their lives as stay at home mothers – the works were, by necessity, small in scale and frequently utilised available domestic objects and skills such as crochet, knitting and embroidery. The artworks exchanged between the two often expressed their personal experiences of – and responses to – their confinement to the home and their childcare duties. For example, one of the early works sent by Gollop was a miniature kitchen dresser, with shelves across the window like prison bars. As well as a means of self-expression, the correspondence between these two women also provided a relief from the sense of loneliness inherent in their role as housewives. In their dual role as artists and housewives, these two women faced both domestic isolation and exclusion from an art world primarily ordered around male hegemony. Feministo was thus a subversive strategy to push against this marginalisation of women artists as housewives.

Over time more women became involved in the project, exchanging artworks as a larger group that spread out across Britain. Feministo participant Phil Goodall writes that the aims of this postal art project were both to develop a visual language that is accessible to women and corresponds with their own experiences as well as to break down the isolation these women faced in the home. This growing network used craft as a means of visual conversation, as well as a tool to critique domesticity and the gendered division of labour.

Conversations developed organically and in response to the artworks they received and the relationships they formed as a group. Su Richardson, for example, sent out a series of crocheted plants, commenting that “my lack of green fingers and time to tend plants meant I’d be better off with artificial ones”. Her crafted botanical gifts included a blossoming African Violet as a Mother’s Day present to Kate Walker and a cactus, adorned with protruding metal pins for “an often ‘stung’ friend”. The transference of ownership of these objects as they were sent and received, often anonymously, through the post makes them unlike traditional art media.

Though craft was the chosen artistic means for these women’s’ self-expression, its revival as a process for art production was complicated for the women involved. Writing in 1987, Kate Walker notes that she remained sceptical about the revival of craft because “for working-class women any nostalgia about it is bogus […] although we respect the skills passed on to us, they stink of poverty. […] In those days your work was used, trodden on, or worn right out, like you yourself”. While this association between women’s downtrodden role within the home and craft’s role in the world adds a poignant context to the works produced for Feministo, it also assigns them a status that is inherently lesser than high art objects. A small knitted panel made by Walker picked up on this theme of craft vs high art. Still hanging from its small needles and displaying loose threads it declares a tongue-in-cheek apology for its existence: “not art, heart, homemade I’m afraid”.

After a few smaller regional displays of the work produced through Feministo, the project reached its culmination in Britain with the exhibition ‘a Portrait of the Artist as a Housewife’, held at the ICA in London. This exhibition brought the domestic art project into the “high art” space of a contemporary white cube gallery for just over a month in the summer of 1977. The title: ‘a Portrait of the Artist as a Housewife’, is a parody of the 1916 James Joyce novel ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’. While there was some figurative imagery within the exhibition, the meaning is more abstract – implying that the whole body of work together made up a portrait of a 1970s British housewife.

At the ICA, the artists (who curated themselves) faced a challenge of how to translate the small, intimate, domestic objects made, sent and received by a marginal group into a display for the public, professional sphere. Kate Walker articulated this problem as: “how to place effectively these expressions of domestic isolation and frustration – this anger against the prevailing male ‘artocracy’ within the white-walled neutral spaces intended for a very different kind of art”.

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The problem of translating the project to the white cube space was solved by constructing a house pastiche which broke the space up into intimate rooms. The artworks were then placed in a series of themed tableaux in direct response to these domestic environments. Walking through the exhibition was therefore like entering a familiar and uncanny domestic space. Even the entrance to the gallery was set up as a façade with a front door, windows and a washing line.

The faux kitchen was the site of a body of work which explored the relationship between women and food. Cathy Nicholson’s Packed Meat in the Fridge displays women’s splayed bodies, devoid of heads, hands and feet, lying in various packaging containers within a wide-open fridge. These bodies are nude and bleeding, covered over with cellophane as though they were juicy steaks awaiting later consumption by an unknown protagonist. The naked bodies are not sexual, but grotesque and unnerving. The comparison of a woman’s bodily form to a piece of meat does, however, have connotations of reducing a woman down to her sexuality and sexual organs alone. To compare a woman’s body to a piece of food is to imply that her body is something to be consumed and enjoyed. Caroline Tisdall, who reviewed the exhibition for the Guardian, commented on the show overall that “food and sex, traditionally celebrated as poetic analogy, become something of a dull nightmare here”. Indeed, Nicholson’s work is a nightmarish presentation of women as both an edible and sexual commodity.

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Many of Su Richardson’s works were also housed in the kitchen area, including her iconic Burnt Breakfast, a crocheted traditional full English breakfast featuring a slightly charred woollen sausage and a crocheted egg with a thick burnt black outline. For Richardson, her food works were an important tool for getting the message of domestic dissatisfaction across. She comments that:

“The whole point for me was to get across some sort of message and because I knew that the message wasn’t particularly nice always, I needed to make it humorous, colourful, nice to look at so that people would come and look at it, before they’d see that it was burned, or that it had shit on it or a baby’s face in it.”

A review in the Guardian described Richardson’s practice of creating crocheted food works as “meticulously reproducing in stitches the work, not love, involved in preparing food”. The purposefully partially burned nature of this self-consciously homemade breakfast implies ambivalence and a lack of care for the end result of the domestic chore of food preparation.

Following the ICA show, the installation went on a final international tour. Not all of the works made it back to the UK after this, with several stolen, while others were damaged in transit. Most of the material traces of the Feministo project now no longer exist except as personal mementos in private collections; the artworks were made as a form of ephemeral communication, rather than permanent artistic commodities. The exhibition was also not widely reported on in the mainstream media.

// Despite this, A Portrait of the Artist as a Housewife set the scene for further subversive exhibitions of women’s feminist art making practises and marked an important moment in second-wave feminism’s protest against gendered imbalances in the British art world.

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