Women artists ‘reclaiming history we were written out of’

Artists have a rich history of activism, using their talents to take their messages out of the gallery and into the street

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In 1989, seven members of the group Act Up broke into the New York Stock Exchange, chaining themselves to a balcony and displaying a banner that read “Sell Wellcome”. They were protesting over the price that the pharmaceutical company had put on AZT, the only drug at the time to stop the death march of Aids. Following the demonstration, the price of AZT was lowered.

Act Up was succeeded by Gran Fury, and it used the power of images and advertising to push for social change, creating the Silence = Death graphic, which included a pink triangle and appeared on everything from T-shirts to posters and neon signs, crying for awareness of the Aids epidemic.

Another Gran Fury project from 1990 was designed to look like a New York City Parks sign. It read: “NYC owns 30,000 empty apts and has 30,000 homeless people. NYC’s cost-effective solution: Let them die in the streets.” It’s a powerful piece that we could emulate in Irish towns and cities today.

Art has always involved itself in drawing attention to issues. Goya’s The Disasters of War series (1810-1820) shows the horrors and aftermath of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. It was considered so powerful, it wasn’t shown until 35 years after the artist’s death. Forty of the 80 prints in the series will be on display at the Chester Beatty Library from October 6th. Then there’s Picasso with his Guernica (1937), and more recently Ai Weiwei’s artworks that reveal censored events and issues in China today.

Artists also have a rich history of activism, using their talents to take their messages beyond the confines of the gallery, and out into the streets. After the Brexit vote, London-based Irish artist Joy Gerrard noticed the growing incidences of racism and the strange sense that this was now okay. “The worst thing was that everyone immediately accepted it,” she says. “Even though the campaign was based on disinformation. The Brexit vote was called a protest vote, but then, if you protested against it, there was this strong backlash. Protesting is democratic in itself.”

With this in mind, she created the Visible Anger project (visibleanger.com), making badges to enable people to stand up and be counted, to make their presence known. “We’re all activists now.”

Something similar is going on with architect Rae Moore’s Uterus Prime T-shirts and sweaters, which first appeared as a banner in the 2016 March for Choice. The range is now available on Etsy. Taking the hyper-male character of Optimus Prime from the Transformers franchise, Moore’s symbol struck an instant chord, and its reach demonstrates the power of banners with a political message.

Jesse Jones, whose Tremble Tremble is currently occupying the Irish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, remembers making banners when she first came to art college at NCAD. “That was where you got people to come in and talk to you about politics,” she says. “The banner making was the occasion for the conversations.”

But the banners themselves were important too. “We were protesting the war after 9/11. Building something, materially in the world, gives you the sense that it’s possible to do something. These are those incremental gestures that are impossible to deny, and the presence of the banners later prove that it happened.”

Artists Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon making banners for the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eight Ammendment. Photograph: Alison Laredo
Artists Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon making banners for the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eight Ammendment. Photograph: Alison Laredo

Alice Maher has also been working on a series of banners that will be on the streets on Saturday, as part of the March for Choice. Inspired by sources as diverse as the UK artist Jeremy Deller, the Trades Union and Suffragette movements, Lily Yeats and Piero della Francesca, Maher’s project has seen her alongside Rachel Fallon, Breda Mayock and Aine Phillips working primarily in Maher’s Mayo studio. They have been stitching banners that echo the history of processional objects, “like the guild banners and the trades union banners that appeared at the rallies for Daniel O’Connell”, Maher says.

“After the Citizen’s Assembly happened . . . we started to wonder how we could advocate for change through our art,” says Maher. A visit to the Guild and Trade Banners collection at the Drogheda Museum (millmount.net) alerted her to the legacy of banners in Ireland. “We looked at Orange banners too, working out how you hold them, how they stay up. We’ve been in Guiney’s buying curtain poles for the purpose.”

“We’ve had such a great time,” but she agrees there is a much more serious side. “When it came to deciding the iconography, we’re looking at what represents us, and what way we want to be represented.” She describes one in which a young woman is beheading a snake. “I call her The Slasher,” says Maher. “That was inspired by Orazio Gentileschi’s David and Goliath in the National Gallery, though our figure is a young woman in a leather jacket and a skirt, slashing at the monstrous laws that seek to smother and control you.”

Another banner shows Piero della Francesca’s Madonna della Misericordia (1462), protecting the nation under her cloak. “So the first image is opening your arms, the second is fighting, and the third is a scattering of images, influenced by Grayson Perry: he had made a scarf featuring ‘the story of the artist’, so we decided to do the story of Irish Woman.”

Aine Phillips, who has been working alongside in her own studio, has been making banners featuring the all-seeing-eye. “It’ll be like a pageant,” says Maher. “It’s uplifting, the courageous way you can march together with your banners. We’re hoping to reflect that part of our history – social change through cultural means, and bringing what’s considered an indoor female talent into the outdoors.”

Just like Jones, Maher agrees that making the banners has also been an occasion for conversation. “It deepened our knowledge of what we were sewing, so it’s also reclaiming an art history we were written out of; reclaiming it in a new way with hope for change. It’s a positive thing to do. It’s so colourful. You’d be proud to walk behind such a thing.

“One of our hopes is that these would be inserted in to the history of social change in Ireland. We’re making it visual, so that it can never be denied.”

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