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Rosy Martin, Transforming the suit, 1987
Rosy Martin, Transforming the suit - What does a lesbian look like, Part I, 1987© Rosy Martin in collaboration with Jo Spence

Women In Revolt: inside the Tate’s major new survey of British feminist art

Featuring seminal works by Cosey Fanni Tutti, Caroline Coon and Lubaina Himid, ‘Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970–1990’ at Tate Britain celebrates the radical British women artists who rebelled against conformity

Under the scrutiny of the male gaze, women are hypervisible objects of desire and disdain from a young age – until they suddenly become invisible once their reproductive capacities grind to a halt. Despite the glut of unwanted attention, women are rarely afforded the same professional recognition as their male counterparts, resulting in an egregious imbalance of power that we are only now beginning to address. 

The new exhibition, Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970–1990, opening November 8 at Tate Britain, sets the record straight with a landmark exhibition featuring over 100 feminist artists and collectives, including Linder, Lubaina Himid, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Marianne Elliott-Said (AKA Poly Styrene) and Sue Crockford. All of them work across painting, drawing, photography, textiles, printmaking, film, and sculpture.

The first major survey of its kind, Women in Revolt! celebrates women now in their sixties and older who have maintained long artistic careers despite the lack of institutional support. “This show isn’t about stars, it’s a constellation of women who are very well-known in their own communities but have not always reached the mainstream. I want people to recognise that their teacher, nurse, lawyer might have a dual life as a groundbreaking activist, musician or artist,” says Linsey Young, curator, Contemporary British Art.

Women in Revolt! explores the intricate relationship between culture and its discontents, offering a layered look at the ways in which the sociopolitical environment and historical events shape the artists’ call to create. During the 1970s, amid the collapse of the UK economy and the rise of fascism, a new generation of documentary photographers like Mumtaz Karimjee, Bhajan Hunjan and Caroline Coon brandished the camera as their weapon of choice.

From the outset, Coon recognised art as a tool to affect change and looked to the counterculture to see what would happen next. After leaving Central Saint Martins in 1967, the London-born artist defied conventional thought decrying the death of figurative art, and continued to make representational paintings that challenge patriarchal archetypes.

To support herself, Coon worked as a freelance journalist, while using photography to document her paintings – until she saw The Sex Pistols perform their second gig in 1976. Recognising the flames of rebellion about to explode, she brought the story to her editor at Melody Maker. “He dismissed what I told him at an editorial meeting where I was the only woman. He didn’t want to know. But I knew it was necessary to record what was happening,” Coon tells Dazed.

While the music business treated punk as a fad, Coon was undeterred by their willful ignorance and immediately set to work, photographing and interviewing the musicians and fans to create a seminal history of the early days of British punk. Although the darkroom that developed her film lost many of her negatives during a move, those that survived captured the radical beauty of icons like Ari Up, frontwoman of the all-female punk band, The Slits, and scenes from the first Rock Against Racism march in 1978.

Women in Revolt! also showcases works made at the end of the Thatcher regime, looking at the ways in which the LGBTQ+ community responded to the AIDS crisis and Section 28. Among the works on view are previously unseen photographs by Del LaGrace Volcano made at Chain Reaction, the BDSM lesbian club night Del ran in Vauxhall during the 1980s. As a trans, non-binary, intersex artist who uses photography as a survival strategy, Del uses the camera to foster intimate moments of connection and collaboration that linger long after the shutter clicks. 

Nearly half a century later, the artists featured in Women in Revolt! continue to challenge the status quo by virtue of their steadfast refusal to kowtow to conform to oppressive and outré patriarchal rules. Theirs is a beacon that continues to light the dark, inspiring people of all genders to live in truth. “We are largely in revolt – consciously or subconsciously – at men for trying to define our experiences,” Young says. “We aren't the ‘out’ group, we are the majority.”

Visit the gallery above for a closer look.

Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970–1990 is on view November 8, 2023 – April 7, 2024 at Tate Britain in London.

Nothing to Lose – The Punk Photographs of Caroline Coon at the Centre for British Photography in London opens on November 16, 2023.

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