Heading up the female-centric residency program Girls Only might sound exclusionary, however Antonia Marsh is anything but – see how she’s shaking up the art scene
Have you heard of Antonia Marsh? Perhaps her legacy precedes her. This London curator is one woman that should definitely be on your radar. In the increasingly crowded space teeming with “clickbait feminism” on the Internet and IRL, Marsh is a vanguard that is championing a crusade for girls all over the world. Her motto is simple yet strong – she encourages a community of inclusivity and for people everywhere to get off their phones and take action.
While some can’t seem to find enough hours in the day to queue up their next Tumblr posts, Marsh somehow has managed to sustain an international residency and studio program titled Girls Only, as well as filling her time with endless personal projects. On the eve of Thanksgiving in NYC, we caught up with Marsh in an unusually-desolate Soho to talk to this rising female role model, unbeknownst to the art world. With the full moon guiding our evening, I talked to Marsh about the global programs she’s created for Girls Only, her upcoming top-secret porn exhibition at Art Basel and her recent diagnosis with Bell’s Palsy that has propelled her inherently punk attitude even further.
Can you tell me about Girls Only?
Antonia Marsh: I started Girls Only in a studio in Bushwick, but the project really started in Miami, a couple of years ago with a friend. We were talking by the pool and why she felt really intimidated by the male tattoo space. I wanted to start a residency program with my studio and the whole girls only tattoo idea and link it to my art practice. So I started it and we had 12 residents over a year. There were these different spheres of time-based residencies and we had a big show of all the work. How it functions now is very related to the pace of where it is. In New York, young female artists need space and community, because when you leave art school you don’t have studios around all the time and you get a bit disheartened. When I went back to London, there were so many residencies, I thought maybe this wouldn’t work as much. We did one curatorial residency with this artist Kelsey Bennett, who’s a photographer from New York.
Here in New York, people have shows all the time – you can do a show in a bar, you can do a show in some janky space somewhere in Brooklyn. That spirit and that energy of New York is something I really wanted to bring back to London. We did five shows in under a year, all in different spaces in London. Then I took it to Copenhagen, I went there for a month and instead of doing an exhibition, I did a big dinner. I did 21 studio visits and invited the 21 artists to a huge dinner and it became a massive installation. We all cooked and the photographers cooked. Everything down to the tablecloth was part of the exhibition. It was all about exchange and conversation and how I could take the best parts of an exhibition – which is production, curation, etc. – without the bureaucracy of the art world. So that’s how Girls Only has existed so far.
Why do you think it’s important for females around the world in the arts to have a platform dedicated specifically to them?
Antonia Marsh: Everyone knows there’s a disparity in the art world. The project doesn’t come out of any sort of anger towards patriarchy in the art world, which, of course, I maintain. I don’t think that there are enough opportunities for females in the arts, so all I can really do is try and make some. That comes from a supportive position more than an affrontive position. I started doing it because it was instinctively what I felt like i wanted to do with the people that were surrounding me.
I’m helping these artists who are 25 and just finishing art school but if teenage girls from the internet can be inspired by it, then that’s what it really is. This girl came to the studio to interview me for her blog called Pulp Zine. She wrote all these really eloquent emails, and I was like, “okay, cool. Come to the studio”. She shows up at my studio in Bushwick, trembling, literally, this 16-year-old girl. She skipped high school – didn’t tell her parents – got the train from Connecticut alone, never having been in Brooklyn before, to come and interview me. And she’s this tiny little thing. We hung out with her all day, painted a leather jacket for her. By the end of the day, she was our best mate. I think she was happy with it.
“I don’t think that there are enough opportunities for females in the arts, so all I can really do is try and make some” – Antonia Marsh
Has social media been important to what you do, in terms of seeing a response?
Antonia Marsh: It’s wild. At the same time, I try not to take it too seriously. It’s been really useful in terms of spreading the word. I started making these Girls Only t-shirts and giving them out to friends as a fun, silly thing. The response online was insane. I got so many messages asking where they were sold. I didn’t want to commercialise feminism. It was cool to make money for the project, but I didn’t want to sell these. I posted an Instagram saying “if you want a Girls Only t-shirt, send a blank t-shirt with postage, a letter about yourself and a little present for the studio and I’ll paint it and send it back.” I must have sent 100 t-shirts to girls all over America. It was so cute.
I went to Paris last year and I was bored, so I put on social media, “if you would like a postcard from Paris, send me your address and if you send it within the next 48-hours, I’ll personalise a postcard” – a little mail art project. I sent 150 or 200 postcards to girls in Brazil, Russia, Asia, all over Europe, America, Canada, South America. It was insane. I just wrote them a little message. It was really cool. That was social media working and making it physical. These girls were liking my picture and to me – not having grown up with it and being a digital native – sending a postcard is maybe the same thing as getting a “like” on Instagram. It’s real to them, I’m showing them what’s real to me.
There are so many “galleries” created exclusively online and existing only in the digital sphere, it’s really interesting how you’ve utilised social media but it’s also become something very real and tangible. Can you talk more about the community that has grown from this and how you selected the artists in New York that are part of the residency?
Antonia Marsh: In every kind of nexus in the art world, it always starts with who you know. The first resident ever was Kate Falcone who I met through a friend at Bard. We spent every day in the studio working together. She introduced me to her friend who then did a residency and then it was just friends of friends of friends. I put out an open call and tried to mix it up. It’s really just this hodgepodge of different communications. What’s so cool is when I look on someone’s website and they put “Girls Only Residency” as part of their CV.
It’s such an intrinsically good feeling when you can see this network you’ve created coming together.
Antonia Marsh: And you know what – the difference is, it’s a network. There’s no competition, it’s all supportive, because it’s women. As soon as you put all women together in a space and you take men out of it, it’s fully supportive. There’s no dog eat dog.
Do you have plans to open Girls Only up to men?
Antonia Marsh: What’s funny is that two men have exhibited with Girls Only shows before, but no one really notices. I don’t want to reinforce that binary. I don’t want to do what’s been done to us as women. The idea is about supporting female artists, so if they’re working with men, then of course. We did the show “Texts and Textiles”, which was about how a lot of artists are using traditionally-male forms of embroidery or quilting to convey fronted or political messages. My friend Rafal Zajko, who’s a British artist, saw my open call on Instagram and asked to be in the show. I was like, “fuck yeah.” This is what women should be doing in the art world. If you’re a male artist and you want to be in a Girls Only show and you have the bravery to ask me, I’m not going to say no. The thing is, that might be problematic and there might be huge gaps in what I’m saying theoretically, but it’s not really about that. The project is not about exclusivity, it’s about inclusivity. I’m not afraid of there being problems, because I’m trying to do my best. I can’t be perfect, I’m just trying to do the right thing as best as I can. I can’t be so self-conscious about every little thing, it’s boring.
Where are you taking Girls Only next? It seems to be all over the world.
Antonia Marsh: I’m going to India in February to do Girls Only in Mumbai. It will exist and behave completely differently to how it does here. I’m hoping it will be a lot more personal; I want to just get to know what the artists are doing, what the art world is like there, a lot more personally.
Why do you think it’s important to bring the project to India?
Antonia Marsh: As young, globalised women, we’re very lucky in that we might have communication or contact with people in other places. Just as Girls Only is getting to know other places, it’s expanding it’s network within the realms with which I can. It’s an experiment – going somewhere, seeing what’s up and then seeing what I can do for young women in the arts there and what I can bring to that and what I can learn from them. The project is so much about conversation, it’s not about imparting my opinion on anyone, it’s about learning what’s going on around the world.
“As soon as you put all women together in a space and you take men out of it, it’s fully supportive. There’s no dog eat dog” – Antonia Marsh
I noticed via social media that you were just diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, can you talk about how has that empowered you at all?
Antonia Marsh: I can’t raise my eyebrow, if I smile it’s a bit crooked. I’ll show you a picture the day I got diagnosed – I look like the Phantom of the Opera. I woke up one morning and couldn’t move the side of my face at all and I got diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy. It could be from stress or anxiety, they don’t know. It’s temporary most of the time – one in 5,000 people get it. It constantly twitches all day. When I laugh – I was nervous to go on this date – I’m a bit shy because it’s slightly crooked. I had this eye patch for a bit and I was like, “fuck it, I’m just going to own it because I’ve got to”. I was like, “I could be upset about this”. It’s a a bit like – if you’ve got an STD, you should talk about it with your mates, because if someone else gets it, they know they can talk to you about it. If I’ve got this thing wrong with my face, I’m not going to hide in a hole. I’m going to be like, “this is what’s wrong”, I’ll wear my eye patch with pride and if it happens to someone else, they know they can talk to you about it.
It can speak to a larger message, especially to younger girls about self-image and not being self-conscious.
Antonia Marsh: I want to do a charity fundraiser about it. I was saying to my friends, you don’t know how lucky you are to have your smile. I literally woke up one day and couldn’t smile. You don’t know how lucky you are. It’s so empowering for my friends to be like, “wow, we’re so proud of you, you’re just getting on with it and going on dates and still going out”. That’s why I posted on Instagram saying, “I’ve been diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy and here’s my eye patch.”
Even having something like Bell’s Palsy gives you a platform and a means to empower other people. People might see that and be inspired if they see someone else really owning it and not caring about what people think. If you can change someone’s perspective and show them not to hide their differences, that’s great.
Antonia Marsh: My friend has a daughter who’s four and she was in a car accident. She’s blind in one of her eyes now. She has to wear an eye patch – obviously she’s a little girl and she’s dealing with it really well, but my friend was like “you’ve got to hang out with her and wear your eye patch and make it cool so that my little girl can see you wearing it.” It’s about wearing your whatever-it-is on your sleeve – if you’ve got gray hair, or a twitch or whatever. I think we should own it and wear it with pride and live by example for other women. There’s so much pressure on us to look so perfectly beautiful. There’s so much beauty in owning what’s different about you. The marks of life are actually really beautiful. That’s what social media can do. That’s when it’s positive.
Do you have any advice for younger girls who want to start out in the arts?
Antonia Marsh: Don’t think that there’s pressure. If you want to do something, even if someone else has done it before, even if you’re worried that your idea isn’t original, just do it, because if it feels right, it’s your idea. The more, the merrier. Even if you want to start a Girls Only and you want to start a residency program for female artists and make merchandise and you want to do exhibitions just with girls – even if you do it exactly with all the same artists as me, I don’t care, just do it. The more, the better.
With social media, there’s so much inundation. You’re seeing the same themes and tropes repeated over and over again. it can be overwhelming – as women, we tend to shut ourselves down before we start.
Antonia Marsh: Everyone’s so overly self-conscious because we’re so inundated by information and images all the time. My friend Alice Lancaster is an amazing artist. She’s going through a period of latent artistic production. She’s not making new work and feeling really disheartened. She’s fucking amazing. I said to her, the only reason you’re feeling like this is because we’re constantly being instantly gratified by images on our phone. You think it looks like online that everyone’s doing loads of shit all the time, but in reality they’re not. Don’t worry about it, just get on and something will happen. Everyone gets so terrified by the internet – they think that everyone’s doing so much shit, but it’s all constructed realities. Rent a hotel room and put some art up on the walls and invite three friends over and you’ve done a show. Just do it, who cares if someone’s done it already.
“If you want to do something, even if someone else has done it before, even if you’re worried that your idea isn’t original, just do it, because if it feels right, it’s your idea. The more, the merrier” – Antonia Marsh
Can you talk about the secret porn exhibition you’re staging at Basel?
Antonia Marsh: I can’t tell you where it is or anything about it, but I’m doing this show called “Soft Core Porn”. It’s not really porn, it’s a show about nudity and sexuality. It’s basically just all of my favourite friends who are artists giving me their raciest, naughtiest images of dick pics, their friends shagging, their nudes, and their boyfriends. It’s photography, drawing and sculpture. My friend Kelsey (Bennett) is making homemade dildos. I can’t tell you where it is, but you’ll find out. The show is to be revealed. It’s very exciting.
How did you come up with the idea?
Antonia Marsh: I can’t believe it – I just put all these sexy pictures together and it ended up being like eight girls and four guys and there are selfies, dick pics. I’m trying to figure it out. I’m still writing the press release and that’s my way of working through why i’m doing this. It’s very instinctual. There’s something with the nude that’s changing. It’s not just a male photographer taking pictures or model babes. Something’s rough and gritty and there’s a new energy of sexuality that’s around.
Do you think you have to be on one end of the spectrum or the other in order to completely identify as a feminist?
Antonia Marsh: It’s all beautiful, I don’t care – I honestly have so many issues with figuring out my own sexuality. I stand for feminism and all this stuff, but I still shave my armpits. I think my exhibitions are a catharsis for me. It’s helping me figure out how I feel or what I think, It’s a learning curve for me and that remains a question that I ask.
Sexuality is something that is so personal and different for everyone – the conversation in media tends to portray those that are very open with it or the complete opposite. The extreme ends.
Antonia Marsh: I’m English, so maybe I’m a little bit more private. I think my main thing is transparency. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m gay or straight, sometimes I don’t know if I want to be thin or let it all hang out. I think I’m trying to do a show that’s also an expression of where I am with that, maybe other people will relate to that too.