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Sophia TassewCourtesy of Sophia Tassew

The artist reviving the punk spirit of riot grrrl culture

To mark International Women’s Day, up and coming artist Sophia Tassew injects some much-needed intersectionality into the movement

Beyond the bravado, the permanent marker “SLUT” labels worn proudly on bare skin, or the kinderwhore aesthetic – the riot grrrl movement largely sought to inspire real change.

Be it rape, domestic abuse, sexuality or oppressive patriarchy, the riot grrrl scene was fearless in their pursuit of equality. The 90s subculture extended far beyond the female poster girls that fronted bands and screamed wince-inducing lyrics while hurling used tampons into crowds. But for all of its massive strides towards activism and awareness of pressing issues, its lack of intersectionality is disappointing.

Inspired by the grassroots punk ethos, South-East Londoner Sophia Tassew, 20, is curating an event for International Women’s Day that champions a more inclusive female-led movement. “Riot grrrl was something I stumbled across the internet. I did a lot of research into it. It seemed so perfect to me, their ethos. It was super unapologetic, I studied it from a visual standpoint and I thought it was great,” explains Tassew. “However, one thing that did not sit well with me was the fact that I couldn't really see any black or brown girls involved in the movement. It seemed very cis, white and middle class which I believe is the complete opposite of what feminism should be.”

Tassew is well versed in using the visual language of one medium and repackaging it to speak to a wider audience as she previously drew attention to her work by reimagining grime albums as Hollywood posters. Her RIOTGAL events will be a reinterpretation of the punk femme subculture of the past, a more inclusive grassroots feminist movement. To remedy the lack of representation Tassew has pulled together artists that conjure up the same feeling as the riot grrrl scene but address a broader spectrum of issues that affect different types of women. “From photography depicting body image, stencil work addressing women in Kurdish culture, black and urban feminism, femininity in South African culture right down to self-conception. The ladies are all so different and talented.”

Having recently been handpicked to star in Stormzy’s latest video alongside the likes of Ray BLK and Julie Adenuga, we caught up with the rising artist on the eve of the event to talk about accessibility of the art world, Grime and her RIOTGAL icons.

What is the main thing that motivates you in art, is there a common thread that ties your projects together?

Sophia Tassew: Definitely subcultures and marginalised groups of people. I really want to create things that people like me can appreciate. I think it’s because I'm tired of walking into galleries and big events that are not really aimed at people like me. I don't want the creative scene to feel like an exclusive club which is why I try and include a range of perspectives in all of my projects.

How did you become interested in the whole riot grrrl scene and what then motivated you to create RIOTGAL?

Sophia Tassew: Riot grrrl was something I stumbled across the internet. I did a lot of research into it. It seemed so perfect to me, their ethos. It was super unapologetic. I think that triggered the need to put out a call out for some females or people who use the pronouns she/her to contribute to the exhibition. I wanted to bring back the feeling of being a Riot grrrl but through my eyes. That's why I changed the spelling to gal and that's why I was so keen on getting different types of artists. I'm a firm believer in intersectional feminism and that we need to address the needs of all types of women.

Can you describe what will be exhibited?

Sophia Tassew: My pieces explore black feminism, the expressionist pieces address the differences between white and black feminism along with commentary of the current social and political climate. Evar Hussayni’s work is a commentary on the middle east's involvement in sexual trafficking, particularly the Gulfs participation with the issue after 5000 Ezidi women were kidnapped by ISIS. Whereas, Pippa Alice captures an untouched sense of femininity and fun. Captured on film, the images are an unapologetic appreciation of the female form. Portraits urging women to overcome their physical insecurities will be displayed by Erica Nuamah, whose work intends for the viewer to challenge the accuracy of the portraiture and desire to be perfect in the real world. While Lindo Khandela celebrates the strength and endurance of women in South African culture.

“Every girl can be (a RIOTGAL), there’s no criteria. Believing in intersectional feminism, standing up to anything negative and constant artistic rioting through different mediums is all that's needed” – Sophia Tassew

What's the vibe going to be like at RIOTGAL?

Sophia Tassew: Nadine from Pussy Palace will be providing the sounds. It's going to be really unapologetic, the space is amazing and the overall vibe is going to be really cool. Not your average art exhibition.

You were in Stormzy's recent video, you've been hanging around with Julie Adenuga what's your connection?

Sophia Tassew: Julie and I met late last year at one of Stormzy's video shoots. We've followed each other for some time before that on social media so we were familiar with each other when we met. We also came up with a plan to host bi-monthly dinner parties for creative women too which is going really well. We had our first one at The Ace Hotel last month. She's cool peoples.

Do you feel South London is embracing the RIOTGAL culture you're trying to embody with this exhibit?

Sophia Tassew: Yeah, I'm a fan of BBZ, gal-dem, Pussy Palace and Born n Bread – I feel like we're not sorry. We shouldn't have to be. I definitely think in this political and social climate, we need these collectives, we need the people to support so we can continue to push much-needed content and events out there.

Who else would you say were RIOTGALS to look up to, who's a good example of an intersectional feminist doing big things and inspiring you?

Sophia Tassew: Definitely Angela Davis. I wish I was as well spoken as her, I've decided to do some more reading because of Angela. FKA Twigs, Ava DuVernay, the director of 13th is definitely a RIOTGAL. Lily Allen, Ms Dynamite, my friend Nicole Crenstil who is changing things up in the art world, Julie Adenuga definitely has a riot vibe to her. Every girl can be one to be fair, there's no criteria. Believing in intersectional feminism, standing up to anything negative and constant artistic rioting through different mediums is all that's needed.