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Antonia Marsh on fighting to make a space for female artists

The Girls Only curator, writer and photographer on how to take over the art world, one makeshift show at a time

Before the proliferation of female-only gallery spaces, curator, writer, and photographer Antonia Marsh began to cultivate a force for tackling under-representation in the art world. Following King Owusu and Isabel Alsina-Reynolds, she’s is the third person to be spotlit in our new project with MCM, which taps into the subcultural background of the brand in 70s Munich to highlight a new group of against-the-grain creative figures.

Dividing her time between her London and New York, since 2014 Marsh has run Girls Only, a pioneering ‘residency programme, studio space and publishing body’ that fights for female artists to have their work seen and their voices heard. Seeking out, nurturing and showcasing their work, Marsh’s vision has always been to create a genuine community that rejects clickbait fads. In the space of three short years, it’s grown from a small-scale operation in NYC, hosted in makeshift venues, to a global project tackling discrimination in the arts. Locations have spanned Copenhagen, Camden, and Mumbai, with a recent immersive life-drawing class in London, complete with a pink foam set by Alice Kirkpatrick.

Alongside a series of portraits, Marsh tells us about her transatlantic life, the erotic project she’s recently revealed, and how Girls Only is taking over the world.

How does living between New York and London inform your life and work?

Antonia Marsh: Base camp is London, but I travel to NYC often to meet with artists and do studio visits, see shows. The artists in each city inform each other’s work more than they realise, and the cross-pollination that happens between the two cities can be really exciting. When I lived in NYC in the past, I loved the fast pace of life and the punk spirit that still exists there. Artists put up shows wherever and whenever – in weird spaces or unusual parts of the city.

“I only recently realised that I’ve always been curating. I found all these old shitty frames that I’d filled with artworks I’d torn out of magazines when I was little, to make what were basically exhibitions in my bedroom” – Antonia Marsh

How did you first decide to get involved in art curation?

Antonia Marsh: I only recently realised that I’ve always been curating. The other day I found all these old shitty frames that I’d filled with artworks I’d torn out of magazines when I was little, to make what were basically exhibitions in my bedroom. It’s also a self-confidence thing, I think. Even though I’d done curatorial placements in various museums in London as well as worked in commercial and project spaces, it wasn’t until I left and studied in San Francisco that I felt confident enough in my practice to put shows on.

What inspired you to launch Girls Only?

Antonia Marsh: What I realised I loved the most about art, was spending time with artists and talking to them about their work. As far as I could see, starting a residency programme would be the best opportunity to do this. At the time I was living in NYC after my MA and had been convinced by my mentor that I shouldn’t get a job in a gallery but find my voice as a curator. So, first things first, I rented a studio space and took it from there. I started just contacting every artist I knew in the city, male and female, but it soon became apparent to me that young women were seeing far fewer opportunities than men, especially in these initial stages of their careers as artists. It felt out of sync and uncomfortable, so I immediately saw a solution with this space – if there aren’t enough opportunities for female artists, let’s create some.

In what ways has Girls Only evolved since it began?

Antonia Marsh: Girls Only has since been to London, Copenhagen and Mumbai, and in each place, it has completely evolved to suit the needs of the artists in each location. You can’t expect an artist based in NYC to have the same needs as one based in Mumbai. Everything is different, aside from one thing: the need for mutual support between women. All these projects were pretty large-scale, working with a lot of artists, showing as much work as possible. In the future, Girls Only is going to work closer and more long-term with individuals, because I think it’s maturing and evolving, which I guess I am too.

MCM’s heritage is all about the boldness and attitude of punk, who or what embodies that energy for you right now?

Antonia Marsh: I think a lot of the women making work in the face of a history of patriarchal oppression and discrimination completely embody the punk DIY ethos. India Salvor Menuez, Tessa Edwards, Carly Mark, Julia Fox, Alexandra Marzella, Liv Fontaine to name a few. But I also think it’s really important to look to the generation that came before us who are still making waves – Kembra Pfahler, Vivienne Westwood, Marylin Minter. I think anyone that’s doing the best they can to overthrow or push against what’s accepted with what they’ve got, keeps the punk ethos kicking.

What qualities do you look for in the young photographers’ work that you discover and curate?

Antonia Marsh: I think work should simultaneously speak to the moment and be timeless. This might be hard to find, but when you do find it, it’s pure magic.

As a curator, photographer and writer, what medium of expression are you most drawn to?

Antonia Marsh: Each of these practices offers me different things. There’s a different pace to each of them. When I write, I shut myself off from the outside world and go completely into myself – I lock myself away for long periods and don’t talk to anyone, which sometimes I need to do. Photography is much more active for me, but it still puts a barrier – the camera – between me and the world, I think. It’s so therapeutic to be creative when so much of my life is talking about other people’s work. Then finally curating is a daily practice – talking about work with artists in their studios, meeting with other curators, going to shows. Each of them gives me some way of connecting with people.

What prompted you to start writing erotica?

Antonia Marsh: I think it’s just another form of self-expression. My diary entries kept getting sexier and sexier, so I decided to start writing my fantasies down. The female mind is so complex, especially around sex, so I wanted to explore that and it just felt like the easiest way to do that. Most of the stories start with real interactions I’ve had and then develop into fantasy. No names are included, but if certain people read them, they would know immediately that it’s about them...

What do you stand for? What is worth standing out for?

Antonia Marsh: I stand for anyone that’s come under oppression or discrimination based on their identity, and so should everyone. We are all entitled to be exactly who we want to be.

@antoniamarsh

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