Women’s House exhibition: a transformed Tyneside flat exploring feminism from diverse perspectives.

A few months ago, I was contacted out of the blue, by artist Padma Rao about her upcoming exhibition ‘Women’s House’ with fellow artist Miki Z. The exhibition (and wider project) inspired by Judy Chicago sees a flat in South Shields transformed into a gallery space, exploring feminism in social, political, cultural and historical contexts and the notion of “otherness”  through various art forms. This exhibition is a culmination of research, individual and collaborative interrogations, conversations, workshops with diverse women, and discussions with artists through a symposium.

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Judy Chicago – Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

I get contacted all the time with exhibition information but this really triggered my interest for several reasons….

Firstly, in case you’ve been living under a rock, Judy Chicago, pioneering feminist artist, author and educator is having her work exhibited at The Baltic (until April 2020). The AMAZING exhibition at The Baltic spans Chicago’s fifty-year career, from her early actions in the desert in the 1970s, to her most recent series, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2013–16), which has not been previously shown outside of the US. As a feminist, I’ve admired and been away of Chicago for some time, so any project that is inspired by her work is something I want to see and be involved in.

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Judy Chicago – Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

Secondly, it’s a genuine community engagement project. So many exhibitions and art projects have “tokenistic” engagement! This is not the case for Women’s House – they worked tirelessly over the last year engaging with community groups, organisations, artists, peers, researchers etc – having meaningful interactions with the wider community and creating opportunities for people to collaborate with the project. I really believe “co-creation” (artists working with the community) enables higher quality art work and more interesting outputs.

Thirdly, it’s a gallery in a South Shields flat; I love that concept on its own. It’s so interesting when you watch people in traditional gallery spaces, “gallery behaviour” exhibited and the audience barriers erected once art is put in a traditional gallery space. Instead with Women’s House – you’re greeted by either Padma or Miki, offered a cup of tea and then free to explore the ‘living room’, ‘ kitchen’, ‘bedroom’ and ‘bathroom’. It’s lush, it’s relaxed and it feels very special.

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Miki (left) and Padma (right) – Photo credit: Nicola Hunter

Finally, at its core is the exploration of feminism and different experiences of feminism via different art forms and cultural expression. I’m a passionate and proud feminist – I’m so interested at the fact the word “feminist” can have such triggered and polarised response. In the past, when I’ve supported a feminist art project, I’ve received some pretty horrible messages from people who really dislike feminists. And in championing this exhibition so far – whilst the responses have been really lovely and positive, there have been a few “stop with your feminist agenda pushing” or “I hate feminists”. Being a feminist is just about being a good human….

I went to view Women’s House a few weeks ago and it was so beautiful. Different art forms and styles in each room; there was a feeling of questioning, exploring, challenging the representations of women in various cultures and storytelling. The bathroom featured the work of members from Sunderland Women’s Art Group; over six weeks, members worked with Miki Z and Denise Lovell to explore domesticity, cross-cultural identities and gendered roles in the context of feminism. Some of this work is presented on sanitary wear including pads and tampons – which I just loved and extended debate around, why sanitary pads are STILL classes as luxury products and period poverty.

Women’s House is available to view until 20th December – they welcome individuals, community groups – anyone and everyone to get in touch to view by appointment via projectsangini@gmail.com . It’s a must see for feminists and art lovers alike.

I was lucky enough to interview Padma and Miki just before the exhibition opened to find out more! This interview was one my favourites as Culture Vulture and is peppered with such honesty from two fantastic creative humans!

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Miki (left) and Padma (right) – Photo credit: Nicola Hunter

Well hello both, so if we could start at the beginning…tell my readers who you are and what your arts’ practice is?

Padma: My name is Padma Rao and I am a contemporary visual artist, practicing abstract painting and contemporary drawing.

I am passionate about women’s issues and equality, and through my work I investigate the role and status of women in our current society, especially within the South Asian cultures. I use of traditional materials, such as vermillion and turmeric. Though my work is largely experimental and abstract, I include figurative elements as part of the narrative.

I have worked extensively in the arts and the wider cultural, voluntary arts sector in a variety of roles, including arts manager, poet as well as Diversity officer at the Arts Council of England and as an advisor on the panel for Sunderland City of Culture Bid 2021. Having left my job at the Arts Council of England, I have since set up a social enterprise ArtsConnect that runs an art studio/ gallery ‘Makaan’ in South Shields and works as part-time manager at Sangini, a BME led women’s charity in Tyneside.

Miki: I am Miki Z, a visual artist and natural builder. My creative practice is based on experimentation where process is as important as finished product. A significant element of my work centers on materialiality as well as collaboration. Play and accidents are an integral part of my creativity, working in a tactile way across materials. Alongside theoretical research, my practice is a point of research which deepens and informs my thinking process. This fluid approach draws in elements of installation, performance and community participation.

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The Storytellers – Women’s House – Photo credit: Nicola Hunter

So tell me about your journey into the Arts?

Padma: I have always been interested in writing and painting. I  have loved drawing since my childhood and studied literature in India.  I grew up in an artistic environment where music and literature was part of our daily lives as my mother was a classical musician and my father played guitar.  I wrote stories which were printed in local literary magazines and a collection of my poems was published while I was at college.

As a first-generation immigrant in the 80s, I found that the arts sector for the diverse artists wasn’t that developed and it was quite isolating. Much later, I entered the arts sector as a volunteer, helping out to put dance events on in Newcastle for Kala Sangam, Bradford. I also volunteered for a writing group in South Shields. Whilst developing knowledge and skills, organising workshops, I continued to practice my own work around painting, drawing and literature. It was during this, I learnt about the wider arts sector and the disconnect that existed for Black minority ethnic artists, arts organisations both at personal as well as wider level.  This marginalisation of Black artists concerned me and I began asking how can I instil pride in my daughter who was growing up as part of this society but had not experienced the richness of different cultural expressions around her. The history she was told in her school as part of her curriculum was not the history I grew up with about the British Raj and India.

I realised that the picture wasn’t right and in order to correct the picture, it was important that I was part of that narrative.  It was during this time, the Arts Council of England rolled out its ACE Fellowship programme, a fast track senior management training programme for Black, Asian and Chinese arts professionals who, despite working in the industry for a long time, found it hard to gain an entry point into the arts. It was the first-time Arts Council had recognised the lack of representation of BME artists and arts professional within the arts and it became a turning point for me. I was placed at ARC, Stockton where I learnt about all aspects of arts management, programming, marketing, events co-ordination, funding and finance.  Finally, I progressed to work as Diversity officer at the Arts Council of England, North East where worked till 2011.

At 50, I decided to leave my job to become a full-time artist, but that road has not been easy and it took me further 8 years to finally arrive at this point to show my work publicly with the Women’s House project.  All this time, I kept working in the arts with Sangini, creating projects involving women, highlighting women’s issues, took on governance roles with various organisations which contributed to the depth of experience that I am able to bring to my art today.

Miki: I studied 3D Design at Northumbria University 20 years ago. I left feeling completely disengaged with art and design, creativity had been educated out of me.  Some years later I started an abstract painting class with Linda Kent. I found I could connect with this way of seeing the world and letting the materials inform expression.  Alongside this, I attended various community arts workshops as a participant; this encouraged me to find a way back into my own creativity and the value of the arts.

What made you turn your house into a gallery space?

Padma: The gallery space is called Makaan, in Hindi/Urdu it means a house (that inhabits art and artists)

I feel passionately about the transformative power of the arts and know how ‘spaces’ can play an important role in giving access to rich, life changing arts experience.  Not everyone is able to, or likes to or comfortable to go to galleries, thus the buildings can become barriers in engaging public in the arts.  So, by converting this terraced flat into an art space I plan to bring the arts to the people. It exists quietly as part of a residential neighbourhood and has welcomed artists, women and people from diverse communities.

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Padma – Tracing The Evanescent

Tell me how the project came about and developed over time?

Miki: Woman’s House came about after many conversations Padma and I had shared over the years about our shared interest in feminist issues, working with women’s groups and our own creative practices. One question kept coming up in these discussions- Why could we not make our art and developing as artists be the most important thing in our lives?  We both felt passionately about pursuing this as a priority.  It became clear that there where many reasons why this didn’t happen. Everything else in life was given more importance -caring for people, doing other work just to survive, putting other projects and people first before ourselves.  Alongside these practical concerns, the underlying narrative is equally important. We have not valued ourselves as artists, the immense feelings of guilt spending time developing our creativity and under confidence in expressing our identity in the world.

In 2015 I visited New York where I went to see The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago. It was a fantastic and inspiring opportunity to see this iconic piece of work. What I was most struck with was the time spent working with hundreds of participants to create this striking art work. The highly skilled use of craft techniques, often seen as women’s work to depict each element is incredible.  It is an impressive collaboration between people, technical skills and ideas.

Padma: In 2018 while visiting a major women’s art exhibition in Paris, I saw some of the other work from the original project Womanhouse, 1972 the iconic project about women and domesticity by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro.

The Womanhouse, 1972 presented a variety of feminist art by various women including sculptures, performances, installations in a mansion, making this into a large scale site-specific installation, challenging the status quo around women’s issues and patriarchy.

The experience of seeing the original work by Judy Chicago was transformational; however, the exhibition presented a White, heterosexual, middle-class female perspective leaving a particular gap around Black and LGBTQ perspectives.

I got back from Paris and spoke to Miki at length about the exhibition I had seen and how these issues were still relevant, especially in the light of the Centenary of the Suffragette movement and the #MeToo campaign.  That’s when we decided to revisit the original exhibition Womanhouse. We both felt that there were still conversations to be had using Judy Chicago’s project as a departure point.  We wanted to understand how feminism is understood and defined by women from the BME and LGBTQ communities.

Four decades on, Women’s House considers BME and LGBTQ women’s narratives around some of the issues they are facing in current times in the light of the wider political, social and demographical changes.

What is it about Judy Chicago that you find so inspiring?

Both: The work of Judy Chicago opens a way to start dialogues about feminist issues.  Her iconic work Womanhouse seemed to fit well in the realms of what we had been talking about over the years, we both identified with parts of this particular work. The house being a main element of significance.  Padma had already converted a Tyneside flat into a studio/ gallery and my recent additional career direction in working in sustainable construction.

Having seen her work before, we both have a particular connection to Judy Chicago’s work. The tenacity, the boldness and expansiveness in her work has deeply inspired us to explore a lot of issues through our own lenses.  Her work has been pioneering in putting women’s work in a main stream context; highlighting women artists in their own right giving voice to feminist  ideas. It provided a radical language of expression for artists and viewer at a time when second wave feminism was active. Her work has influenced our own practice giving us courage in our own expression and aided more direction in enquiry within our creativity.

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Judy Chicago – Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

Tell me about some of the events and groups that you’ve engaged with so far as part of the project?

Both: The framework for this project included workshops with community groups, a networking lunch for artists and a symposium.

We held six workshops with 30 BME and LGBTQ  women across Tyne and Wear with the aims of the workshops were to engage women in a discussion around the themes explored in Women’s House using creative approaches help elicit visual narratives.

We also worked with Sunderland women’s art group and facilitated the process of developing an idea into a visual piece, enabling them to make site-specific art pieces for this exhibition.

We hosted a networking lunch for artists; eight BME and LGBTQ women artists were be invited to take a critical view on the issues of feminism and the impact on their personal lives and the artistic practice. What transpired was prioritising space for more in-depth conversations in the future about these discussions.

Finally, a symposium – Working in partnership with National Glass Centre; Sangini organised the symposium whereby a panel of women artists and art professionals were invited to present their views and experiences of Women centric work in the context off feminism in current times.

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Women’s House – Photo credit: Nicola Hunter

What do you want the audience experience to be when they visit the exhibition?

Miki: I want the audience to be challenged by the work created both collectively and individually.  Part of the exhibition is an immersive space to be viewed by minimal light enabling a space for individual imagination and narratives to be added into their own perception of the work. Their part of the story is an important aspect of this work; the boundaries are in no way solid, providing fluid interpretation.  I would like the audience to experience an emotional response to the work.

Padma: The work is largely visceral, personal and emerges out of deep introspection, unravelling small incidents with great care and honesty.  We are telling stories and I hope the audience is able to pick up on these threads and explore personal stories long after they have seen the exhibition.

Why do you think this exhibition and project is important?

Miki: This project is really just a starting point of opening the discussions around intersectionality. The uncomfortable, unsaid things are of interest to me, many of these topics have only been touched upon within this project. The tensions we see around our communities are real, but how do we address them? This project has started to make a space for dialogues between different women from diverse background. There is so much fear involved in talking about the real issues, the way we see ourselves in our own context and then how we may be able to see ourselves in a wider context.  Creating a safe space to have, what might, for many be unsafe conversations is challenging.  Using the creative process and facilitated sessions is a tool opening cross sectional dialogue.

Padma: This project is an important point of transition for me as an artist as it has helped me to affirm my identity, develop an understanding of the collaborative practice as well as my own individual practice.  Many of the issues explored in this project more in-depth conversations both internal as well as externally at wider levels.  Aside from the issues of race and sexuality, there are plethora of other issues that prevent women from leading a decent day to day life which goes to show that more is needed to achieve a level playing field.

The exhibition is personal yet it’s also reflective of the wider narratives we have encountered while working on this project.  It’s a conversation piece between Miki and I, a portrayal of the female world, as we saw it and experienced it.

This project helped us to link up with Baltic and the Women’s House exhibition coincides with Judy Chicago’s exhibition at Baltic. This is a major co-incidence which we are not taking it lightly. We are delighted with the opportunity to work with Baltic on this and we will be hosting an event to mark Judy Chicago’s exhibition.

Can you tell me about some of the pieces and the processes behind the making?

The Storytellers

Padma: A collaborative, immersive, site specific piece that draws on intersections of our identities in terms of race and sexuality.

This piece uses the techniques of Warli tribal art from India, where the outside walls of the house are painted in red natural pigment and using rice flour and water, women depict their daily lives on the painted surface.  We have used this traditional art form to portray our stories in the contemporary British context.  Using white line drawings, both Miki and I have attempted to bring together our experiences over the past year.

The piece creates an immersive environment, presented in a darkened room where viewers are invited to see the work using small hand-held lights, restricting their view of the artwork as a whole.  The viewers will only see parts of the work, forcing them to develop their own narrative/s based on the limited view of the installation.

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Miki (left) and Padma (right) – Photo credit: Nicola Hunter

Tracing The Evanescent

Padma: “Can’t remember the last time a south Asian female figure was portrayed in a mainstream art gallery.’

This became the starting point as I began investigating into the notion of feminism among South Asian women who are often seen as ‘passive’. This concern was further widened with questions such as, ‘Where are the stories of South Asian female activism?’  ‘Why there are very few or little South Asian female stories represented in the galleries or museums?’ ‘Where is the South Asian feminist art in the UK?’ After much research, there is a distinct lack of narratives to assert British South Asian feminist voices, especially through creative expressions.

This piece is a series of process based drawings involving the act of mark-making and erasure as the main method to ‘trace’ the lost or hidden faces of women of South Asian descent. What began as a quest for stories of feminist art expression among South Asian women artists, soon became a concern. There has been a distinct lack of narratives of the British South Asian feminist voices, especially through creative expressions.

Angry and upset, I began rendering by drawing and erasing the faces in a repeated fashion, as if to experience the notion of invisibility that happens to the women on daily basis. In some of the drawings, by slowly making the circular gestural marks over the face, thus partially covering the faded face, I was able to connect deeply and emotionally with these women.

Who are these women?  Despite the concern about the lack of presence of feminist expressions, what I found exciting was the ordinary and the everyday acts of feminism which pervade these women’s lives.  Hence, the largely lost or hidden faces of ordinary women who are brave, courageous and strong become the heroines and their narratives are explored through their gaze and emotional state. They are portrayed in oversized scale using charcoal, graphite and kumkum (vermillion).

Exploring Other

Miki Z: A process led investigation into gendered space both physical and emotional. Using abstract lines, mixed media and water colours, it explores the queer space in-between, capturing the non-binary state of depiction of a person. It’s open to challenging those boundaries, disrupting the binary position. Using intuitive way of working, there is the accidental or the unseen. What happens on the paper informs the next.  There is fluidity and sense of movement in the pieces that allow the viewers to gain a sense of flow that is largely internal, feeling like they are floating in a space of their own occupying a liminal space.

Sum the exhibition up in 3 words?

Both: Immersive, poetic, bold

What do you think about the current North East creative scene?

Both: The North East creative scene is a unique place to showcase as well as experience fabulous arts and culture.  Just take Sunderland and you can see how a city is transforming its cultural landscape through great music, dance, festivals and visual arts from across the world.  Despite the squeeze on funding, there are great advocates for the arts in the North East who keep fighting for the region and that gives us hope for the future. We do need more diverse artists from the region and their voices to come through and more diversity of audience participation, especially inclusive of minority ethnic, disability and LGBTQ communities.

Tell me about an artist that you find in the present, super inspiring?

Padma: There are several artists that I often refer to, depending on the subject I’m working on, for inspiration and to learn from; Kara Walker, Kiki Smith, Chitra Ganesh and Zarina Hashmi to name a few. But the one artist whose work I find particularly inspiring and deeply interesting, in terms of drawing, is Julie Mehretu.  Mehretu’s work is multi-layered with marks, architectural shapes, designs to create complex large scale abstract paintings.  I have not seen her work, but I am sure it will be just as transformational as it has been with Judy Chicago’s work when I saw it for the first time in Paris.

Miki: Throughout this project I decided not to do research on other queer or BME female artists. I was more interested in theoretical research which in turn influenced my creative practice becoming research, ideas and thoughts. The main area of importance for me goes hand in hand with my other work as a builder in various ways. Looking at gendered space as a concept, how we interact with spaces around us and how space is conveyed on a two dimensional plain.

Tell me about another project you’ve worked on?

Padma: Last year, I produced a retrospective for a national Rangoli artist Ranbir Kaur at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.

Miki: As well as being an artist I am a natural builder.  During my recent postgraduate degree in Belgium I was involved in the design and build of a women’s centre in a village in Morocco. Through this experience I have become motivated in researching practical design principles for best practice in working with marginalised  communities.

What’s next for you in 2020?

Both: We plan to carry on developing our collaborative work, expanding narratives working with communities to make larger scale artworks taking over public spaces.

Miki: In the next year I have many projects I aim to undertake, part research, part practice where one will influence the other.  I will attempt to undertake a research project which focuses on gendered space, crossing between physical built environment, body, emotional and the place in-between.  Alongside this I want to produce a body of work that crosses between my abstract art work and technical skills working with lime and clay in construction. Melding the two disciplines together.

Padma:  ‘The Female’ – as in consciousness, a metaphysical body, remains a primary concern of my work.  I would like to continue exploring some of the issues I uncovered during my research on this project, such as the notion of visibility, migration and identity from a feminist perspective. I have been deeply moved by the recent forced mass migration of Rohyingyas in Myanmar, but this is not in isolation. Mass movement of people is symptomatic of where humanity is at right now and I plan to develop a body of work on this topic.

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Women’s House – Photo credit: Nicola Hunter

Wow…..I’ve loved this interview. I could talk about all of this all day – I really love when personal passions become the inspiration for projects. It’s all about people power!

Women’s House is available to view until 20th December – they welcome individuals, community groups – anyone and everyone to get in touch to view by appointment via projectsangini@gmail.com. It’s a must see for feminists and art lovers alike.

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