“It aspires to be thought-provoking, funny, serious, attractive and fun,” says Lucas of her new all-women exhibition in Colchester, which includes work by Gillian Wearing, Maggi Hambling and Sue Webster
Between the mid-16th and 17th centuries, Colchester Castle was employed as a gaol, holding hundreds of women accused of witchcraft. Today, almost opposite the same site, the artists Sarah Lucas, Gillian Wearing and Maggi Hambling stand tall, clutching broomsticks in direct reference to these women, many of whom were killed as a result of public anxiety. The cardboard cut-out trio announce Big Women, a new exhibition at Firstsite gallery curated by Lucas, featuring a further 21 women artists whose cut-outs similarly stalk the space.
“I see Big Women as both an endorsement and a celebration of women’s achievement in the creative field,” says Lucas, who arrived at the idea while in Venice with fellow artist Kate Boxer. A conversation about age and becoming a ‘señora’ (rather than a ‘señoria’) led to a wider discussion among Lucas’s peers – including others who emerged during the YBA-era – and a show at Galerie Meyer Kainer in Vienna in 2020. “It aspires to be thought-provoking, funny, serious, attractive and fun. God knows we need it in these times dominated by male aggression, politicking, greed, war and pig-headedness,” continues Lucas.
Borrowing its title from the 1990s TV show about a feminist publishing house – itself based on Fay Weldon’s 1978 novel Praxis – Big Women is a rejection of modern culture’s emphasis on youth, and the prevalent ageism that disproportionately affects women. Featuring painting, sculpture, clothing, photography and video, some pieces have been conceived specifically for the show, while other works were made in the 1980s. None of the artists here are younger than 40, putting the show in stark contrast to the ‘Under 30’-style branding that typically holds weight on and offline.
“I knew exactly what I was going to do as soon as I heard the title,” says Sue Webster. “It was easy. A portrait of myself nine months pregnant at the age of 52.” Her first oil painting since university, in it Webster wears a leather jacket adorned with Siouxsie and the Banshees badges, her naked stomach protruding. At over seven-feet tall, she is the biggest woman in the whole show. “It became apparent how important it would be if I immortalised myself and this special moment in the tradition of oil on canvas, standing proud like an American president in the National Portrait Gallery. I needed to be completely out of my comfort zone in order to do justice to the show’s premise.”
Perhaps one of the most divisive women-centred topics throughout history – both within the art world and broader society – motherhood is also incorporated in Yoko Brown’s practice; she presents a photograph of herself in a sequin dress, pregnant with her daughter Yuki. “When I was pregnant, I felt this is (literally) the most creative thing I’ve ever done,” she explains. “I was just playing around before Yuki was born, and wanted to record and celebrate this moment, what an extraordinary shape.” With no set criteria, elsewhere Gillian Wearing appears in a photograph beside supermodel Claudia Schiffer, Princess Julia presents a self-portrait, and Fiona Banner shows ‘verbal nudes’, with a video of the actress Samantha Morton reading her own portrait. Renata Adela, who’s presenting several pieces, returns to the women incarcerated for being a witch. “I wanted to make something that might serve as a memorial to those women put to death, and to those women around the world fighting for their freedom now,” she says of an audio work.
While many of the artists were instantly taken with Lucas’s proposal, others had to interrogate what exactly being part of a woman-only line-up meant. “I have to be honest, in the past five years I’ve turned down being part of all-female shows,” says Rachel Howard. “Although I am a feminist, I have an aversion to all-female exhibitions. However, what a great title – it says it all really – and secondly, I know quite a few of the other artists, so it’s a gathering, a celebration of an unspoken understanding, a wisdom of being women, a knowing, a witchy-ness of wondrousness.”
Speaking on her appearance in Damien Hirst’s 1988 legendary Freeze exhibition, Lucas describes a wake-up call about sexism in the art world. “Predictably, it was the male artists who were approached by the commercial galleries. Congratulations to them, of course, but nevertheless it was a depressing moment,” she says. 25 years on, these kinds of financial ramifications remain in place. “[Getting older] had never been an issue for me until a couple of years ago when I was told I was too old to get a grant,” shares the designer Pam Hogg. “Age can be a problem when trying to find a supporting gallery,” agrees Phillippa Clayden, “unless you have the recommendation of someone trusted within the established art world.” While there are plenty of reasons why such obstacles persist, they are products of the same political landscape that makes Big Women, an exhibition informed by the intersection of gender and age, an anomaly in 2023.
Big Women is curated by Sarah Lucas and is on show at Firstsite in Colchester until 18 June 2023.