A Feminist Space at Leeds:
Looking Back to Think Forwards

A Feminist Space at Leeds, curated by Gill Park. Photo: Jules Lister.

Pavilion. A light, usually open building used for shelter, concerts, exhibits, etc., as in a park or fair.

In 1983, graduates from the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds turned the genteel and unassuming nature of the park pavilion on its head. Taking over a space on Woodhouse Moor, they re-appropriated the ever-so-English site of civility and moral conservatism as a space to create and exhibit feminist photography, art and thought. They founded The Pavilion Women’s Photography Centre.

An exhibition at the School’s Project Space brings together work from the The Pavilion as a documentary of the works created, and to rethink feminist artist practices in the current day.

The exhibition, held in the School’s project space also marks a significant figure at the School. Griselda Pollock, educator and art historian, was a key player at in founding moment of The Pavilion. ‘Deadly Tales’ (1994-7), featured in the exhibition, is a video collage that is part-performance and part-lecture. The video defines an uncompromising critique in relation to philosophical positions on art and womanhood. In critique of Roland Barthes, she rallies against the ideas that ‘art enacts death’ and instead calls for representation of a real bodily experience of women, encompassing blood, shit, gestation – a spectrum of fluids and experiences – rather than the philosopher’s singular and reductive death sentence.

Marie Yates explores ‘The Image in Trouble’ in her works presented in the exhibition. In ‘Image/Woman Text (1979), images of women’s faces are formulated as tiles, closely cropped, in soft focus. Each image is folded over on itself in violent, simplistic disruption. Across the collage, text is overlaid, extracts from feminist theory, side-by-side with descriptions of the sensory and passive woman in fiction; ‘she looked at him in astonishment’, ‘she looked anxiously into the sky’.

Another piece by Yates, ‘The Missing Woman (1982), is an eerie documentary of the everyday. Modes of female representation such as diaries, journals, song lyrics and photography allude to a story without context. The only common thread is a perceptible but ambiguous absence of a subject, a focus, a woman. According to the work, ‘there’s a pleasure at looking in another person’. As a viewer, we are denied the satisfaction of the complete image.

A Feminist Space at Leeds, curated by Gill Park. Photo: Jules Lister.

Sutapas Biswas’ video ‘Kali‘ (1984) is a performance piece about gender, visibility and religion as she enacts rituals from Hindu mythology. In the film, an intervention is made as Griselda Pollock is forced to play passive, colonial observer made prisoner in a hood, made to observe – in a reversal of the traditional oppressed/oppressor binary (or student/teacher, even). The complex, intersectional subject matter is presented without fanfare. Here, with Pollock’s cameo, we get a sense of relationships of those involved in the The Pavilion. They play parts – often uncomfortable ones – in each other’s work.

In all these works and more, Looking Back to Think Forwards is rooted in the vocabulary and questions of the women’s movement of the 1980s, yet the messages they communicate have not dulled. It’s a complicated sort of treat to dive into this visual anthology of representation, exploration and protest.

A Feminist Space at Leeds, Project Space, School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds, November 24 – December 17 2017.

Lucy Holt is a copywriter, journalist and poet based in Sheffield. 

Published 09.12.2017 by Elspeth Mitchell in Reviews

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