The power of an image can change generations. It is 100 years since the images of the revolutionary suffragettes marched in protested for their freedom, which created a visibility of women and their strength that had never been seen before. Years later, these images are still inspiring women to break the mould and fight for equality in an effort to make women’s voices heard.
This is the driving force behind Hilary Wood’s artist-led project 209 Women exhibited at Open Eye Gallery, which champions the visibility of women in the male dominated political sphere. The project culminated in an exhibition of portrait photographs of all sitting 209 female MPs, taken by 209 women photographers, with the exhibition title referencing the unusual collaboration between sitter and photographer in the project’s creation.
209 Women not only makes female MPs visible, but unlike the traditional portraits of women – which firmly places them as passive subjects – the project reverses this patriarchal notion, instead displaying the subject how they want to be portrayed, in a way that encompass both identity and vision. This radical idea of putting sitter within the creative process is something unique to exhibition, opening a dialogue between sitter and artist. In this collaboration (besides the technicalities of lighting and position), the opportunity to connect intellectually and to discuss the challenges women face in two different spheres allows the project to become much more than just a photo.
This is strengthened by the selective process of pairing sitter with artist, matched individually by style each photographer’s style and MP’s contexts. This can be seen clearly in the exhibition (and accompanying book) when the photographs are viewed collectively, each distinct artistic style reflecting the personality and/or views of their chosen MP. For example photographer Tamsin Green, known for mapping human journeys and our imprints on the landscape, has represented Maggie Throup via a series of small pictures reflecting the MP’s outdoor pastimes. Meanwhile Carol Sharp’s more abstract approach towards capturing Caroline Lucas, features the MP in the House of Lords overlaid by shadows of trees within the benches, creating an eerily surreal painting quality to the photograph that references her green party roots. This sympathetic rather than confrontational dynamic between politicians and the medium of photography makes for interesting results, with the work becoming an emotive story of both politician and artist.
This narrative to the photographs is aided by the exhibition’s salon-style hanging, leaving the viewer simply with the image and its story, rather than external factors such as MP political position or location. This allows the Women to become much more than ‘an MP’ or ‘a female’, divulging much more about the individual by depicting a side we as the public rarely get to see.
Ironically, the salon-style is also reminiscent of a canon of history in which women were firmly excluded, and this is what inspired the 209 Women project originally, the distinct lack of portraits of female MPs despite the progress within the field. This is referenced by numerous portraits within the exhibition, but none more confrontational than Julian Fullerton’s portrait of Seema Kennedy, which references this patriarchal monopoly of political representation. It depicts Seema on a pedestal in St Stephen’s Hall in Westminster, in which she juxtaposes the statues of the male MPs that have gone before her. She throws a mocking yet defiant glance to the viewer behind her in an exchange that resonates the same defiance as the suffragettes before her. Whilst it marks women’s achievement in making it to Westminster, it speaks volumes of the things which still need to change if women are to be seen as equals in what is still, a very male dominated world.
It is this celebration of all women that 209 Women does so well; the innovative approach of championing photography in which women are the driving force truly captures the essence of the individual. By doing so, the array of images successfully references women as a collective: as mothers, freedom fighters, academics, countryside lovers, and foremost: people, without the weight of the patriarchy, reclaiming women’s right to be viewed and represented on their own terms. Whilst referencing the past, the exhibition looks to a more optimistic future and encourages women to continue to push for fair representation and greater visibility.
209 Women was on display at Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, 28 February – 14 April 2019.
Claire Walker is a writer based in Wigan