a woman’s work

Reading time: 12 minutes


‘This controversial entrance of women artists into the “mainstream” may be better for the British art world and public than for the women themselves.’ – Lucy Lippard, introductory essay, Hayward Annual 1978 exhibition catalogue

Women have always been the ones to champion women’s work. In her essay for Hayward Annual ‘78, critic Lucy Lippard laid out how one indomitable artist, Liliane Lijn, campaigned for and eventually spearheaded the London gallery’s first survey of British women artists. Lijn, a selector for the show, was determined to bring the public’s attention to the quality of work that female artists were producing in the UK, and had previously submitted several unsuccessful proposals to Tate and the Arts Council (following feminist protests outside the gallery in 1975). Three years later, the Arts Council suggested that Lijn and her peers should chair Hayward’s next national group exhibition. And so, the second ever Hayward Annual became a major women’s annual, exhibiting 16 women and seven men; Lijn had to take the reigns in order to interrupt a status quo.

Lippard’s weary quote from the exhibition’s catalogue – on how women might not get what they need by entering into the ‘old boys’ club, despite the blood, sweat and tears it took to do just that – feels pin-sharp today, precisely because it speaks to a cynicism around gender parity that still resonates.

Even then, Lippard was questioning whether we could move beyond tokenism. The critic recognised that Hayward Annual ’78 owed its existence to the spirit and persistence of women such as Lijn, yet questioned how artists would truly profit in the long run without seismic systematic change. Her successors are still asking the same questions. Women artists do not receive the same benefits as their male counterparts; they are yet to be paid, platformed and valued on the same terms.

It seems that the fight for equal billing lies somewhere amongst a million other challenges facing artists now – among them, austerity, classism and racism – that means maintaining a career is tough. Women have stepped through the gallery doors, yes, but face huge uncertainty once inside.

Artist Marie Jones, aka Kochi Kochi (which, translated from Japanese and paired with ushering hands, means something along the lines of ‘here, look at this!’) has described her first solo exhibition, Let’s Get Stuck In Traffic!, as being ‘about women helping other women’. Four decades in the wake of Lijn’s pioneering group show, and two hundred miles from London, Jones has chosen to bring other women into the gallery with her. She inserts herself and female artists into the canon of art history, quite literally: her textile banners quote women artists and hang in front of, and partly obscure, oil paintings by male academicians. Displayed in the year that Warrington Museum & Art Gallery celebrated its 170th birthday, and the Royal Academy 250 years, Jones’ tapestries foreground living artists working in the Cheshire town – Frances Broomfield, Alice Cornelia, Maria Livesley and Sophie New – before its most famous sons – Luke Fildes, Henry Woods and John Warrington Wood, for whom the gallery was built to honour in 1877.

Jones has knitted – a medium for a long time considered more artisan than artistic – the tapestries on a flat-bed knitting machine, in large, digitised panels of hot pink and orange; her mum, grandma and sister assisted in joining the panels together. The resulting five-foot by six-foot text works are emblazoned with deeply relatable statements about life as an artist. Taken from individual interviews that Jones conducted in her car with Broomfield, Cornelia, Livesley and New, she hoped to provoke art world confessions while waiting for the rush-hour traffic lights to change. It worked. The artists ‘spoke freely’.

One of the banners states simply ‘That’s a hobby’, referring to a phrase oft heard by Livesley and indicating a blurred line between pastime and occupation. Frequently asked to make things for free, Livesley reminds us that many think of ‘artist’ as a bogus job title. ‘They were quite happy to have us for free’, New corroborates in another banner; referring to the miscommunication and ultimately unpaid labour following her collective’s unveiling of a new artwork at the museum. Broomfield’s quote, too, refers to income; ‘Get a job, paint’ represents the rotation of paid work that remains unrelated to her canvases. She keeps her job and her practice separate. (Artists, its worth noting, are among the UK’s lowest earners, averaging £10,000 per annum – if you’re lucky). Cornelia’s confession, ‘I felt really self-conscious about my accent’, hits another nerve, emphasising an art world that continues to exoticise, and patronise, regional dialects. Moments in the artist’s career that should have been enjoyed – her first day at a prestigious art school, for example – instead, marred by a particular type of self-doubt that comes from being the only person like that, in that room, on that day.

Hanging here, tenaciously, Jones’ texts do two things – they highlight the conditions that artists are experiencing now, and they make us laugh. Let’s Get Stuck In Traffic! offers a delicious friction between humour and fury, spelling out how sidelined women are ‘in here’ and ‘out there’. While the gap between male and female employment may have narrowed between 1971 and 2018, women on lower incomes are also more likely to do unpaid work. British women work longer hours. We will, recent reports show, have to wait 257 years for equal pay. Despite progress in recent acquisitions, artwork by women makes up just 12% of museum collections. And the rot seeps in early; as we know from multifarious government, clinical and charitable reports, arts education plays a vital part in our wellbeing and happiness, yet it’s being chopped out of the school curriculum at an alarming rate. Making art depends on having free time, energy, space, support, money; things that, typically, remain elusive to many women.

On hearing these statistics, who would blame a young woman for avoiding the art world entirely? Many would consider a creative practice (a low paid or unpaid pursuit) as foolhardy. Imagine our loss as a society if they did. Jones addresses this carefully with Forget Me Knot, a durational work that prompts the next generation to pay attention to and prioritise creativity. Designed for the local Girl Guides troupe, and embroidered with an eyelashed, all-seeing eye, the Forget Me Knot (‘For Me’) badge can be earned by completing three tasks: 1) draw the things you love doing, and would love to try but haven’t yet; 2) imagine jobs that you could do that relate to your wish list; and 3) compile these reflections in a letter to yourself, ‘Dear Future Me’, which will be posted back to you in one year’s time.

Presented amongst Jones’ pink and green tapestries of Snowdonian vistas – a favourite place to walk and relax, harking back to her time as a Girl Guide in North Wales – Forget Me Knot is a balm, a hopeful action. Yes, it can feel exhausting to consider the enormity of change needed for true parity – from policy makers and gatekeepers to those who enforce workplace laws. Nevertheless, small actions do matter, and can cause colossal shifts; the status quo must be challenged in specific locations and organisations; it must involve the people and communities we live with, work with and trust. Instead of focusing on the ‘mainstream’, we should look to our immediate surroundings, and this is what Jones has done. As Lippard said in the 1970s, risk is usually accompanied by passion. This, of course, remains true. Marie Jones is one more link in a mighty chain reaction – of women championing other women.

© Laura Robertson, 2020. Full text

Image credits: courtesy Marie Jones/Kochi Kochi

Further reading:

Changes in the economy since the 1970s, 2 September 2019, Office for National Statistics 

Prosperity and justice: A plan for the new economy - The final report of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice, 5 September 2018, IPPR 

Sarah Jackson, It will be 257 years before women have equal pay, gender gap report says, 18 December 2019, NBC News

Lucy Lippard, On Gender and Contemporary Art, p. 67, Fifty Years of Great Art Writing, 2018, Southbank Centre

Amy Sherlock, Art under threat: why teaching’s in decline in our schools, 20 March 2019, Royal Academy