Coming soon to Photo Oxford Festival: A Different Mirror. Photographs from the Hyman Collection
A Different Mirror presents a dialogue between two generations of socially engaged photographers from the pioneering work of Jo Spence and Alexis Hunter, grounded in 1970s feminism, to the recent projects of three young artists: Heather Agyepong, Eliza Hatch and Bindi Vora.
Selected from The Hyman Collection, the private collection of Claire and James Hyman, the exhibition explores the ways in which these photographers use words as well as images to address political and social issues. Informed by anti-racism, feminism and environmentalism, the photographers in A Different Mirror make art that reflects society and approach the art work as an active tool for education and transformation.
ABOUT THE HYMAN COLLECTION
The Hyman Collection is the private collection of Claire and James Hyman. It began in 1996 and consists of over three thousand artworks, from across the world, in all media. In the last fifteen years the collection has focused on international photography from its origins to the present. In particular, the Hyman Collection seeks to support and promote British photography through acquisitions, commissions, loans and philanthropy. The collection includes artists working in photography as well as documentary photographers and holds historic as well as contemporary photographs. It has an equal number of works by male and female artists and seeks, especially, to support the work of contemporary women working with photography.
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Jo Spence (1934 - 1992) was a British photographer, writer, and photo therapist. A self-described socialist feminist cultural worker, Spence is one of the key figures in British art of the last half century. Her activism is evident from the selected works which emphasise her use of signs and writing within her work to convey her messages.
Although she began her career in commercial photography she refocused her efforts towards politicised documentary photography in the 1970s, returning to Socialist and Feminist themes throughout her life. She used the self-portrait to document her fight with breast cancer and to subvert the notion of an idealised female form and in projects entitled "photo therapy" in which she employed photography to work through psychological concerns. Spence's work was to influence a younger generation of female artists and Heather Ayepong references her directly when talking about Too Many Blackamoors.
The Highest Product of Capitalism (after John Heartfield), made in 1979 is one of Spence's most celebrated pictures. She is seen standing in front of a shop window holding a sign that reads "I'll Take (Almost) Any Work." - a direct reference to a photomontage made in 1932 by the Dada artist John Heartfield. In his work a male figure stands in front of an image of a woman in an opulent wedding dress. He wears a sign declaring Any work accepted. Spence subverts Heartfeld's image of heterosexual norms by placing herself in male clothing, thus reflecting on women's role within the workplace and her own role as a commercial photographer. A second image made at the same time shows Spence holding a placard, which declares "The Right to Work". Again, she is referring to Heartfield's political photomontages but also to the high unemployment at the time in the UK and the newly formed Socialist Workers Party's Right to Work campaign.
Spence's practise continued to evolve as she confronted breast cancer and examined her relationship to her working-class background and her mother's role in her upbringing. The resulting works, characteristically made with the assistance of a collaborator, are often multi-part and reveal her performative side as she enacts events, roles and traumas from her life. In her 1986 autobiography Putting Myself in the Picture Spence writes that, "Through photo therapy, I was able to explore how I felt about my powerlessness as a patient, my relationship to doctors and nurses, my infantilisation whilst being managed and 'processed' within a state institution, and my memories of my parents."
The colour prints made around 1987 are a part of her Photo Therapy series although they are also titled Cultural Capital? thus connecting back to the earlier black and white images that refer to Heartfield's work. Spence also titled these images Middle Class Values Make Me Sick which refers to her on-going questioning of her status and position in society. Her on-going use of hand-written text within the image continues to point the viewer towards her intentions and it is notable that she writes on herself as well as on the walls and on signs. These works make it clear that Spence was wrestling with the idea of Cultural Capital, as coined by Pierre Bourdieu in the 1970s, and questioning her status as an educated working class woman and the shame that she felt about her origins whilst being equally horrified at the thought of being middle class.
Alexis Hunter (1948 - 2014) was a photographer and painter whose work was central to the development of radical feminist art in England in the 1970s. Much of her work challenged the use of women in advertising, often using photo sequences to develop a cinematic narrative to her series. She wrote I was interested in exploring the fault lines between the feminist concept of Patriarchy and the ways in which the media world viewed men. I wanted to authenticate a form of art that incorporated feminist theory - images and presentation - that insisted on the female identity of the artist. These photographs produced as narrative sequences were called Approach to Fear, and investigated the value of feminism in conquering conventional female fears, such as technophobia, rape, grief, and objectified male sexual power.Young Polynesian Considers Cultural Imperialism Before She Goes to the Disco" is a photographic narrative sequence, the most iconic of Hunter's output. Over a series of twelve closely-cropped vignettes made using the Xerox machine, the artist portrays a young woman trying on jewellery. Using the bright saturated colour of commercial advertising, Hunter seeks to evoke the tropes of consumerism - yet unlike the smiling, self-satisfied models of commercial advertising, the subject is sullen and distrustful. Exploring the intersection between racial and cultural identities, this work is a historical document of the passions and tensions of activist art.
Lucy Lippard, the eminent feminist art writer writes about this work: "In A Young Polynesian Considers Cultural Imperialism Before She Goes to the Disco, one would not know without an explanatory caption that a white hand was offering a Maori girl some jewelry to go out in, and the girl was throwing it back at the donor. The long title is a shortcut to the content; the form -- the harshly contrasting colour and confrontational closeups - gives a similar clue. But the facts outlined above are not accessible. As a Colonist who is also a woman artist and an outsider to the dominant value system, Hunter identifies with the Maori woman."
Heather Ayepong is a visual artist and performer. Her work is concerned with mental health and well-being, activism, the diaspora and the archive. She often uses the technique of re-imagination to engage with communities of interest and the self as the central focus within the image. She has explained:
"I am a visual artist and performer who is based in in London. My work is concerned with mental health and wellbeing, activism, the diaspora and the archive. Through lens-based and performance practices, I aim to cultivate a cathartic experience for myself and the viewer. I use the technique of re-imagination to engage with communities of interest and the self as a central focus within the image."
Agyepong's series "Too Many Blackamoors" addresses a black presence in British history and combines the language of the nineteenth century carte de visite with contemporary elements such as Peter Fryer's book "Staying Power. The History of Black People in Britain". Agyepong writes that "The work was inspired by a 19th century Carte-de-visite of Lady Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Sarah was the West African adopted goddaughter of Queen Victoria who came to live in England at a young age. The images are based on my own personal experiences as a young black woman, dealing with the macro and micro traumas of racism encountered while travelling around European countries. The format was based around Rosy Martin and Jo Spence's 'Re-enactment Phototherapy'. Too Many Blackamoors aims to challenge the 'strong, independent, black female' narrative that can burden and often entrap black women. With Sarah as my template, the project attempts to illustrate the effects of such perceptual limitations whilst exploring my own internal conflicts of falling short from such mainstream ideals."
Whilst the series refers visually to nineteenth-century photographs, the title is taken from an open letter by Queen Elizabeth I, written in 1596 in which she instructs mayors and town sheriffs across England regarding "blackamoorsthere are already too many here. therefore those kind of people should be expelled from the land" Agyepong reminds the viewer that discrimination against black people in the Diaspora had its origins long before the Victorian era.
Eliza Hatch is a London-based photographer and activist. Since 2017 she has been at work on Cheer Up Luv, an extensive international photojournalism project which documents women and non-binary people who have experienced sexual harassment on any scale in a public setting. A photograph and interview series that twins portraits with the subject's own accounts of facing everyday sexual harassment, Cheer Up Luv combines photography with journalism, activism and social media in order to record what has gone ignored. The project has been exhibited at the International Center of Photography, New York, as part of its Projected series. Hatch empowers her portrait subjects by including alongside each work a text with their testimony. The work can be accessed via Instagram and the website, designed as spaces where people can collectively share their stories and in doing so raise awareness: @cheerupluv, www.cheerupluv.com.
"Cheer Up Luv is a platform for women and marginalised gender's voices to be heard, and to take ownership of experiences that were once out of their control. The amount of sexual harassment that's experienced in public is vast, and the stories unfortunately cover a wide range of things. They range from being flashed at, to being verbally assaulted and even physically abused, all taking place in a public setting. By taking these photographs and publishing these stories, my aims are to combat sexual harassment, reclaim spaces and shed some light on an issue that is rarely spoken about.
Bindi Vora is a British-Indian contemporary photographic artist, curator and lecturer. Her practice utilises various analogue processes, often taking inspiration from her everyday surroundings, which include her personal archive. She is interested in the way materials or ephemera can be reused or recycled to create new narratives but can be traced back to other works, almost like interconnected tissues. Her latest series "Mountain of Salt" (2020-21) combines found photographs with text to wittily comment on the enormous upheavals of the last 18 months and the inequalities and injustices they have exposed.
As Vora has explained: "Mountain of Salt (2020-21) comprised of found images, appropriated text and digital shape collages - initially conceptualised as a human response to Covid-19 - focuses on the language used over the last year by politicians, journalists and individuals commentating on the pandemic. The series was further punctuated by pledges of reform, hyper-vigilance, and prolonged moments of stillness. Through this work I am interested in how we might reflect on this experience in our individual and collective ways. This work speaks to the dissemination of language and its effect upon us."