Intrinsic to the canon of British female artists, Jo Spence’s work still highlights cultural issues and urgencies worth exploring today. This one-room retrospective at Tate Britain features archival material detailing the work of photography collective The Hackney Flashers, of which Spence was a member. Lying in fairly austere, somewhat inaccessible vitrines, the material shows the reality of women working in relation to the institution: as fringe observers, counter-cultural explorers and subaltern archeologists.
The Hackney Flashers, who documented the daily slog of women in the east end of London, harnessed an agitprop approach creating culturally poignant and politically accurate depictions of being a woman in the 1970s and 80s, underpinning the feminist rhetoric ‘the personal is political’. The Flashers worked collectivity under one name highlighting the necessity for women to work together for a force of action. This collectivity also details the lack of ego within their ranks - an act of establishing equality creatively in a bid to be allowed passage into the homes and lives of those they documented. Here, the archival material is not voyeuristic but is presented as practical tools, close encounters and passionate representations of relationships built and valued between photographer and subject. This is again viewable by The Flashers’ choice of exhibition locations, generally shunning large art galleries and institutions for municipal spaces, community centres and libraries - actual places of activity and engagement regularly visited by those they photographed. Institutional (non)acceptance of women’s work is all too prevalent, not only through Tate’s difficult history of acquisition but also through the way galleries are often inaccessible to mothers. The reality of how deeply hidden this BP Spotlight show is within Tate’s building emphasises the problematic nature of of representation, institutional acceptance and the access afforded women and women artists.
The archival material generated by The Flashers bounces in conversation with the portraits on the other side of the room unpicking concerns of equality against the bitter-sweet rise of western capitalist values. ‘The Picture of Health’ (1982), documenting Spence’s public struggle with breast cancer is regularly visited as a symbol of ‘who’ Spence is or was. The label ‘Property of Jo Spence?’ problematises women’s ability to have agency over what they produce and how their bodies are seen and valued. The Flashers echo this on the other side of the room through their discussions in and around the amount of free labour created by women through childcare, house work and care giving. Spence’s self-portrait ‘Realization’ showing a horror-show house wife creation stood in front of a poster stating ‘Capitalism Works’ continues this critique over how equality can be gained within a society hinging on a value structure of wealth - foretelling a possible dystopian future where we are divided by our intersectional differences.
Women are often expected to conclude and find solutions to their own inequalities or societal misrepresentation yet are seldom afforded the time to road test without intense scrutiny. Masterfully utilising entendres of exposure and disguise, Spence faced complex concerns over the power her image created. This doesn’t come from a fear of ‘not knowing what a woman might be’ or discovering a mystical truth answering the issue or ‘problem’ of what it is to be a woman - the fear is that her image reminds us that the presence of the image itself is still all too rare today. The material on show thus represents the contentious relationship still present between female artists and the images they create. The lack of representation of such material within most of our institutional spaces means that coming across Spence’s blood-covered body through her collaboration with the therapist Rosy Martin in 1984 could be viewed as an act of aggression, which it may be. Like the archival material, they are rare insights - treasures which we grasp with tears in our eyes because if we drop them we may not find others so easily.
You can further view the archive of the Hackney Flashers via the Tate Library and Archive Reading Rooms: http://www.tate.org.uk/research/reading-rooms/register