Diss Talk: Amy Murgatroyd on Margaret Harrison

My dissertation looks at the work of Margaret Harrison, a British artist who made a series of pieces in the 1970s about various issues affecting women at the time (and indeed, still). Her pieces are consciously feminist and activist, and tie into her heavy involvement in the Women’s Liberation Movement, participating in consciousness-raising groups, meetings and protests like the one that took place at the Miss World Beauty Pageant in 1971, where Harrison played the character of “Miss Loveable Bra”, wearing orange fur nipples!

Even Harrison’s earliest work was vociferously political: her first exhibition, in 1971, consisting of a series of pop-art-style drawings that subversively played with the gender stereotypes embodied by cartoon superheroes and pin-ups, was shut down by police on its first day due its ostensibly offensive content. Police at the time said that it was her representation of men (such as Hugh Hefner) in stereotypically ‘sexy’, feminine clothing that most offended their sensibilities.

hugh hefner
Margaret Harrison, Remake of Bunny Boy, 2010.

After this experience, Harrison decided that drawing was not effective enough a technique for communicating her message. She began to make works which involved interviewing women and documenting the problems that she saw affecting them, and then using the information she gathered to make multimedia pieces. The work I particularly focus on in my dissertation is called Homeworkers, and looks at the exploitation of female workers who were given piecework by factories to do at home. These women needed to work in order to supplement their household income, but were not able to leave the house because they were responsible for looking after family members, or were old and vulnerable. Homework was the best employment option for them, but since they were isolated and usually desperate for work, they were easily exploited. They had little communication with other workers, and were mostly unable or scared to unionise: consequently they were very unaware of their rights. Most of them were therefore badly paid to an illegal extent, and worked in unsafe conditions which affected not only them but also those they lived with, which usually included young children.

Harrison made Homeworkers after two years of working with the London Homeworkers Campaign group, which was campaigning to get homeworkers better pay and conditions. She went and visited many women working at home in London, interviewing them and sometimes photographing their work, so that she gained a proper understanding of their situation and could justly represent it in an artwork. Harrison views Homeworkers as a collaboration – between herself, the homeworkers whom she spoke to, and the campaign group. The work could not have been completed without the help of either group.

Homeworkers 1977 by Margaret Harrison born 1940
Margaret Harrison, Homeworkers, 1977.

It is not only the piece itself that I am interested in, but also the way that it fits into what was going on at the time. This point in the mid-1970s was politically and socially tumultuous: protests were frequent as the women’s liberation movement and the civil rights movement made clear that change needed to happen, and strikes were also common as the economy buckled and unemployment soared. People were becoming far more politically engaged than previously, because they felt they had to be. Artists began to question their role in this unfolding situation.

When Harrison made Homeworkers, Conceptual Art was still the dominant, most fashionable mode of art-making, but she was keen to challenge this. She said conceptual art “was still in the cul-de-sac of art about art. What myself and many artists of the period were making was art that was not about art, but about the issues we had become involved in.” At a time when so much was happening around them, artists needed to feel that the work they made could be helpful in some way, and Harrison did this by investing herself fully in issues that she felt needed to be tackled, investigating them and attempting to bring them to people’s attention. When she exhibited this work, it was shown at Battersea Arts Centre, where it could (she hoped) be seen by a diverse audience, in tandem with a variety of events such as talks, plays and film screenings addressing connected issues, and gigs by all-women punk bands like “Muvver’s Pride”.

Harrison’s art did make tangible difference to people’s lives. On the canvas of Homeworkers, she transcribed an interview with Mrs McGilvrey, whom she had visited and spoken to while working with the Homeworkers’ Campaign. The extract from the interview that Harrison writes out on her canvas tells Mrs McGilvrey’s story of exploitation by her employer, who was under government contract. Thanks to Harrison’s excavation of Mrs McGilvrey’s experience, the issue was raised in parliament, and the workers’ pay was increased to a fair rate. It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

I think it is important to look at the ways in which art can be useful to society in politically chaotic times. Sometimes, and I think the present moment can be included in this bracket, it feels like we need more than aesthetic delectation or vague food-for-thought from artists. While it is unfair to posit that artists have a greater responsibility than anyone else to tackle the issues that are facing us, I do think that artists have the capacity to communicate with people in a different way, which in a world where we are bombarded with so much information and stimulation, is needed to shake us from our apathy and take notice. Perhaps this is idealistic, but it is why I am interested in Harrison’s work: she is a determined, engaged, and compassionate artist and woman.

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Words by Amy Murgatroyd, a third-year History of Art undergraduate at Newnham College.

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