Thoughts on the Cambridge Girl Talk art exhibition

Julia Lasica

On the evening of Friday the 25th of January 2019, Girl Talk celebrated the opening of its first ever exhibition – a special thank you is due to Alicia Lethbridge, one of our events co-ordinators, for her tireless work and enthusiasm on this incredibly special project!

A selection of submissions on the theme of ‘Taking Back the Narrative’ were displayed around the lower level of Murray Edwards bar, with pieces ranging in their media from clay to kohl and lip liner. Across the pieces, the most obvious and immediate focus was on the female body and the way in which it is perceived. Pink Squire-Lindsay’s juxtaposition between her drawings of the female nude and a letter from Clare College’s Accommodation Manager explaining that they had removed the pictures from the walls of her bedroom because they were ‘offensive’, created a very striking lead on the theme which both Kate Towsey in her piece ‘Bodily Embroidery’ and Anna Seale in her ‘Various States of Undress’ sketch tackled. Both Towsey and Seale used the commonplace items women handle every day, underwear and makeup, with which they may have a complicated relationship, and usurped them to create their individual, subversive pieces.

This motif stretched across to the sole sculpture in the exhibition, Amber Li’s ‘Declining Nude.’ Surrounded by the mirrors on a section of the bar’s walls, the female figure was refracted from various angles, highlighting the playful and adventurous tone it struck in comparison to the inert passiveness of the classical female nude, which Li referred to in her caption. This sculpture was also a portal through which the exhibition linked on to the college’s New Hall Art Collection, widely reputed as one of the world’s largest and most significant accumulations of female art. With her anonymous, circlet face looking directly up at the Guerrilla Girls’ print ‘Do Women have to be Naked to get into the Met. Museum’ housed just a floor above, Li’s nude sculpture engaged in the question posed by the 1989 piece from her own twenty-first century, dynamic and hopeful perspective.

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Watercolour of Sculpture by Amber Li 

Communication between the surrounding art and the pieces in the exhibition had been something Alicia and the rest of us on the committee had really wanted. As the viewers wandered around the space, ascending and descending the stairs between the two collections of art, they mirrored with their movements the ways in which the questions, themes and ideas raised in one section were grappled with in the other. The expressive way in which emotion pours over the subject of Aleah Chaplin’s ‘The Tempest’, situated in the permanent collection, was found in more subtle tones in the pensive, deep colours of Isabelle Weir’s ‘The Green Velvet Coat’, one of the first pieces to greet the viewer in the exhibition.

Isobel Richards’ ‘Narrative Thread’, Aleydis Nissen’s ‘DELIGHT’, Claire Qin Yi Whiting’s ‘Untitled’ and Sara Pocher’s ‘Freedom To Be’ emphasised this part of the exhibition’s focus, too. Their pieces demonstrated how art could be an outlet for female narrative and a form for the confessional female voice to be heard, echoing in variations what Tracey Emin had expressed fifteen years earlier in her ruminations on the impact of her tattoos on her body, found in a print in the New Hall Collection.

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Narrative Thread by Isobel Richards

The transformation of lived experience into objects or symbols, something which Emin mused upon in this print, manifested itself in a slightly different light in both Madeleine Pulman-Jones’s Petersburg Portraits, Cathy MacTaggart’s hand stitched sampler titled ‘Migrant Worker Woman’ and our artist-in-resident’s, Anna Curzon Price, watercolours. Correlating with the wider theme of how female experience can be recorded and how exactly it could be quantified, which was present amongst the exhibition work, these pieces cemented the role of material objects in this process, whether it was the rubber gloves depicted in both Curzon Price and MacTaggart’s work or the cutlery lying beside fish and croissants in Pulman-Jones’s sketches.

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Migrant Worker Woman by Cathy MacTaggart

The common streams of thoughts and concerns which were passed along and caught in between the permanent New Hall art collection and the pieces in our exhibition showed how prevalent and universal our female experience and expression can be, at times. Walking around the exhibition and then passing on to the permanent collection, I was struck by the common themes which flowed from work to work, and the motifs I found myself being moved by again and again. Around a week earlier, the Girl Talk committee had been to a talk given by the creators of the White Pube, Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad. Both of these women talked about the importance of how the individual views and experiences art from their own unique perspective, with all their thoughts and histories crowding around them as they encountered pieces displayed before them. Thinking about their words, I was grateful that we had had the opportunity to create a space like this and to allow our thoughts and ideas to mingle with those female artists who had come before us – for really, in many ways, they were not that different after all.

Featured image by artist in residence Anna Curzon Price 

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