On October 26th, the Nottingham Contemporary art gallery launched a new effervescent exhibition titled ‘Still I Rise’ which runs until 27th January, 2019. The name stems from Maya Angelou’s empowering poem from 1978 which tackles subjects of prejudice and injustice.
Similarly to the poem, the exhibition showcases themes of resistance, gender, feminism and resilience as well as exploring the roles that women played in the history of resistance movements. It also refers to artists spanning centuries and continents who are protesting and exploring new, alternative forms of living.
Coinciding with the centenary of women’s suffrage within the UK, this major group is a demonstration of endurance around the world, spanning across the time periods between the late 19th century to present reforms.
The exhibition also references key historic moments including the Civil Rights Movement, resistance against dictatorships in Latin America in the 1960’s–70’s, independence movements against colonial rule in Africa, the Women’s Liberation Movement, the AIDS crisis and the Stonewall Rebellion, exhibiting pieces from a multiplicity of perspectives, from minor cases on the domestic sphere to larger scale uprisings.
Since opening in 2009, the Nottingham Contemporary has been the city’s chance to make a larger cultural mark in the global art scene, highlighting social upheavals and movements through art.
What is most compelling about this new exhibition is how it captures such a pivotal era, showcasing art as a form of protest, declaration and revelation. The exhibition itself signifies the abuse of power by those who sit in high government positions, as well as the judiciary and people within the police force. For the public, it sends out clear, repeated messages of hope. For those who understand the meaning of repeated wrongdoing, the title ‘Still I Rise’ becomes an anthem, a beacon of hope for the oppressed and downtrodden.
Upon arrival, spectators are immediately faced with a giant board with pens and coloured paper on the side. On each piece of paper, visitors are addressed with questions such as “Blank page – Share your thoughts and feelings about the stories and themes in the exhibition” and “What does resistance look like to you? Share your acts of resistance”.
Not only do these types of statements engage viewers into the exhibition and facilitate individuals to involve their personal input, but they also help to widen conversations for future observers, opening up a much-needed discussion. This form of interactive art enables visitors to build their own versions of the accompanying publication, reflecting a history of self-publishing as a form of resistance. Answers were often playful but pressing, with answers written in permanent marker such as “TRANS RIGHTS R HUMAN RIGHTS” and “BEING WHOEVER THE F@#& I WANT TO BE!”.
Within the exhibition, there are different rooms for each gallery, and each one of these rooms is arranged thematically across different practices and waves of feminism. Above the artworks themselves, the exhibition displays have been designed by f-architecture, a research-based architectural practice which explores issues surrounding the spatial politics of bodies and subjects.
As well as the catalogue, which is by OOMK (One of My Kind), the London-based collaborative publishing practice that has produced a book with rearrange-able pages to allow the reader to structure their own thoughts.
The first artist to be gazed upon is none other than feminist artist Judy Chicago, with a pink-peach background for a wall, Chicago’s explosive colour pieces are complimented marvellously. It’s been over 50 years since the artist debuted her flame, fireworks and smoke performances on print, yet the pyrotechnics of Smoking Bodies in the Californian desert still ignites the same passionate reaction today. Chicago created this body of work as a reaction to the male dominance of land art created in the 1960’s.
Other standout pieces were displayed proudly within another gallery room titled ‘A Rumour’. This area features an array of protest posters showcased a decade later, during the 70’s, by the See Red Women’s Workshop, covering topics from abortion rights to Margaret Thatcher’s benefit cuts. There are also Suffragette Mary Lowndes’s detail-orientated and crafted banners that were designed for the 1908 National Union of Suffrage Societies procession, alongside a selection of prison photographs of female anarchists affiliated with the Paris Commune of 1871.
Queer artists, however, made the most significant impact in this particular area; a tower of Zoe Leonard’s infamous poem ‘I WANT A DYKE FOR PRESIDENT’ was distributed to visitors of the exhibition. The piece highlights the need for a wave of politicians which represent marginal voices across the spectrum. Despite being published in 1992, it recently regained recognition and relevancy as it was performed as a rap by Mykki Blanco for a video, during the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential Election.
The erasure of minorities and the outvoted isn’t uncommon within history. There have been many examples in recent years which show that many important movements and advancements within biographies involved more than the white men who were accredited. I recently read a line inside the Stanford Daily about representation which said “Representation can make disadvantaged groups become real people” and I think I’ll continue to use this quote in the future because it’s true, and that’s why exhibitions like these are so engaging: they help us to realise that there is a lot going on outside of our echo chamber.
There are patriarchal hierarchies and that’s the brutal truth about the world we live in, within all sectors. Whether we agree or understand it all or not is irrelevant because not everything is our story to tell and a lot of the time, we want to be heard more than actually understood. Isn’t that what Maya Angelou fought for her entire life anyway?