Published  06/01/2016

Margaret Harrison: ‘You have to have a strategy to draw people into the work’

Margaret Harrison: ‘You have to have a strategy to draw people into the work’

Pioneering artist Margaret Harrison shares memories of her early career as an activist for equal rights and pay and fair working conditions for women


Margaret Harrison (b1940) has been at the forefront of British feminist and activist art since her solo show of drawings and watercolours – including images of women as hamburger fillings and Captain America with fake breasts and high heels – was closed down on the grounds of “indecency” in 1971. Throughout the 70s and 80s, she collaborated with her husband, Conrad Atkinson, and other female artists, as well as working alone, to produce work documenting the plight of underpaid homeworkers, rape victims, factory workers and more. Her work Rape (1978) was included in the controversial 1979 Arts Council show, Lives, curated by Derek Boshier, where it attracted a lot of attention from the press and public alike.

With a recent revisiting of some of her early works, winning the Northern Art Prize in 2013, and a current survey exhibition, Accumulations, at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Harrison speaks to Studio International about some of her early memories and pioneering projects.

Anna McNay: Your first solo show in London, at the Motif Editions Gallery in 1971, was closed by the police after just one day for being “indecent”. You described it as “anti-pornographic”. It included drawings of women equated with food (Good Enough to Eat, 1971); Captain America (1971), in which the comic hero is adorned with fake breasts and a star-spangled penis; and a drawing of Playboy’s Hugh Hefner as a bunny boy in a corset. What was it that was so shocking about the works, and how did you feel when the show was shut down?

Margaret Harrison: It was a really weird thing. It was the period just after the so-called liberating 60s. I’d just had a baby and, due to hormone imbalance, I had no memory of any of the work I’d produced. I just sent everything in and the gallery hung it. It looked good and the opening was a success. When the show was closed down, and I went in the next day to talk to people, I was shocked. The woman who was running the space looked a bit white and shaken, so I didn’t make a fuss. I just said I’d come back for the work. Word got out and it sort of went mad. The press were hanging around the doors of our tiny flat in Notting Hill Gate and I spoke to a few of them. But then it all just disappeared. The government floated the pound that night and that became the major news story. I remember Conrad [Atkinson, artist and Harrison’s husband] saying to me: “If they don’t float the pound, you’re going to be on the front page of the Mirror tomorrow.” I just felt ill! I know some artists would have made a lot of the publicity, but I just didn’t want to talk about it ever again.

Then, when I went out to California in the early 90s, the director of the University of California, Davis – where Conrad took over as chair – got wind of this early work. He thought the students there would like it and suggested showing them a few of the pieces. I said OK and, sure enough, the students really loved them. They couldn’t stop talking about them and I realised it was probably OK to show them again. At the time when I made the work, we were just getting into the debates of the early 70s about feminism and there weren’t any roles models – you just did it. Of course, some of my drawings just looked as if I was speaking up to pornography. I thought this might have been my mistake because previously I had just been talking to my friends and myself. We were in the bubble of Notting Hill Gate and London and we didn’t quite realise what was out there beyond our own circle. Images were interpreted as if they had been made by men. I’ve thought about this since, and the reception and interpretation all depends on who has made the images; whose perspective is it coming from?  The ones of the women in the hamburgers obviously could have been done by a man. There was a show on the radio at the time called the Jimmy Young programme, and Young had a recipe every morning and the discussion paralleled women to juicy, edible things. That’s why I put the women in the hamburgers and sandwiches. Actually, there was no real difference between what I was doing and what men were doing formally, so it needed rethinking. I also did the reversal images, however, giving Captain America breasts, high heels, stockings and so on. What was interesting was that, when I asked the gallery manager what it was that people didn’t like, she said: “It was the men. The images of women were OK, but they thought the male images were disgusting.”

AMc: Because that was not something that people were used to seeing?

MH: No. Even though we had gone through that whole 60s thing with guys wearing women’s dresses and performing in bands with makeup, it really didn’t make any difference. There was still this notion that men were one thing and women were another. But we all know there’s a whole range in between. Of course it was going on underground, but there was no acknowledgement in the mainstream. Throughout the 70s political movements, people were talking about sexuality and quite a number of women I knew became lesbians, even though they were married. I began to realise that there is no strict dividing line between sexualities. There’s a bit of each gender in all of us. I guess, in my own way, I was trying to deal with that. When my friends and I went to the first big women’s demonstration at the Miss World competition at the Albert Hall in 1970, many of the people who supported us were from the gay community. There would be groups of men in wedding dresses or dressed as Miss World. It was good fun, actually; it was great. My friend, Alison Fell, and I went together. She had light bulbs stuck to her breasts and a little switch in her sleeve, which she pressed now and again so that the light bulbs would turn on and off (the Flashing Nipples). I was Miss Lovable Bra, in a pre-formed, black plastic chest – one of the ones you can get in the lingerie department. I stuck orange fur nipples on it and had a smile on a stick. It was totally mad and I was five months pregnant, so it was too dangerous for me to go inside the Albert Hall. I stayed outside, but actually it was even worse outside. The press were saying: “You’re just jealous because you’re ugly.” But because you weren’t doing it on your own, you felt safer; if other people could demonstrate, then you could, too.

In the whole of that 70s period, we all became involved in different kinds of politics. There would be meetings all around London and you felt you had to go to them, otherwise you wouldn’t know what was going on. So you would join these groups – it might be Art for Change or it might be just a women’s group or a straightforward political group against the Vietnam war. There were a lot of male American artists in Notting Hill Gate because they were trying to escape from America and the draft. They came with their partners, so we got to know a lot of women from the US, too. It created an atmosphere. I remember a friend of mine, Carlyle Reedy, an American poet and performance artist, who organised performances in a church hall. Performance art was becoming a big thing in the streets, church halls and alternative spaces. It was around you all the time and that’s how it developed. Also, the art market had fallen apart. I was involved in a different kind of feminist politics and began to question what else I could do. What kind of work could I produce? There is a notion that conceptual art is what dominated the 70s, but I would dispute that. We thought conceptual art was just about discussing language and the format of production and was the mirror image of formalism. We wanted to find ways to picture the issues and to try things out. So we did, and it just grew and grew. There’s going to be a show of conceptual art from the mid-60s to the end of the 70s at Tate Britain, which opens in April, and they’ve linked us all into it now. You learn to accept it but, at the time, we would be having very fierce discussions with, say, the art and language group at the ICA, who really did not like what we were doing. We weren’t really interested in just doing things about language. We wanted to do something about the subject of language. Most of the conceptual movement theories came from French linguistics, while we were coming from an Anglo-American experience, if you like, so it didn’t feel as if it made that much sense. We weren’t rejecting theory per se, it was just a different theory and we were looking at material theory by writers such as Raymond Williams. That’s what seemed to make more sense to myself, and a few others.

AMc: So it was around this time that you helped found the London Women’s Liberation Art Group?

MH: Yes, the first one.

AMc: Has there been more than one, then?

MH: Yes, they seemed to pop up all the time. That was the very first one and it came out of a big meeting at Camden Studios, if I remember rightly. It was a meeting called by women in the media. It was a group of journalists and some women who were beginning to work in television. They sent out notices for artists and writers and anybody who was vaguely connected to cultural production. It was absolutely crammed. Out of that, a number of different groups were formed: women and literature, women and art, that kind of thing. One in particular, the Women’s Postal Art Group, grew internationally. Kate Walker and Monica Ross were the driving forces behind this. The first group was fairly short-lived, but we did a couple of demonstrations and put together a banner for the National Women’s Demonstration in Trafalgar Square. I was giving birth when it took place. It was totally mad. We did a show at the same time at the Woodstock Art Gallery. I was in touch with Sally Frazer and Liz Moore – who were also in the show – and later I went on to document the Women’s Art activity for Studio International as a timeline between 1970 and 1977 [Notes on Feminist Art in Britain 1970-77, Studio International 193, no 987, 1977]. I had previously agreed to do interviews about art organisations for the magazine for a regular column. I asked Pauline Barrie (later, she ran the Women’s Art Slide Library) if she would work with me. We had, in the meantime, formed a women’s workshop at the Artists’ Union, which really came out of the original Women’s Art Group. I guess we thought there was no need for that group any more because other women started joining the Artists’ Union. That brings us back to the whole notion of how and where else art can be situated, if you can’t sell the work. That’s what we were thinking through in the union: what was art’s role in society? Back then, the small galleries were all located on Bond Street. We worked on broadening things out for public consumption and I think that sparked the growth of alternative galleries. It really dates from that period.

A lot of energy went into that Artists’ Union. For instance, Conrad did an exhibition about a strike in his village in the north of England. It happened to be a women’s strike. I think there was one guy in it, but it was mostly women. It was in a thermometer factory and they’d been on strike for a whole year for better working conditions. Conrad was invited to do a show at the ICA and he said: “Well, I don’t want to do a painting show, I want to do something about this strike in the north of England.” Amazingly they agreed. I helped on that because I wanted to learn about what was going on and how I could make work that related to people. I did the interviews with the women and they were recorded on video. The ICA asked the Arts Council if it would fund a video and it said no because it wasn’t an art form. Of course, we were all struggling for money. The video was shown on a little television monitor in the gallery. Afterwards, someone rang up from the Arts Council and said: “You’ll be pleased to know we now approve the video as an art form.” It broke new ground and we brought the strikers down to speak at the ICA with May Hobbs from the Night Cleaners Campaign. It was filmed, but I don’t think we’ve ever been able to locate that bit of film. We were all very careless with things back then. Everything was done on the run. We invited Jack Cunningham, who was the MP for the area at the time, and I think we had one other MP, or even a member of the government. The people in Cumbria had been told: “If you don’t stop this strike, we’re going to take the factory away and we’re going to transfer it to London.” They never moved the factory. It is still there.

Mary Kelly was part of the campaign for the Night Cleaners, too. She had learned how to do the sound recording. It was the Strike Exhibition that led the way into Women and Work. Then another member of the Women’s Workshop of the Artists’ Union, Kay Hunt, came to us and said: “I haven’t done anything like this before, but I would like to do something about the factories in south London where all my family worked.” It was a like a light bulb going on. This was the project. She set it up with the factory and I went in as the scout, laying the groundwork for what actually emerged in the end. Of course, when it was shown at the South London Gallery, the factory owners were absolutely appalled. They tried to ban workers from going along. It raised a lot of consciousness.

In the meantime, I’d been asked by Battersea Arts Centre to do a show there. I became more and more interested in doing things about homeworkers and rape. I put it to the director and it was actually perfect for him. I did some work with Helen Eadie from the General Municipal Workers’ Union [now the GMB], who happened to be married to an MP’s son, which was very useful. I went with her to interview homeworkers and we went to see one woman who was assembling tax forms. It was government work, basically, but she was being paid two pence per form that she put together. She probably got about 50p out of an hour’s work. Helen said: “I can tell my father-in-law about this.” She did and he raised it in parliament. The worker’s house was absolutely crammed from top to bottom. She had two young children and I think she had separated from her husband. This was the only work she could do. There was hardly any childcare available at that time. What Helen was trying to do was recruit women into the union to get them the right rates, and a lot of them did join. It was raised in parliament where nobody had any knowledge that this work had been outsourced so much. The homeworkers got the right rate for the job after that.

AMc: Oh, that’s brilliant. It seems a lot of your art projects brought about social and political change for the better?

MH: This notion of what is art for, that it can’t do anything … If you find the right context in which to make the art, a lot of people become interested in what you’re doing. They may think they’d like to have a pretty watercolour on the wall but, after a while, they come round to thinking they quite like what you’re doing as well. As far as the format was concerned, we had to try and find ways to make it work. Instead of me just doing documentation, I actually had two canvases for that piece. The women workers were shown in black and white photos, which I really wasn’t happy with. I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t work with colour, but I think it was a style thing. It was linked to the whole notion of conceptual art. You had to print in black and white. I didn’t want to throw away my drawing and painting skills either, so I decided I would work in essence on canvas. The rape piece was done in layers. It had bits of collage and text and it had case histories, but it was also still a painting, with reproductions of classic works. People responded to it. I think you have to have a strategy to draw people into the work. I have kept that up ever since. The dialogue between the figurative work and the more investigative format still exists. There still is that dialogue between the painting and the information part, if you like.

AMc: At the time, the Arts Council, which bought Rape (1978), decided it couldn’t show it in the Serpentine because it was a “family gallery” with free entry. It was, however, used by schoolteachers at the Battersea Arts Centre to introduce pupils to the issue.

MH: Yes. They used it and also the Rape Crisis Centre people came down to Battersea and held some sessions. They advertised for women to come in, and I think they gave them a room. They came in and they were able to discuss what had happened to them. It was also used by the local schools as a way of bringing up the issue.

The Arts Council used to ask a particular artist each year to buy for it and it was Derek Boshier that year. He wanted to put it on at the Serpentine. Then someone at the Arts Council started looking at some of the works that were going in the show. Derek wanted to do an exhibition that related to people’s lives, so the exhibition was called, quite simply, Lives. They looked at Conrad’s work first and threw out one of his pieces. He had worked with [the journalist] John Pilger and made a print to be presented to the Queen Mother on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of University College London, of which the Queen Mother was Chancellor. The print documented the thalidomide affair, drawing attention to the royal seal of approval given to a range of booze by the same company – Distillers – that produced the drug. I think there was at least one other piece. Then they looked at mine as well. There was a row and Derek said: “No. They’re staying in. This is my show. I’ve curated it.” So the show got moved to the Hayward Gallery, where you had to pay to get in and it was therefore thought to be less public. Once they did that, however, all the press cottoned on and wanted to know why the show had been moved.

AMc: So did it end up being seen by a lot more people than it originally would have been?

MH: The work went on show in the Hayward Gallery and my Rape piece was like the Mona Lisa – people were sitting six-deep in front of it. They had a rope around it and someone told me there was a curtain over it at one point. It was ridiculous! So, of course, that was when people started looking at it and a lot of young artists became interested in that way of working. It began to have some sort of meaning. Rather than just painting a nice scene, or going for pop art and magazine culture or abstraction, they started to see they could construct other things around their own work. The Arts Council tells me that, for a while, Rape was the most requested piece going out on show. It took on a life of its own after that, really.

AMc: You’ve recently revisited some of your early works, stating a need “to both reflect and extend the subject matter of my own work into a more realistic relationship with the problems of working people”. How have you gone about tackling this?

MH: In 2004, I was asked to do a show at a place called Intersection for the Arts in the Mission area, which backs on to the gay area of San Francisco. The gallery had not been able to find a real meaningful way with the visual arts to relate to the gay community and it thought my early works would relate to that group. I was talking to the curator and he said: “We’ve got a group of young gay artists who are meeting at the moment. Would you mind if I showed them this portfolio?” I said that was fine. He showed the portfolio to this group of young artists and they said: “Now we know what to do!” They’d been asked to produce work on the underground in San Francisco so they did a series of artworks and they just moved body parts around. They took a cue from my work, but they made their own work. Of course, they all came to the opening of the show and were very enthusiastic. The whole gay community came along as well. It was great because that meant it moved beyond the question of what is female and what is male. It tackled all those grades, if you like, about sexuality and gave a kind of permission. I didn’t have to give them permission because San Francisco is San Francisco, but it meant that there was a whole field where they could say this was mainstream. I realised I could start working around those themes again.

I made some new pieces for that show where I started looking at images of women produced by other artists, too. I did one of a young woman looking at an abstracted Picasso. In his painting, she’s very rounded but abstracted, her head is tiny but everything else is big. I took the head of a young woman from a fashion magazine wearing this giant pink bow in her hair, but then I drew her realistically with the right size hips and pink shoes. I did another piece of a naked woman hugging a tube of sweeties – probably Smarties – obviously penis replacement. It’s based on a Mel Ramos work. I added in the back of Dolly Parton looking at the woman. She’s got her hands on her hips and she’s just looking with a gesture that says: “Oh, yeah!” Dolly Parton, I have to say, is a genius. There is a song called Harper Valley PTA. You’ll have to listen to it because it’s absolutely brilliant. She’s singing about a woman who is being criticised. Her daughter’s been sent home with a note from the Harper Valley PTA to say they would like her to meet them. So she goes along and they say that she, the mother, is dressing unsuitably – she’s wearing her skirts far too short. The song tears all of them apart on their double standards, like who is sleeping with whom, and who is a drunk. It’s an absolutely brilliant piece of work. I love it. So I thought I’d put it together with the Ramos piece.

I also took Manet’s Olympia and replaced the figures with other women. I made three pieces based on this. In one, I put Marilyn Monroe with Michelle Obama as Olympia. In another, I had Scarlett O’Hara waiting on Mammy (from Gone with the Wind) with the flowers. I like to play around and develop things.

AMc: Accumulations, your current exhibition at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, surveys your practice from the 80s to today. How difficult was it to select which works to include?

MH: It starts with my work from the 80s, but it also goes up to the present day, I guess, and there’s a new piece as well, which draws on Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. I think the show looks great. The young curator, Alix Collingwood, has done a really fantastic job. We recreated the fence from Greenham Common for my piece, Common Reflections (2013), and we put mirrors behind it to reflect things back and as a reference to one of the actions at Greenham when women surrounded the fence and shone mirrors into the base. I was awarded the Northern Art Prize in 2013 for this work and another piece called The Last Gaze (2013), which is set around a painting based on the 1842 poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelite painting of The Lady of Shalott by JW Waterhouse (in Leeds Art Gallery). It is realised as a double reflected image in black and white and colour, collaged with many contemporary pop culture images, including Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Grace Jones. The paintings are accompanied by a collection of wing mirrors, further picking up on the narrative of the poem, as well as the idea of the gaze and women as objects, constrained by rules.

AMc: What did it mean to you to win the prestigious Northern Art Prize at this stage in your career?

MH: It was rather astonishing, but it is great that a woman of my age can still be recognised, especially as the art world is always so keen to focus on the next sensation – in many ways, it parallels Pop Idol and The X Factor in its attitude. One of my best friends, Nancy Spero, also had late recognition, so it seems to be a new pattern. I have noticed more women of my age and older receiving attention. Maybe it would have been better a little earlier, but the Northern Art Prize, and the Paul Hamlyn Prize, which I received a bit later that same year, have meant that I can be more relaxed about producing new work, and they have validated me as an artist to a wider public, even if my work was already in the Tate and the V&A. I didn’t much like the newspapers’ use of headlines such as “Pensioner Wins”, though – they demeaned the award.

AMc: Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art is currently running a campaign to raise money to keep The Last Gaze. How important is it to you that it should stay in the gallery?

MH: It has actually bought it now. I’m really pleased because it’s an excellent museum for the work to be housed in permanently and it was its previous director, Kate Brindley, who nominated me for the Northern Art Prize. I have just received a letter from the current director, Alistair Hudson, saying that people are really excited about the show. Now that the gallery is attached to Teesside University, we’ll be getting a lot of students in. They don’t really run an art history course per se there: they have practice-based courses and I think they have an art in context course, so students can relate to the work quite easily. They have a curating course as well, so it’s good in all sorts of ways. They’re getting a lot of people through, so I’m pleased about that. 

AMc: Do you still see your work as having an educational purpose, then?

MH: I think all art has an educational purpose, in one way or another. It has the capacity to go far beyond the moment in time when it is first shown.

• Accumulations is at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art until 24 January 2016.
• Harrison’s works is also on show in Unorthodox at the Jewish Museum, New York, until 27 March 2016, and in All Men Become Sisters at the Sztuki Museum, Lodz, Poland, until 17 January.
• She will be included in Conceptual Art in Britain: 1964-79 at Tate Britain, London, 12 April  – 29 August 2016.
• In 2017, Harrison will have a one person show in Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao.


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