This is how we do it
ArtActivistBarbie reports on her activism through Twitter. In April 2020 alone, the account reached 1.9 million impressions. Her main line of enquiry, “Where are all the female artists?” is highlighted through a series of staged “events”. One of AAB’s first public interventions was to point out the 2,300 works by men and 21 works by women in the National Gallery in London. AAB aims not only to highlight such gender gap statistics, but also their societal and historical context, challenging the reasons, biases and prejudices behind them.
The Barbies are artfully arranged to echo artworks, sometimes in parody but also in homage to female artists or to celebrate the positive representation of women. Curatorial labels, wall texts and statements are questioned, challenged and often mocked.
The visual aesthetic of the work is important and AAB’s wardrobe is much admired on Twitter. She wears vintage pieces lovingly made for my own Barbie in the 1970s by my mother. At 93 she can longer make the pieces, so my sister has taken up the couture mantle for AAB. Drawing on the perceived Barbie glamour aesthetic, the clothes declare that an interest in style does not preclude feminism or activism.
The reaction of gallery visitors has been hugely positive and encouraging. Young women spot her in a crowded room, delighted by the feminist messages and always take photographs. I have heard groups discussing gender issues not only in art, but also in wider society. Sometimes people talk about the work to complete strangers next to them. Many are surprised, shocked even, by AAB’s placards. Some express their thanks. There are varied reactions from gallery staff too. Some observe approvingly, some call security.
Keeping up pressure
There are promising signs of change. In March 2019, the National Gallery in London posted a video on its website stating it had become increasingly concerned about the gender gap in art history and wanted to respond to growing pressure from social media about women and their collection.
In April, art critic Waldemar Januszczak tweeted that ArtActivistBarbie had been filling his timeline with complaints that his Sunday Times History of Art poster (which AAB tweeted as “His Story of Art”) did not include enough women artists. “Mea culpa. It’s a fair point,” he replied, and profiled ten women artists “as partial recompense”.
In early May, the London’s National Portrait Gallery announced the creation of a new post titled, Curator: Missing Narratives on Women, to fill the gaps in their collection. And now, ArtActivistBarbie has been asked to guest curate an exhibition in the north of England. The voices are growing and big art institutions are realising they can no longer blame history. It’s time to redress the balance. Stylishly, of course.
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