The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) currently features ‘Disobedient Objects’, an exhibition which covers protests from around the world and the objects which aid and sometimes drive these protests. The V&A describes the exhibition as “the first to examine the powerful role of objects in movements for social change. It demonstrates how political activism drives a wealth of design ingenuity and collective creativity that defy standard definitions of art and design.” The objects are donated by the activists who created them, and these activists have been involved in protests against a huge range of Big Bads: gender stereotypes, sweatshops, the Iraq war, mass lay-offs, nuclear power, and government inaction during the AIDS crisis, among others.
I was personally drawn to the exhibition because I recently moved to London, and wanted to be more actively involved in the fight for gender equality. To my mind, that meant protest, and I was interested to see how others had fought in the past. The exhibition includes an arresting array of protest paraphernalia, with tools and ideas to which I’d never before been exposed. There were book bloc shields (shields painted to resemble the covers of book jackets, so you can defend yourself against riot police using titles which evoke the beliefs you fight for), dwarf hats (look up the Orange Alternative for some seriously imaginative protest) and lock-ons (arm tubes you can lock yourself into so that you can’t be forcibly removed from an area). I strongly believe in peaceful protest, and the variety of ways that peaceful protest can and has been carried out was truly illuminating.
One specific thing I particularly wanted to see was how women and/or feminist groups have handled protest in the past. Luckily, there were plenty of examples. There was a teacup and saucer printed with WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) imagery, dated 1910, which would have been displayed in homes around the UK in order to show support for women’s suffrage. The Suffragette movement is particularly fascinating to me because there was such contrast between how women were supposed to act and how they had to act in order to claim the same rights as men, and how the women did act and how they have since been portrayed. At the time, Suffragettes were seen broadly as terrorists. They smashed windows, threw bricks and destroyed works of art, and they were arrested, beaten and force fed in return. Now, they’re looked back on fondly as society ladies who marched around with big signs until men kindly bestowed upon them the vote. I think the teacup pinpoints the clash of spheres in the Suffrage movement – the domestic, the feminine, and the political. It turns an object that is classically seen as feminine and therefore harmless, and turns it into a tool of protest and a symbol of rebellion.
The exhibition also features apillera, brightly coloured protest banners that Chilean women made using scraps of fabric sewn onto cotton flour sacks. These were used when marching against the dictator Augusto Pinochet, who terrorised Chile for two decades, and varieties would be sold to unsuspecting tourists who could go home and find secret notes sewn into the back of them, detailing the women’s anguish at the relatives lost to Pinochet and his secret police. These women took objects which were seen, like the Suffragette’s teacups, as domestic or feminine and therefore passive, harmless and easily overlooked by the men in authority, and subverted them in order to convey powerful messages.
The Barbie Liberation Organisation’s similarly inventive use of ‘feminine’ objects is also represented at the exhibition. In 1993, around five hundred G.I. Joes and Barbies were bought by the group. They switched the toys’ voice boxes, so that the G.I. Joes chirped, “Wanna go shopping?” and “The beach is the place for summer!” while the Barbies’ recorded phrases included, “Vengeance is mine!” and “Eat lead, Cobra.” Then, they snuck them back inside the shops in an act they called ‘shopgiving’. The result? A whole bunch of confused kids and parents, and an awesome campaign (which drew worldwide news coverage) highlighting gender stereotyping. There were two things which made this campaign particularly successful: 1) Nobody lost. The shops sold their products twice, the news channels got a great story, and the children got way better toys as a result. 2) The BLO sent video tapes to the news networks on the day of the event, which detailed their methods and their message. One theory on the demise of the riot grrrl movement (RIP <3) puts the blame on their issues with the media. Fearing misrepresentation, they called for a media blackout, and unfortunately, the person to break the blackout was someone whose idea of the movement was very different to many others involved. This created a blurred impression of what they stood for, and resulted in mistrust and tension across the riot grrrls. Taking your representation into your own hands by issuing a video (not unlike the videos that Anonymous release, for example) is one way to avoid this.
Finally, the exhibition features the Guerrilla Girls, a group of women artists who came together in the 80s to fight sexism, racism and corruption in the art world. The women wore gorilla masks, which simultaneously gave them anonymity, created a group imagery that was easy to emulate (you just had to get yourself down to the local fancy dress shop) and which meant their name was a fabulous pun. Their works have been featured in the Tate Modern, which is ironic given their content, and the value of masking yourself has lived on in feminist activism (see: Pussy Riot).
‘Disobedient Objects’ is a moving and ultimately inspirational exhibition, and its timing ahead of the May 2015 election makes me wonder if the V&A curators don’t fancy themselves a bit of a revolution. Anyone who says that museums are boring and out of touch with the modern world needs to pay it a visit. And, considering the exhibition ends on the 1st February, they need to do it soon.