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RCA Feminist Society Launches with Inaugural 'OTHER' Exhibition

Entitled OTHER, the exhibition is the first event organised by the Royal College of Art’s newly formed Feminist Society. At the core of the curatorial premise is the aim to present works that challenge the norm: to make visible the unusual and unsung, to highlight the distinctive and disobedient. Both in overall design and selected artworks, the exhibition embodies various notions of ‘otherness’ as reimagined by practitioners across disciplines, methodologies, media, and conceptual and thematic content – an awareness that art and design are no longer regarded as either politically neutral or a mere matter of aesthetics. 

Founded in 2015 by first year Information Experience Design students Emily Briselden-Waters and Grace Crannis, the Feminist Society is the first formal society of its kind at the RCA and marks a new and exciting move towards actively rethinking notions of inclusivity and openness across art and design disciplines, within the context of higher education institutions, as well as wider professional practice. It asks how staff and students can work together to produce new languages, both verbal and visual, with which to address gender equality? Briselden-Waters and Cannis feel that there is great value in proposing these prescient issues at a time in which ‘Feminism’ is still so often misunderstood, or overtly avoided as a discussion point within particular contexts.

Central to the Feminist Society is its desire to provide a platform for like-minded people from across the College to discuss, collaborate and engage with the discourse surrounding modern-day feminism. In keeping with wider contemporary feminist goals and ethos, the Society strives to promote equality across all demographics and encourages broad participation with the hope of considering the experiences of as many individuals as possible.

This goal is central to OTHER, which seeks to explore the idea of the ‘other’ – so often understood as marginal, unseen and unheard – as potentially transgressive, liberating and experimental. The open call for the exhibition invited participants to delve deeply into their understanding of 'other', as both label and concept, in order to produce alternative and original provocations across media, discipline and mode of display. The curators received a high volume of submissions in response, from which were selected 25. The result is an exhibition that includes work by MA and Research students and staff, from across Schools and programmes, and which encompasses interactive installation, architecture, textiles, print and moving image.

Bad Mother, by Freddie Robins, is a sculpture made from machine knitted wool and mixed media. A pink oblong tube, rimmed with red sequins and various small, jewel-like adornments, spells ‘Bad Mother’ in looping, uneven writing; an eye peers out from the ‘o’ and from one end of the object protrude a host of knitting needles. The wool sculpture calls to mind a child’s mitten, or perhaps the remnants of a larger, unfinished piece of clothing. Robins describes her impetus for the sculpture, citing an experience in which her daughter’s classroom assistant knitted a cardigan for the girl. When delivered by the assistant’s husband, as a Christmas present, he did not wish her happy holidays, but stated simply: ‘Bad mother’. Robins’ work challenges the idea that ‘a good mother does not knit in her studio making “useless” objects, she lovingly knits for her children in the heart of the family home’.

Other works include a series of performance objects and a film by Carys Whitehouse, The Hermit, The Waif, The With and The Queen, made to address damning stereotypes of ‘female’ mental illnesses, such as Borderline Personality Disorder, in which fragile, or simply unconventional women are stigmatised and coded in a medicalised language that denies them agency.

Alon Meron’s Skin and Bones II is a chair that refuses to be simply a chair. Made of softwood and wool, the seat slouches and lurches to one side, contradicting the load-bearing and postural concerns of the regular chair to hint at the ways in which forms shift from inanimate to animal, regulated to awkward: a four-legged support becomes a four-legged beast.

These practitioners demonstrate a vested interest in interrogating what feminism, and indeed a Feminist Society, might look like both within and without the walls of the College. A key notion is that making critically engaged works of art and design, the generation of new visuals and aesthetics, is an inherently political activity.

The Feminist Society is supported by the Students' Union and receives a modest budget to fund its activities and organisation each term. This opportunity allows for funding and physical space that would otherwise be difficult to secure. OTHER marks the Society’s first event, and is a starting point from which to continue the productive conversations and sense of community that have arisen throughout the exhibition-making process.

The future will see more large-scale events held at the College – the organisers hope to produce a symposium, as well as to continue to think about what other incarnations of feminist activity might take shape within the context of the RCA, as the world’s leading postgraduate school of art and design. 

OTHER takes place 17–19 March in the Courtyard Galleries, Darwin Building, Royal College of Art, London SW7 2EU

Private view: 17 March, 5pm

Exhibition closes 19 March, 3pm