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Margaret Harrison: Feminism, irony, and women's rights

This video brought to you by Tate.org.uk

Which is more shocking, a naked women astride a giant banana, or Hugh Hefner in suspenders? Artist Margaret Harrison has been a major female force in the art world since founding the London Women's Liberation Art Group in 1970 and putting on one of the first single feminist exhibitions. Her playful and ironic drawings of men and women were soon banned by the police, but they served as a potent critique of objectification. In her development as a feminist artist, Harrison moved away from the extravagant irony of her earlier work and turned to more political work, pursuing the issue of equal pay for women and turning documentation and research into an art form.

Can art be shocking and meaningful at the same time? Do you think a shock factor is necessary to speak honestly about certain issues?

Take a closer look at Harrison's work in the Tate collection here.

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Created by Tate.

Video transcript

I'd done the first so-called one person feminist show in London and the work I tried to do, that was to use the skills I'd learnt at the Royal Academy Schools of drawing and painting and they were supposed to be ironic and they were ironic, but the debate was between me and my friends, not between the wider public. So when it went out of course they appeared to be quite shocking. So this is one of them. This one is called 'Good Enough to Eat' and this one is 'Take One Lemon'. It doesn't look very much different to something that any of the the pop artists might have been doing at the time. But my thoughts were in a different place. I was hearing and talking about women and food all the time. So it was talking about women as recipes. The show was closed down. It was thought of being too pornographic. Now, they didn't mind the women and the sandwiches what they did mind was why I altered the male body. because I gave Capital America breasts and nice underwear and things. When the Gallery Director said "well, what don't you like about it?" to this policeman he said "well, it was the way she treated the men, we thought that was disgusting!" When I went in the following day I just thought oh so I started gathering things together, and I said where's the bunny boy? And nobody could find it. And then the PR guy said "I know who's got it". Ah, here he is. He was very suspicious because the people from the bunny club had turned up at the opening I mean, obviously wanted to make something out of him. So I had to re-draw it, but basically it's the same except, I made him older. But it was such a horrible experience actually because there were guys knocking on the door all the time and cameras and things and one photographer broke a window. And I remember my partner saying "you know, if they don't devalue the pound tomorrow you're going to be on the front page of the Mirror" and I went oh! I felt totally ill the whole night. They devalued the pound! Praise the Lord! Failure's a kind of success. So although that show was closed down by the police it was a success because it then meant that I had to think more deeply about things. I decided I would find out more about why these issues are important. So that's when I said okay, I'm not going to do this for a while I'm going to look at it in a documentary way I'm going to do a research and I'm going to try and find a way to do it as art. In the '70s I was quite comfortable about producing work which was seen as deeply political at the time I just saw it as part of life. Photography and documentation weren't seen as art and of course we were criticised for producing this work which was not just for decoration but actually went more into the subject matter. The three of us, three artists Kay Hunt, myself and Mary Kelly. We had been working together in many ways, we were all part of the artists' union. Kay was key to the whole thing. Unfortunately she died not so long ago. And she said to us you know, I would like to do something about the metal box industry where my family worked. The first thing was to explore it in a quiet way. So I went into the factory and just with a little camera, just took photographs and slides. So we could see what kind of things I might pick up from that. The equal pay legislation was brought in over a period, I think, of five years. We could see what was happening within the factory. There began to be changes in shifts they actually were slipping the women's grades down, rather than it raising their wages up a lot of it was slipping down because they were grading them as lower. But one of the things that I realised as I was working through this was that the jobs were shifting overseas or they were shifting to people's homes. So that meant that I then, began to look at home workers. I met a woman called Helen Ede and she was trying to recruit the home workers so that they could get the right rates of pay. Now, this woman in particular, when we went to interview her, she was assembling tax forms and immediately she said this is Government work. Her house was full, everywhere, was full of these boxes This woman was getting something like 4p an hour. Working with Helen Ede she had connection with the politics of the time and she fed it through and there was a debate up in Parliament about the rates of home workers working on Government work and they won! They got the right rates, which was fantastic.