Women in the Arts: Iwona Blazwick / FRIEZE

Women in the Arts: Iwona Blazwick

‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’


For this series celebrating women in the arts, the Director of Whitechapel Gallery, London, discusses being a curator in the 1980s and the experiences that have shaped her understanding of gender in the workplace 

As you were starting out in the arts, what were the possibilities for mentorship, collaboration and cross-generational engagement among women?

When I was a baby curator in the 1980s I entered a bright new era of feminist awareness ushered in by figures like my then boss, Sandy Nairne, director of exhibitions at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), and the ICA’s public programmes organizer, Lisa Appignanesi. In 1980, Sandy presented a trilogy of exhibitions featuring work by women artists – ‘Issue’, curated by Lucy Lippard, ‘About Time’ and ‘Women’s Image of Men’, both curated by Joyce Agee, Catherine Elwes, Jacqueline Morreau and Pat Whiteread. I had been educated at a convent school and my mother was a practising architect, so I was blissfully ignorant of sexism. Those shows were consciousness raising – it dawned on to me to ask why there had been no women artists included in my art history studies? Why were they absent from commercial galleries, museum collections, exhibitions programmes? At that moment, I also understood that exclusion is the mother of invention – women were pioneering video, performance, photography and installation. Lisa organized events that created the intellectual framework for this new avant garde. She put together conferences on issues of postmodernism, identity, cultural theory, desire. She invited speakers like Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Annette Michelson and Laura Mulvey – it was mind blowing.

Other shining lights for me were artists such as Judith Barry, Katharina Fritsch, Rose Garrard, Jenny Holzer, Mary Kelly, Barbara Kruger, Connie Parker, Martha Rosler, Cindy Sherman, Rosemarie Trockel and Nancy Spero. And then of course there was the full frontal assault of the Guerrilla Girls. Curatorial colleagues began to have their voices heard, including Carolyn Christov Bakargiev with whom I maintain an ever-inspiring dialogue. Later, exhibitions such as Cathy de Zeiger’s ‘Inside the Visible’ shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1996, Catherine David’s documenta X of 1997 and, of course, ‘WACK!’ curated at LA MOCA by Connie Butler in 2007 all expanded our horizons.

I think we should also pay tribute to some great gallerists like Maureen Paley, Monika Sprüth and Janelle Reiring and Helen Winer of Metro Pictures who all represented young women artists in the 1980s. Monika also published the magazine Eau de Cologne, which provided an incredible platform for women across the profession.

The full text is on the direct link.