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Headstrong: Women and Empowerment

I was fortunate last week to go to the new Centre for British Photography in London. Opened in January this year, one of its first exhibitions is called Headstrong: Women and Empowerment. It celebrates the work of living photographers based in Britain. Anna Fox comments “Headstrong: Women and Empowerment foregrounds artists and photographers who have been using self-portraiture as a way to crack open the oppressive, often punishing nature of the patriarchal society that we live in. It looks at women who have made work that is concerned with how they are represented, what they are dealing with in their everyday lives and what it means to embrace diversities that challenge the conservative order of a patriarchal society. Their work is playful, thought-provoking and often surprising"

And I certainly found it to be this and more. Intriguing images about ageing, caring, cosmetic surgery, pregnancy, fat-shaming and identities all featured (see the images here.) The two exhibitors that particularly struck me were Rosy Martin and Vicky Hodgson - both older women addressing situations and emotions that resonate with me so that is probably to be expected.

Rosy Martin's work was very powerful (click link to see the images). She explores aspects of caring, the conflicting emotions of being a 'dutiful daughter' to an ageing mother. In this panel she represents her ambivalence by posing in blue, religious garments or in white, with angels wings. But what makes the set so strong is the expressions that she has on her face, seemingly immersed in how she is feeling. Beautifully done.

I also spent a good time appreciating the images created by Vicky Hodgson as part of her doctoral studies: A Portrait of Ageing: Using photography to construct a personal representation of the older woman's body. (click on the link to see the images). Drawing upon an image of herself from her childhood, she created a series of three images where in the final one she smeared a cream cake over her face. In doing so she was disrupting the ideas of what a 'good girl' is and also challenging ageist stereotypes: How should we behave?What is expected of us as girls and women?

What did I learn about self-portraiture by spending time with these women? I learnt how important that storyline is in the artist's statement, and also how a complex idea can be conveyed very simply through a carefully selected set of images. I need to start with a story, an issue, something to say. And then to consider how to use my body/face, poses and costumes and/or props to tell that story.

One of the exhibitors Sarah Maple, states that with self-portraiture one has ownership of one's own image, complete control over how to represent one's femininity and sexuality. I can appreciate that argument but I still think that there are so many social constraints around the creation and exhibition of female self-portraits. How should we be? What can we become? What is the role of shame in how we behave as women?

My own experience of self-portraiture is limited, perhaps because of these reasons. I applauded the work of Paloma Tendero, with 12 images of her lying naked, each one becoming more covered by red wool that represented how DNA shapes our identities. I cannot see myself being brave enough. Here is an example of this morning's attempt at a self-portrait, starting small with my fingertips and glimpses of my reflection!

So much to think about and pursue! The next step I think is to look at the work of a historical photographer, Florence Henri, who experimented with portraits and mirrors to create amazing images.

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