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Exhibition: See Red Women’s Workshop

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The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) is holding an exhibition about the See Red Women’s Workshop.

A screen printing workshop run as a women’s collective from around 1974 to the early 1990s, the See Red Women’s Workshop was a radical campaigning and publicising organisation fully committed to the ideals of the second wave feminist movement.

The exhibition ‘is a studied look at the See Red Women’s Workshop collective and their associated ephemera of protest and Women’s Liberation’.

See Red developed a range of feminist posters that attempted to address many different issues, ranging from the domestic isolation of mothers and unethical marketing by pharmaceutical giants to racism in Britain and solidarity with anti-imperialist struggles abroad, as well as domestic violence, sexual equality and the media’s treatment of women.

Overall, 25 women worked at See Red during its lifetime. They worked from home in the early days, then progressed to renting shared space with Women in Print, at 16a Iliffe Yard, off Crampton St, London, SE17.

Initially run without any grant aid, the women contributed up to three working days a week to the workshop while earning an actual living elsewhere.

In the early 1980s, the collective received funding from the then Greater London Council which made moving to new premises, at 90 Camberwell Road, SE5, possible.

The group arose out of a period that saw ‘not just the extension of both political and cultural concerns, but also the rise of community activism’.

They produced radical yet accessible campaigning designs in what became their signature raw screen-printed aesthetic. They published their own material in the form of posters, calendars and cards alongside designs and commissions for other organisations.

Initially they wanted to prioritise the strength of the message over slick techniques or beautiful art, and made posters that served an urgent purpose that they acknowledged might ultimately be short-lived.

However, by the mid 1980s more professional equipment and a change in ideas about aesthetics prompted this comment by the collective:

‘… Every day we are confronted with images created by media folk with their clever designs that perpetuate views and stereotypes that society has about whole classes of people – Women, Black people, Homosexuals.

‘Our posters help counteract those images and challenge the stereotypes in television, advertisements and magazines’.

The exhibition at the ICA runs from 5 December until 13 January, and will be accompanied by an essay by Dodie Bellamy and a screening of the film ‘Nightcleaners‘ on Tuesday 11 December at 6.30pm.

Nightcleaners Part 1 was a documentary made by members of the Berwick Street Collective (Marc Karlin, Mary Kelly, James Scott and Humphry Trevelyan), about the campaign to unionise the women who cleaned office blocks at night and who were being victimised and underpaid.

Intending at the outset to make a campaign film, the Collective was forced to turn to new forms in order to represent the forces at work between the cleaners, the Cleaner’s Action Group and the unions – and the complex nature of the campaign itself.

The result is ‘increasingly recognised as a key work of the 1970s and as an important precursor, in both subject matter and form, to current political art practice’.

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