ArtActivistBarbie | Dr Sarah WilliamsonAugust 11, 2023
ArtActivistBarbie | Dr Sarah Williamson
Many years ago, when I was still working in art galleries, I was intimately involved with the first full ‘inventory’ of the Kenderdine Gallery’s art collection (now the College Gallery, at the University of Saskatchewan). This task involved documentation both visual and written, from shooting slides (yes, I am that old) and creating or augmenting artist and artwork files.
At one point, a coworker and I realized that there were more works by unknown artists than there were from female artists, let alone ‘contemporary’ ones : but I also remember an acquisitions meeting where yet another passel of karaoke modernist paintings by a second rate male artist were being considered for purchase (despite, as I pointed out, one of the people on the committee was the son in law of said artist, and we already had many works by this artist, and many more lesser imitations in this derivative genre. Unsurprisingly, I was asked to leave the meeting…).
I can’t help but feel nobody would be able to make ArtActivistBarbie leave, in a similar situation (yes, I am smiling as I type that). A performative persona of Dr Sarah Williamson, it feels appropriate to speak of ArtActivistBarbie as a person, unto herself, in this essay.
If you’re still swimming in that cesspool known as Twitter – sorry, ahem, ‘X’ – then perhaps you are already familiar with ArtActivistBarbie (@BarbieReports) who “has a finely tuned eye when it comes to calling out gender inequality in the arts, and she is not afraid of making a scene. Her provocative wit and fabulous wardrobe lend themselves to staged interventions, predominantly in art galleries and museums. Posing with her tiny, pithy placards, ArtActivistBarbie is photographed gently mocking or drawing attention to problematic exhibits and the images are shared with millions of Twitter users. She also challenges the biases inherent in so many curatorial labels and statements.
ArtActivistBarbie seeks to change the practices of these institutions, the bulk of whose collections have historically been commissioned and produced by men, representing many centuries of male power and privilege. Over 94% of artworks in publicly funded galleries [in the UK] are by white men and many objectify and demean women and girls. Making visible the lives and experiences of women and minority ethnic groups is vital for a more just and equal society.” (from here)
The origin of ArtActivistBarbie is thus : “The woman behind the project is Sarah Williamson, a senior lecturer in education and professional development at the University of Huddersfield. A few years ago, she was trying to find a way to engage her students with social-justice issues and feminist ideas, especially the problematic way women are portrayed in art. She wondered if Barbie, that plastic idealised woman, could become a vehicle for playful commentary on the “patriarchal palaces of painting”. Soon Williamson was gathering a doll army, clothing it in pieces handmade by her feminist mother in the 1970s, with new additions created by her sister. She handed each of her students a Barbie doll and a blank placard on a lollipop stick, then set them loose in Huddersfield Art Gallery.
The resulting mini-protest signs stopped visitors in their tracks, and the photographs of Barbie’s protests drew plenty of notice back in Williamson’s office: “I realised I had something which attracted everyone’s attention and catalysed conversations about how women are portrayed and represented not only in art, but society in general.”” (from The Guardian)
It’s also necessary to consider how “museums are somewhat newly self-reflexive about their role in shaping the culture and the discourse, and are working hard to stay relevant and expand the canon—and to grow their audiences.” (That’s from a recent article in ArtNews that appropriately decries the slipshod ‘critique’ offered by the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition Pablo – matic – and although ArtActivistBarbie seems to ‘shoot from the hip’, her aim is more accurate, and considered, in the larger discourse of whom and what cultural institutions serve – and don’t….)
Much more about ArtActivistBarbie’s caustic yet comedic commentary (comedy, it has been said, is just rage in fancy dress, and Barbie has no shortage of snazzy outfits) can be enjoyed here. There are a number of interviews with Dr Williamson that are as educational as they are engaging.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
Lara Vychuzhanina | The life of Barbie and Ken in the Soviet UnionNovember 30, 2021
Lara Vychuzhanina | The life of Barbie and Ken in the Soviet Union, 2017
First as tragedy, then as farce, we were warned a long time ago by Marx, is how history will play out. That’s a bit damning, but as we make our way further into the 21st century, it’s to be forgiven if many of us also see a more black than bleak humour in all this, a dark comedy that still makes us laugh, inappropriately.
Lara Vychuzhanina (whose Instagram name is aptly @lara_art_dolls) is a Russian photographer from Yekaterinburg – formerly known as Sverdlovsk, during the Soviet era, which I mention as it intersects with some of the ideas present in her work here, where she’s created a tableaux of Barbie and her partner Ken living in the USSR in the 1980s.
There’s always an element of nostalgia in depictions of history, allusions to a ‘simpler time’, and it’s interesting to see one about the USSR, as in the West we’re usually inundated with this false trope about the 1950s, or 1960s: Lara Vychuzhanina is too young to remember the 1980s in the former Soviet Union, but this doesn’t stop others from offering caustic and contested interpretations of those eras, either. Employing Barbie and Ken for this is a nice intersection of mythologies of East and West, capitalism and communism, plasticity and reality – and it is also, in the inherent contradictions of its assemblage, very funny.
After all, “comedy is in act superior to tragedy and humourous reasoning superior to grandiloquent reasoning” (which, fittingly, is attributed to Friedrich Engels by Karl Marx, back in 1862)…..
More images by this artist can be enjoyed at her Instagram. ~ Bart GazzolaRead More