WHEN the organisers of a feminist Fringe show decided to ban male visitors they expected it would generate controversy. However, the female-only exhibition in Edinburgh has been met with an unexpected backlash from women.
The curator of the Only Women Women Only event (OWWO) had braced herself for an irate reaction from males. But, contrary to her expectations, men have largely greeted their exclusion with apparent indifference, while a number of women have taken offence and branded the policy sexist and discriminatory.
Sarah Wilson, who is behind the single-sex show at the Summerhall arts venue, formerly the Royal School of Veterinary Studies, was taken aback by the strength of opinion. She said: “Men are not really that bothered that they are not allowed to see the exhibition, but it has annoyed a lot of women. It’s definitely women who have complained the most.
“I’ve had a few women artists who refused to take part and thought it was a terrible idea. Most of the men have been happy to wait outside, but I’ve had a quite a few women coming in and saying: ‘We’ve fought hard for equal rights and this is setting things back’.”
However, the curator insisted she was perfectly within her rights to impose a female-only admission policy.
She said: “Men and women are fundamentally different beings. There is no reason why I should not be allowed to exercise my freedom of speech and have an exhibition which is only for women.
“I want it to be a calm meeting place for like-minded female artists. That’s the way I want it to work and it’s kind of tough if people are unhappy about it.”
The former owner of the Axolotl gallery in Edinburgh’s Dundas Street claimed there were practical as well as political reasons for the ban on men.
“As part of the exhibition women can come in and sketch life models and observe the female form. I don’t think they would be particularly comfortable if there were men coming in off the street.”
One man who wandered in to the show by accident was comedian Sean Hughes, who later tweeted his appreciation for the show. Despite reports that he had been asked to leave, a spokesperson for the comic said: “He wasn’t asked to leave the exhibition. They were great to him and he had a lovely time there. He thought it was a great exhibition.”
Wilson claimed the majority of men would feel happy to be excluded from the show, which features talks on feminist theory and a display of mirrors engraved with comments that women have made about their genitals. Wilson said: “I actually don’t think men would be comfortable with a lot of issues we are covering in here. I’m talking about things that make men cringe and automatically reverse out of the room.”
The artist revealed there were a couple of exceptions to the no-males rule, which will be lifted after the end of the Festival. “Men have been in hanging the show and men switch on the electrics in the morning. That’s not because women can’t do it, but because, logistically, that’s what they are there for.”
However, Alison Auldjo, the owner and curator of the city’s Union Gallery, is boycotting the exhibition because of it’s single-sex policy.
She said: “This is something I would not want to be involved with as an artist.
“The days of having any form of gender discrimination are over and we should all be working together as equals. I’ve not been to see the exhibition because I don’t want to look like I am supporting women-only values. Sarah was bold to put this on, but it maybe hasn’t gone quite the way she expected.”
The art installation features paintings, photography, sculpture, film and visual art by around 30 female artists from Scotland, the UK and overseas.
The official programme for the exhibition outlines its radical objectives. It states: “A frequent debate amongst feminists is whether women should organise sometimes separately from men. In this exhibition only works by women artists will be on display and, in a radical move, ONLY women be admitted. Women artists are invited to come along and work within the space and create art that will be displayed.”
Wilson is no stranger to controversy and last year she faced walkouts and a barrage of criticism after Axolotl, which is now closed, exhibited paintings depicting a crucified Michael Jackson.
• OWWO is at Summerhall’s Church Gallery on Hope Park Terrace until 27 September.
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