We are living in a time of increased visibility about feminism, gender equality and the need for greater women’s rights around the world. Yet with that visibility comes an increased hatred and animosity toward the uprising of women gaining equality. It is an often tiring and sad thing to behold, yet it proves over and over again why feminism and identifying as a feminist is one of the most important yet controversial statements a person can make today.
Take for instance British artist Sarah Maple, who in an interview with the Guardian, talks about how her frustration with politics and her Islamic background forced her to create public statements to challenge the way society thinks about women.
The award-winning artist has had her work displayed around the world to much acclaim, and we have an idea why. The messages that are clear from her visuals are confronting, challenging and controversial, and that is the essence of feminism which in turn brings about change.
“All this frustration about politics and feminism was rising up inside me,” Sarah told the Guardian about her new book ‘You Could Have Done This’ which features a lot of personal work.
Her work started getting talked about after winning Channel4/Saatchi Gallery‘s New Sensations prize for emerging artists in 2007, and if you look through a lot of her artwork, it’s not hard to see why.
In 2010 she created the image above called ‘Menstruate With Pride’ where she is the woman in the center, which doesn’t exactly need an explanation, it speaks for itself.
“The response to Menstruate With Pride has been incredibly positive. I started my period really young. I was about 11 and I felt like I’d disappointed everyone. I kept it a secret from my mum until I was 15. I’m interested in women being shamed for just having functioning parts,” she said.
Because of feminism, we have seen a huge wave of women speaking loudly and boldly about the need to rid the stigma surrounding this normal and important female bodily function. Brand campaigns, video games, activist movements, and even this awesome “Menstruation Man” have effectively managed to soften and change the public narrative surrounding periods. In some developing countries more and more girls’ education suffers simply because having a period means they are seen as “unclean” and miss at least 5-7 days of school a month for staying at home during this time.
When you think about all of this, Sarah’s image about menstruation is less “eww” and more “ahh, we get it”.
Another powerful image is of Sarah dressed as Snow White in a lab, and other Disney Princesses doing various jobs which has a pointed message about how the public perception of what women are “supposed” to do and how certain jobs are viewed.
“Snow White is a scientist. Sleeping Beauty is performing an operation, Jasmine is a judge, Cinderella has a seat in parliament, Belle is a football manager and Ariel is conducting a business meeting. It’s funny because people call them Disney princesses doing male jobs – they just assume those are male jobs. I never said that. To me, they’re empowering jobs,” she said. PREACH!
Her background also plays a part in what she wants to say through her art. Her father is white and British, her mother is an Iranian Muslim, and she attended a Catholic school. Sarah has a piece called ‘I Wish I Had A Penis’ comments on the sometimes subtle ways that sexism is still very pervasive in society.
She told the Guardian this piece was a pivotal moment in her work.
“I was at university and we’d go round doing crits, talking about each others’ work. Every time a man got up to speak, we’d be really supportive. But every time a woman spoke, we’d berate her. I realized I was complicit – subconsciously, we’d all taken on that conditioning. It was the first time I realized I might be held back by being a woman,” she admitted.
“The phrase ‘I wish I had a penis’ just came into my head. So I did that work based on it. When I took it into uni, although all the tutors liked it, everyone else berated me. Then I put it on MySpace and got all these amazing responses. People started sending me their own. That’s the moment I realized that, through humor, I could really communicate something,” she continued.
Despite having such a strong message in her work, it hasn’t come without criticism and even hostility in some cases. Some of her images feature her wearing a Hijab and one in particular where she is holding a pig angered some people.
“That’s the one that got the main abuse. Someone threw a brick through my window. Then I started getting death threats. I like to think I can say what I want, but perhaps, deep down, it did scare me off addressing those things. It’s a form of silencing,” she said, which is why in 2016 she will be creating new works based around the idea of freedom of speech for a new exhibition.
Despite her own fears, she refuses to give up and we hope she never softens her challenging statements. We often need confronting images and words to challenge how we view society, and in a world where women still have to fight for equal pay, reproductive rights, the right to apply for positions of leadership and essentially be seen as equal, feminism is a necessary and, in Sarah’s case, a creative force to bring about a change in attitude.