What’s On chats to Emalee Beddoes-Davis, Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at Birmingham Museums Trust, about Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s new exhibition...

How did Women Power Protest come about, Emalee? 
We proposed the concept of the exhibition as part of the Arts Council Collection National Partnership Programme, which Birmingham Museums Trust is part of. The programme aims to make incredible artworks from the national Arts Council Collection accessible to more people across the country and increase engagement with contemporary art. The exhibition follows other successful partnership shows, including Coming Out and The Everyday And Extraordinary. 
In 1918, the Representation of the People Act made the first women in the UK eligible to vote. Women Power Protest is part of a programme of events and displays commemorating this important date, and takes a more contemporary look at women’s rights.
As curator, I selected the artworks from a shortlist and have been working with colleagues in our learning and outreach teams to develop the exhibition.

Can you give a brief overview of the exhibition?
Women Power Protest will explore the genius, activism, experiences and creativity of selected female artists in the Arts Council Collection and Birmingham’s collection. The exhibition traces the suffragettes’ legacy of activism, hope and dignity through a number of poignant and powerful contemporary art pieces by artists including Susan Hiller, Lubaina Himid and Mary Kelly. 

The exhibition includes works by 55 female artists. What was the selection criteria and who was involved in this? 
The selection was made by myself, my predecessor Lisa Beauchamp, and Ann Jones, Curator of the Arts Council Collection. Our criteria were women artists who are known to be invested in issues related to women’s rights. We worked with local people, including the Precious Trust, Shelter and Birmingham LGBTQ, to interpret these works and the themes of hope, dignity and activism which were inspired by the suffragettes. 

As a curator, what has the exhibition taught you personally about women’s suffrage? 
The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave suffrage to all men over 21 and women over 30 who met property-based qualifications. Under these terms, I wouldn’t have been given the right to vote. This year is the anniversary of a momentous occasion for women, but the limitations of the act are an important reminder that while we should celebrate successes, it is essential that we continue to demand equal terms across the intersections of gender, sexuality, race and class. Looking to modern and contemporary artworks allows the exhibition to explore how women’s experiences have changed since 1918, and frame questions about the issues that still need to be addressed.

The exhibition doesn’t shy away from difficult issues. What’s the most extreme example of this? 
There are a number of pieces which deal with difficult issues, but for me the most challenging is Apocalypse by Susan Coe. The piece is from a body of work by the artist about a news story of a woman who was gang-raped in a bar in New York while a crowd of people watched and no one stopped or reported it. It speaks of the culture of silence around sexual assault, which is only now beginning to be challenged in mainstream culture. These issues are extremely important to explore, but we’re aware that for many this can be too troubling. We have arranged the exhibition so that Apocalypse and other graphically violent pieces are placed in a way that can be avoided by visitors who feel the need to do so.

How are women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds represented?
A number of pieces explore the experiences of people of colour, including cotton.com by Turner Prize-winning artist Lubaina Himid and Maud Sulter’s As A Black Woman. We strive to make our exhibitions as representative as possible. Over a quarter of the artworks in the exhibition were created by women from BAME backgrounds, but we recognise the historic bias in collections and how this puts limits on the selections for exhibitions like this. We have to continue to strive to ensure female artists, and in particular those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, are given the platform they deserve, so that exhibitions can continue to become more representative. We are actively increasing the representation of BAME artists, designers and makers in Birmingham’s collection, and many of the learning events and activities for Women Power Protest aim to address the topic of representation as part of modern-day women’s rights. 

Do you have a favourite in the collection?
I love Claudette Jonson’s Trilogy series from the Arts Council Collection. Portraiture is one of the most interesting traditions in the history of British art, and Johnson’s work re-appropriates this with such knowing beauty and strength. I find the firm, serious expressions and relaxed body language of the sitters incredibly powerful.

Give an example of how local history - Birmingham’s role in the suffrage movement - is represented within the exhibition... 
As part of a weekend of celebratory women’s events for the Women Power Protest exhibition, taking place from Friday 16 to Sunday 18 November, a blue plaque will be revealed in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery on the Friday, commemorating suffragette Bertha Ryland. In 1914, Bertha entered the museum and attacked a painting as part of the militant campaign for women’s rights.                             
Women Power Protest is in homage to the suffrage movement, rather than a historical exploration of the journey to suffrage. It focuses on artworks exploring the activism and experiences of modern and contemporary artists. A zine we are creating to accompany the exhibition draws more on Birmingham’s role in historic and contemporary activism, including an essay written by Dr Nicola Gauld about Bertha Ryland, as well as artwork by Sarah Taylor-Silverwood about campaigning group Feminist Work For Change, among other acts of creative activism. 
The weekend will continue with an afternoon of performances in the exhibition space on Saturday 17 November, including spoken-word poetry and music performed by exciting Birmingham artists Amerah Saleh, Jasmine Gardosi and Affie Jam.                                           
We’ll also be hosting a Women In Parliament discussion event on this day. To commemorate 100 years since women were able to stand for parliament, there will be a panel discussion with four female MPs from Birmingham and Solihull, chaired by leading feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez. There are more details on the website, birminghammuseums.org.uk.

Finally, what lasting impression do you hope visitors will take away from the Women Power Protest experience?
The exhibition is an emotional rollercoaster of hope, beauty, tenderness, insecurity, fear, anger, discomfort and pain. It shows not only the multiplicity of experiences of being a woman, but also the important artists who are able to capture these experiences. I hope the exhibition offers insight into the incredible resilience, talent and bravery of women over the past century. 

Women Power Protest shows at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery from Saturday 10 November until Sunday 31 March.

Picture: ©Kelly-Angela-Womens Identity Series