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The Highest Product of Capitalism (after John Heartfield) 1979 | © The Jo Spence Memorial Archive
The Highest Product of Capitalism (after John Heartfield) 1979 | © The Jo Spence Memorial Archive
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In Conversation With Tate Britain Curator Elena Crippa

Picture of Gina Chahal
Updated: 24 April 2017
This winter, BP Spotlights brings Jo Spence’s groundbreaking work to London’s Tate Britain. The photographs and archival material recount Spence’s collaboration with the socialist-feminist collective Hackney Flashers, her reflection of her experience with breast cancer and her involvement in developing a form of phototherapy . After seeing the incredible documentary photography, we had to speak to the person behind the collection of this exceptional artwork, the curator of the exhibition, Elena Crippa.
Crisis Project / Picture of Health? (Property of Jo Spence?) 1982 | © The Jo Spence Memorial Archive
Crisis Project / Picture of Health? (Property of Jo Spence?) 1982 | © The Jo Spence Memorial Archive

How did the exhibition come together?

The way in which museums acquire artworks – what they bring into their collections and why – has considerably changed in recent times. Until not that long ago, photography as a medium and the work of female artists in particular had largely been underrepresented. At Tate, we have made the research and acquisition of these works a priority. As part of this remit, Jo Spence’s photography is an outstanding contribution on the part of a female photographer and we were thrilled to be able to acquire a significant body of her work, presented by Tate Patrons, in 2014. As soon as the work was acquired we began plans to display it to our public. All works part of this recent acquisition are on display in this exhibition: they include 19 photographic prints as well as a selection of archival material, part of the same acquisition.

As Jo Spence was a female pioneer of British photography, this exhibition is extremely relevant today. How do you think some of the themes in her work translate to today’s society?

Jo Spence’s work is extremely relevant today, and it is so in a number of ways. It addresses the way in which women continue to be portrayed and cast in order to fit particular roles in society. Her photography is empowering, as it challenges the notion that sexuality is the domain of heterosexual men and of their power and control over women. Her collaborative practice with the socialist feminist collective Hackney Flashers is also still very relevant. Between 1975 and the early 1980s the Hackney Flashers made two exhibitions that toured to community centres, libraries, universities cafés, and small galleries across the country. Titled Women and Work (1975) and Who’s Holding the Baby? (1978), they addressed inequalities between women and men at home and in the workplace. They raised issues of disparity of pay and treatment.

Childcare became a key issue, as government cuts in 1978 meant that provision was low and women were often doing two or three jobs, mostly being expected to look after the house and the children. We have some beautiful examples of photographs relating to both exhibitions. Through the combined use of photography, text, and illustrated cartoons and the adoption of montage, the Hackney Flashers made visible the psychological strain of many women unable to cope with the demands of childcare and a deep sense of isolation. These remain relevant issues that women and men need to address jointly. Finally, Spence began a form of phototherapy as a way of dealing with her depression, following the diagnosis of cancer. Documenting the enactment of a visual mantra was part of a journey to regain control of her mind and help her body getting better. I find Spence’s honest approach to her image, illness, and desires very inspirational – it is a rare counter-model we can hold on to.

What is your favourite piece of work from Jo Spence?

There are many, but I am particularly fond of the photographs part of the series Remodelling Photo History 1981-82. We have three photographs from this series in the exhibition. These pictures portray the artist herself in settings staged for the camera. In one she poses bare chested, wearing a necklace and holding a broom, on the threshold of a front door. In another she is laughing, while reading Freud’s On Sexuality and wearing ‘dropping eyes’ spring goggles. And in another again she is wearing a mask and a blond wig, her wedding ring worn over rubber gloves, holding a cleaning product, with posters on the back wall, one of working men protesting against imperialism, another showing an armed cowboy and text stating ‘capitalism works’, ‘could you wish for anything more?’.

These pictures use theatrical performance, clashing images, and strategies of estrangement that ‘make strange’ the everyday and demand to critically engage with the way the world – and particularly women – are viewed and represented. Irony defines the series both in terms of the playful postures and juxtapositions and in terms of the material quality of the prints, which are tinted, intentionally taking on a slightly kitsch character.

Remodelling Photo History: Colonization 1981-2 | © The Jo Spence Memorial Archive
Remodelling Photo History: Colonization 1981-2 | © The Jo Spence Memorial Archive

How does Jo Spence’s work compare with other works you’ve curated at Tate Britain?

Spence’s work is more overtly socialist and feminist than much of the other work I have curated at Tate Britain. But this does not mean that it is not beautiful, moving, or that it does not encapsulate a great sense of humour. It has all of those qualities at the same time, which is what makes it memorable.

If I was a tourist and only had a few hours to spend in London, in addition to the Jo Spence collection at Tate Britain, what other collection/exhibition would you recommend I see?

Frank Auerbach, also at Tate Britain (I also worked on this exhibition with the curator Catherine Lampert – there are Auerbach’s paintings and drawings from the early 1950s to the present, and it’s a stunning, well-deserved retrospective), Goya: The Portraits at The National Gallery, and, next door: Giacometti: Pure Presence at the National Portrait Gallery.

I look forward to seeing the Michael Craig-Martin exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, which is open now. And, if you haven’t been yet, one of my favourite museums in London is the Sir John Soane’s Museum.

How would you describe this exhibition in three words?

Moving, wry, empowering.

The Highest Product of Capitalism (after John Heartfield) 1979 | © The Jo Spence Memorial Archive
The Highest Product of Capitalism (after John Heartfield) 1979 | © The Jo Spence Memorial Archive

BP Spotlight: Jo Spence is open daily from 10am to 6pm until Autumn 2016.

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