On the tiny Hebridean island of Canna, 10 women face the wind and chant as they stand on a wooden platform submerged in water. They wear black dresses and red tights to resemble the oystercatchers and other waders, wildfowl and seabirds whose calls they imitate. This tapestry of sound, rooted in Gaelic mimetic tradition, is part of Away with the Birds (2014) by Hanna Tuulikki (b. 1982), one of five shortlisted artists for the Max Mara Art Prize for Women.
The only visual art award for women in the UK, the prize is due to be announced in early 2020, as a six-month Italian residency to create a new project presented during solo exhibitions the following year at London’s Whitechapel Gallery and Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia, Italy. For these practitioners – women living and working in the UK – the shows mark their first major surveys. “For too long women have had to fight for recognition,” says Whitechapel Director Iwona Blazwick. This puts prize-winners on the map.
For the eighth edition, Allison Katz (b. 1980), Katie Schwab (b. 1985), Tai Shani (b. 1976), Emma Talbot (b. 1969) and Tuulikki are shortlisted. Central to the work of all five competitors is the physical body and feminine experience. The previous winner is Helen Cammock (b. 1970), who created Che si può fare (What can be done), a multimedia project that takes its title from a 1664 Aria by composer Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) and revolves around expressions of emotion in Italian art.
The long-standing under-representation of women in art industry, especially in the first half of the 20th century, inspires Schwab’s wider practice. Her pieces are heavily patterned as a result, having often collaborated with ceramicists and weavers. In the process, she explores how “knowledge can be shared.” Katz, who works primarily in painting and ceramics, begins the process with a simple daily gesture that is also incredibly idiosyncratic: handwriting. “It is my sensibility coming through,” she explains. “It is the possibilities and the limitlessness of painting itself that allows for this full breadth of expression.” Rejecting assumptions that self-portraiture is autobiographical, she combines personal images with more universal ones. In turn, voice and gesture are at the heart of Tuulikki’s practice, which spans visual arts, music and performance with roots in traditional cultures.
Talbot’s women, whether sculptures or paintings, search for meaning through their faceless gazes. “In my mind, those figures are me … They’re how I imagine myself from an internal view,” she explains. Their lack of facial features allows viewers to project their own personal narratives onto the protagonists. Mythical installations populate Shani’s approach to what she calls “world-making as a feminist strategy.” The bulk of her work emerges out of text-based material placed within reimagined or dismantled architectural structures and body parts. Performances in those complex spaces bring them to life.
Lead image: Hanna Tuulikki, Away with the Birds (performance), 2014. Image: © A Boyd.