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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Precious: Paula Rego and Siobhan Wall, New Hall Art Collection June 5th-July 3rd


Free samples of Natracare tampax and female genital mutilation. For an exhibition in an all girls college within the second largest collection of contemporary women's artwork in the world, the combination of polemic and promotion is awkwardly comic. All ironies aside, this is one of the most exciting exhibitions I have seen at the New Hall Art Collection. Paula Rego, powerful feminist dialogue, political intent...This is the kind of exhibition New Hall should be stripping its grey brick walls for, and which commands a visit.

'Precious has been organised to raise awareness about sexual violence against girls, in particular the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in countries like Ethiopia where WOMANKIND worldwide is active in trying to eliminate this harmful traditional practice...After watching a documentary about FGM, Paula Rego was so affected by what she saw, she produced the series of etchings in this exhibition. A few yeards earlier, Siobhan Wall travelled to Mali and learnt that FGM is still widely practiced in the country...she decided to raise funds for organisations that support attempts to end this traumatic practice.'

Siobhan Wall's paintings are small portraits of African women. They remind me of art therapy projects from communities of silenced women in Africa and of Chris Ofili's watercolours of diversity. They have an understated but powerfully resonant voiec. They remind us of the reality at the root of Rego's elaborated grand narratives. This is the major fault of the exhibition; the disproportionate nature of Rego's etchings and Wall's paintings, only exacerbated by their display on alternate walls. Wall's work needs the cavernous space of pointed silence. Rego's etchings clamour with indignation, they fill all available space, they rupture all silence. I find myself ignoring Wall.

Rego's narrative is etched with a painfully beautiful skill. The legacy of her 'Nursery Rhymes' mean that all her etchings appear to me to be fabulous, fable-like, a complex work of visual storytelling. This is the comfort, the richness of ink, that makes the reality all the more difficult to bear. Rego has created a villain of FGM; starved of voluptuous feminity, wrinkled gourds for breasts, gnashing teeth for a vagina, a living corpse. She is the bogeyman of little girls' nightmares. But worse than this, this is a purposefully female narrative. It is women who perpetrate and perpetuate and perform abuse. Grandmothers, Nannys, Mothers all lead the little girls to their mutilation, restraining and holding their hands over mouths as the little girl's legs are spread, because 'Mother Loves You'. There is no patriarchy or misogyny, none of the expected and accepted forms of oppression.

Any exhibition here is going to suffer from the limits of the exhibition space; the light from fountain court flashes across the picture frames, I have to dance and dodge about to admire the rich depth of Rego's etchings and aquatints, and there is little opportunity to step back and survey in an exhibition which demands our consideration. Stark and sparse; such a bold curatorial statement extrapolates beyond the limits of the narrow corridor.

When I first came to the college it was Rego's etching 'Encampment' locked away in the Fellow's Drawing room that I sought out and coveted as the treasure of the collection. The steely stars glimmer in the sky above, stories are told in the shadows, and fires quietly illuminate the surreal camp of dancing animals and children. Why didn't the New Hall Art collection have more of Rego, I wondered. This exhibition is the one I have waited for, for three years.