It is not often that a child’s toy is used for a feminist political protest, yet ArtActivistBarbie is being used to question the representation of women and female artists in the art world.
Sarah Williamson was the founder of this project. Being a senior lecturer in education and professional development at the University of Huddersfield, the idea originated from a desire to engage her students in issues like social-justice and gender equality. Her predominant focus was on the portrayal of women in the art world.
Providing each of her students with a Barbie doll, Williamson also gave them a blank placard on a lollipop stick
Providing each of her students with a Barbie doll, Williamson also gave them a blank placard on a lollipop stick. She then took them to Huddersfield Art Gallery, and the students had to place them in areas where they found issues with the Gallery’s choices.
As the project has grown, some of the sites for contention have included how the National Gallery in London showcases 2,300 works by men but only 21 women, and also how many paintings promote the male gaze, even to the extent of legitimizing it in many cases because they are seen as masterpieces.
Williamson has set up the Twitter account @BarbieReports. With museums and galleries not being open during lockdown, the feminist protest has moved onto this site, with pictures being regularly posted of her Barbie dolls holding placards like “Refuse to be the Muse”.
Raising awareness of what is really happening in these prestigious pieces of artwork
Representations of women in galleries has recently become a topic to be widely discussed. With Mary Beard’s TV programme ‘Shock of the Nude’ being aired on BBC2 this year, viewers were taught how most female nudes were traditionally intended for the male gaze. This complicates the line between art and pornography in respect to these paintings, Beard argued. Two men saw Beard placing a Barbie in front of a painting, it showed a woman with only a little bit of drape to cover her bottom half. They said that they had only just realised how much this, along with other works, was so similar to “Victorian pornography”. This is one example of what Williamson and Barbie are hoping to achieve: raising awareness of what is really happening in these prestigious pieces of artwork.
Williamson has said that ArtActivistBarbie is “a catalyst- helping people to see things with a bit more consciousness…so that people try and look with fresh eyes”. She has said that this awareness needs to come from people who would not normally engage with gender politics. This is why the project has used a child’s toy, to make the concept as playful as possible while also driving home how widespread this problem is.
Last modified: 24th April 2020