Some Further Thoughts: Idea of the North, ‘Women by Women’

Women by Women Exhibition

Women by Women is an exhibition currently being held at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. I visited this exhibition with Alice, Ellie and Rosie when we all went to see Phil Collins’ Ceremony. I found this exhibition to be particularly interesting as it showcases the lives of women in the North East from different periods in the 1970s up to the early 2000s.

Growing up in the North East myself, very rarely have I actually seen much documentary photography based on the area, much less the women who live here. In fact, the exhibition points out that the North of England has been very much focussed on the men as both subjects and photographers, not the women. It aims to shine a light on the working class women in the area over the space of three decades and bring women into the picture.

A term used in the exhibition is ‘celebration over crucifixion’ – meaning that the objective is to celebrate the women and their unique life experiences instead of judge them for it.

There are five different photographers who feature in this exhibition, they include Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen,  Tish Murtha, Markéta Luskačová, Izabela Jedrzejczyk and  Karen Robinson. Unfortunately, when we visited half of the exhibition room was cordoned off due to a leak in the ceiling, so I didn’t get a good look at the works of Karen Robinson and some of the works of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen.

Marketa Luskacova – Beaches (1978)

Luskacova’s exhibition Beaches was shot in 1978 after she was approached by Amber member Murray Martin. She was asked to photograph around the North East and document the working class culture here.

In her exhibition, her work showcased the beaches in the North East and the people who visit them. She described the beaches to be “like no other beaches in the world”. She shot a lot of her work in the local town of Whitley Bay and captures the regular working class people enjoying the beach.

It was fascinating to see how one of the beaches I visited often as a child looked then and has changed now. At the same time, it doesn’t look to have changed too much, it’s still a small town beach where lots of working class families come together to enjoy on a summer day.

Sirkka-Lissa Konttinen – Writing in the Sand (1970s-1990s)

The work here was part of a 1991 exhibition and was made to coincide with the Amber Films’ Writing in the Sand.

The work shot for this exhibition was shot over a period of 17 years which makes it truly fascinating to look at. Konttinen travelled around the different beaches and coastal towns of the North East, ranging from Druridge Bay to Hartlepool. Like Luskacova, Konttinen loved Whitley Bay the most. In fact, she loved it so much that she even lived there for 7 years!

One of my favourite photos from Konttinen’s work features three elderly women standing together on a beach showing off their legs and laughing. It’s such a happy photo and embodies the warmth and community of the North East working class community. Despite the fact that the 1970s was an economically tough time for the North East, this photo shows that the area wasn’t all doom and gloom.

Isabela Jedrzejczyk – Jungle Portraits (1981)

Jedrzejcyzk’s work was shot in the long gone “Jungle” of North Shields’ Northumberland Arms pub. The pub was a favourite of Isabela’s and other Amber / Side Gallery photographers. She describes the character of the pub as a result of it being a hotspot for “foreign crews, sailors and shipyard workers as well as the local habitues.”

Before the pub was demolished, it served as a makeshift gallery for Jedrzejcyzk’s portraits. It became lovingly known as “the rogue’s gallery”. Seeing as this place was long gone before I was even born, it was very interesting to learn about this local hotspot. While it may have been a “rough” pub to visit, it sounds as though it was a melting pot of cultures where people from around the world would meet fleetingly to enjoy a local North East pub.

Tish Murtha – Youth Unemployment in the West End of Newcastle (1980)

Tish’s work was the result of a Side Gallery commission back in 1979. This was different to the other photographer’s work in the exhibition as it was a deeply personal project for Tish. It documented not just the lives of working class women from the North East, but Murtha’s own siblings.

The work is a criticism and condemnation of the Youth Opportunities Programme put in place by the government in the 1970s. The people enrolled in the programme were technically termed as being employed, when they were in fact very much out of work. Since they were officially ‘employed’, they never entered the unemployment statistics, in a clear bid for the government to cover up the unemployment crisis in the North East in the 1970s.

Her work shows desolate and barren areas of Newcastle’s West End where many young people’s lives have been deeply affected by youth unemployment. One picture which is my favourite of the exhibition, is titled Karen on overturned chair and shows a young woman sitting on an overturned armchair in the middle of a smoky street surrounded by rubble, rubbish and two young boys in the background. I think it perfectly encapsulated the situation of the time as the girl looks utterly defeated in her desperate surroundings.

I’m sad that I didn’t get to see the remaining photos in the exhibition which features another by Konttinen titles Byker and one by Karen Robinson titled All Dressed Up. I will definitely try to go back before the exhibition ends to get a good look at them.

Overall, I loved this exhibition for showcasing the lives of ordinary women in the North East over a series of decades. For a long time, men have been the sole focus of Northern photography, and it’s refreshing to see how women’s lives have been in the area. I would certainly recommend this exhibition to anyone visiting the Baltic any time soon.

– Amy Smith

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