by David MacNicol
Last month, Mount Florida Studios saw the opening of the Scottish Feminist Judgments Project exhibition.
The artists in the exhibit are one section of a diverse range of contributors to the project. Working with academics, legal practitioners, judges, and third sector representatives, the SFJP explores and exposes how outcomes of legal cases in Scotland could differ if reasoned from a feminist perspective.
Working across a range of mediums, eight artists create responses to individual cases or the project as a whole. In his review, David MacNicol shares the work presented by the artists, noting the questions they raise about the justice system and the way they confront the viewer.
Gender equality in civil or criminal law shouldn’t feel like a radical concept. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which allowed women to become lawyers for the first time, celebrated its centenary earlier this year. It paved the way for University of Glasgow alumnus, Madge Easton Anderson, to become the first woman to qualify and practice in both Scotland and England. She then went on to become a partner in the first law firm in the UK run by women only. So, in 100 years, why does it now feel more important than ever to make equality a primary consideration in all aspects of private and public life?
The Scottish Feminist Judgments Project asks whether or not important legal cases might have had different outcomes had the judge adopted a feminist perspective. Part of the project involves collaboration with women artists who all work in different mediums. A boutique collection of work questions the extent to which subjectivity impacts on the supposedly objective process of making legal judgments.
A small collection of poems by Edinburgh-based poet, Jay Whittaker, focuses on a high court appeal where a man, convicted of killing his ex-partner, attempted to use ‘sexual infidelity’ as provocation in order to reduce his conviction from murder to culpable homicide. The poems use found content, including the original judgement, and they also play with textual form. The typographical alignment is secondary to the positioning of the reader. At once I was viewing evidence; I was the victim’s relative; the victim of violence and legal agent. The four poems provide a thoughtful and well considered insight into lost perspectives – most importantly, that of the victim – permanently silenced.
Jay Whittaker is also the inspiration for a sung meditation by Alison Burns in which she collaborates with a local choir. Whittaker’s poem ‘Not Here’ performed in Latin translation intelligently explores the notion of balance. It makes the listener work.
Jill Kennedy McNeill’s sculptures in textile and craft combine to create three labour intensive works – reclaiming women-kind from trad stereotypes. Her practice is most indicative of, what would have traditionally been viewed as, ‘women’s labour.’ Kennedy McNeill offers a new perspective - perfectly encapsulated through a beautiful camera obscura. A copper cylinder placed on top of woven tapestry, reconfiguring the artist as Lady Justice, turns the abstract embroidery into a coherent message when viewed on the copper sculpture. Her ‘Cailleach’ uses jewel-like prisms and iridescent fabric to reconfigure the grotesque mask of Covenanter, Alexander Peden, for our times. The chosen materials are such that they accentuate the eerie quality of ceremonial masks and comment on aesthetic beauty. It questions the nature of identity and therefore agency in the criminal justice system.
Rachel Donaldson’s graphic illustrations, reminiscent of Soviet constructivism, play with perspective. They attempt to capture the intense complexity of the judicial process using clean lines and simple shapes. The female shapes emerge gradually. Like Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures, they deconstruct and reconfigure the female shape into elements. The looking room of the female shapes means there is no locus for the viewer’s attention. The result is a bold series of graphic works which cleverly encompass the spirit of the Feminist Judgments Project as a whole – that of differing perspectives.
An audio recording by Jess Orr and a performance piece filmed and produced by Sofia Nakou and Becky O’Brien are both inspired by 19th Century pioneer, Sophia Jex-Blake. She paved the way for women to obtain a University degree as part of the Edinburgh Seven, who began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869.Both pieces remind us of a forgotten hero – who, unlike the many famous statues to men (and dogs) which adorn the streets of Edinburgh, is still conspicuous in these works by the absence of her likeness.
These are complimented by Jo Spiller’s beautiful portraits: black and white photographs of contemporary heroes. Spiller’s compositions raise the question of the absence of women in historical portraiture from civic spaces.
Perspective is important. The SFJP asks the viewer to probe their own unconscious bias and privilege. It’s an important exercise in self-awareness. In small ways we can all do our bit to be an ally in the fight for equality. But, it’s more important than ever in these times, for equality to be maintained in the face of populism and other right wing movements that would seek to disrupt progress.