I connected with artist/musician Jill Bryson when I was 15. She was Glaswegian and I was South African so, with thousands of miles between us, the connection was an esoteric one.
In her early 20s at the time, Jill was half of pop duo Strawberry Switchblade – in my eyes a free spirit festooned in lacy frocks, polka dots and ribbons, and exploring her creativity and musical talent.
To my ears, the music Jill and her partner in Strawberry Switchblade, Rose McDowall, made was tinged with beauty, sadness, joy and whimsy, and though they only had one hit (Since Yesterday), the one album they produced before they split (Strawberry Switchblade), has remained one of my favourite and most treasured.
Jill’s love of colour and decoration (some would say garish; I would say delightful) was evident back then, and it is just as obvious now, most recently displayed in an exhibition, Labelled for Life, in Islington, London, on which she collaborated with fellow artist Chris Avis.
Chris and Jill have produced installations using shop mannequins and prints that explore aspects of female identity. Hence one mannequin might be draped in pot scourers to interrogate the oxymoron of “domestic goddess”, while another is splashed in vibrant colour and images of hands, lips and eyes to evoke what to me looked like an Eastern goddess, at once glorying in, but also stifled by, the hands that surround her.
The mannequins’ rigid poses certainly make them appear as if they are trapped or frozen in uncomfortable positions, perhaps echoing a universally shared perception that women are frequently trapped in awkward poses by the often-unspoken demands of partners, family, media, advertising and entertainment.
On the other hand, the exhibition’s creative use of colour and many stylised images involving eye make-up, lipstick, nail varnish and jewellery, also speaks of a creative freedom that paradoxically comes with the tools women can feel oppressed by.
Another of the installations drains all colour, leaving three mannequins in ballgowns of bubble wrap, palms held upright facing shopping bags filled with more bubble wrap. With their featureless, expressionless faces, it’s hard to tell whether they are rejecting shopping or worshipping it.
The generous use of label ties hits home the point that though women (and here also two women artists) may choose to present themselves in a certain way, it’s only a matter of time before that presentation is labelled (and perhaps even commodified) to signify one of many feminine stereotypes we are all too familiar with.
* Labelled for Life runs until February 19 at Unit 6, The Studios, 8 Hornsey Street, London N7 8GR, and includes viewings on February 8, 9 (2pm-7pm), 12, 13 (noon-5pm), 14, 15, 16 (2pm-7pm) and 19 (noon-5pm).