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The working's on the wall

Emily Davidson’s Agitate Educate Organise links the history of female workers to the history of female artists.

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Emily Davidson uses nostalgia to criticize notions of progress. - BRENDAN ANCKAERT
  • Brendan Anckaert
  • Emily Davidson uses nostalgia to criticize notions of progress.

Agitate Educate Organise. This is the call to action that Emily Davidson has been spreading throughout the city. Posted on poles and boards, her stunning prints call on "Workingwomen, workingmen and artists" to gather at The Khyber on April 27.

Though breathtakingly artful, it is as much a show of work as it is a show of art. Starting at the end of April and running through the month of May, Davidson's Agitate Educate Organise exhibition will be part of the Mayworks Festival. In conjunction with International Workers Day, May 1---May Day---the Mayworks festival aims to bring together artists and workers to explore themes of social and economic justice.

As a feminist, Davidson is especially interested in the experience of being a woman worker. For this show she has wheat-pasted the colossal 16.5-foot Khyber walls with wallpaper depicting moments in the past when working women agitated, educated and organized. "I feel very much that the history of artists is the history of workers," she says in the Khyber Ballroom, where the once whitewashed walls are now rich with medieval-inspired designs. "In seeing myself as a worker I wanted to know what other women were doing at this time."

The choice to express the history of women workers is Davidson's response to the work of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement that took place at the turn of the century and criticized the industrialization of decorative objects. "The Arts and Crafts movement was based on this idea that craft and labour were valuable, but at the same time it didn't show what labour was about at the time. It just wanted to show nature and all these beautiful handcrafted things. It was escapist almost, interested in labour but not referring to that at all."

So to expand on this movement, Davidson is using the style and tropes of Arts and Crafts to refer directly to the labour conditions at that time. One of the images that covers the largest wall of the ballroom is of the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912.

"It was a strike where women textile workers found that they had been short changed on their pay checks when the company cut their hours without giving them a wage increase," she says. "So this group of Polish women shut down their machines and walked out---which started a three month, very intense, strike that was fought and won by the women in the community."

These scenes of struggles and victories are being shown not just to educate viewers on what has happened---Davidson is using the nostalgia to criticize notions of progress. In her view, these same fights are still being fought today. "The inequity in the art world is still very present...I want this show to not only make people think in an academic way but also to create an experience where people can say, 'Should we have an artist- run centre that's specifically about women? What is our artist run centre movement lacking? How could artists be more connected to workers?'"

And people will have all month to ponder these questions. Regular Khyber programming will happen in and around the exhibit. But these images and their invitation to agitation will not fade into the background--- these women may be wallpaper, but they are far from wallflowers. —Veronica Simmonds

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