Barbara Ash’s recent collection of works challenges stereotypical ideas about women
"I think it’s depressing that girls are constantly surrounded by messages that are telling them they are not acceptable unless they follow this narrow orthodoxy,” said Barbara Ash, whose sculptures and drawings have strong roots in women’s struggle with the image centric world. “It marginalises the majority and puts a focus on superficial issues rather than in development of personal goals and individuality.” Ash’s concern about the environment in which young girls grow up in began after Ash saw a piece by artist Shilpa Gupta named I have many dreams in 2008. Gupta’s works involved life-size photographs of young girls with audio interviews of their dreams and plans for the future. The result of her subsequent research can be seen in Holding up Half the Sky at Gallery Five Forty Five this fortnight.
Paintings, collages and sculptures of female figures and social conditioning form a convincing narrative in Ash’s show. The works conduct a sensitive examination of massmedia – fashion, films and advertising – drawing up playful images that paint expectations and pressures that most women face through these vehicles. “My main interest is on how the larger world impacts on the individual and how inner worlds are developed by external ideas,” she said. “However, as a woman my work specifically focuses on the female experience. Although supposedly living in a post-Feminist society (for some parts of the world) my particular viewpoint comes from operating in a society where institutions and laws are still generally made by men and everincreasing industries market and perpetuate fixed notions of what a woman should be.”
For this show, Ash uses both contemporary and traditional ways to recreate the subject: drawings, sculptures and digital reproductions that use seemingly old-fashioned handicraft skills; tracing, tonal pencil-work, painting, paper cut-outs and collages that represent newer societal issues. From the start, Ash’s full-body art forms bear foundations in her formal education in sculpture – she has studied in London at the Middlesex University and the Cyprus College and Royal College of Art. Her work, she said, is influenced by specific social and political impulses, especially the feminist movement. Having spent time in India and the UK, Ash’s subjects are not restricted to any particular geographical borders. In fact, she said that she is hyper-aware of the pressures that come from constant mass media and advertising material directed towards women.
Ash recalls a Victorian photo archive that she came across during her research. The trove included many portraits of very young girls, including babies and toddlers, who were regimentally dressed up like dolls in pretty frocks. The girl’s faces had expressions of discomfort and occasionally angst, which created a level of pathos and empathy for the artist. This experience shifted Ash away from contemporary representations to looking at traditional historical perceptions of femininity which she outlines through “Madonnas”, an illustration that contrasts the historical images of religious paintings of the demure Virgin Mary alongside the contemporary sexual strutting of semi-clad, superstar singer Madonna.
Ash’s work is replete with thematic representations of class and colour. In “When I grow up I want to be... an Indian/Western babe”, Ash uses drawings of her niece in her Sunday best and an Indian friend’s niece in a traditional attire to a backdrop of skyscrapers, where Bollywood and Hollywood babes posing proactively from the windows. This work challenges the role models that girls often aspire to emulate. “Big doll with small bird” is a sixfoot tall fibre-glass doll dressed up in a pastel pink frilly frock that sits with a bird-like companion. The kitschy sculpture incorporates worldly imagery and mythological references to evoke a feeling of an elusive freakish beauty.
Ash’s show screams “women’s struggle” yet doesn’t trivialise the issue. Her art is about the essential things. “I was interested in the notion of artificiality, how “beauty” standards have now become so rigid that only the affluent members of society can meet them as they will be the ones to afford the surgical procedures to create the required designer bodies and buy the ever-increasing range of beauty treatments and products,” Ash said. “Living in the two countries made me aware of issues of “westernization”, another area where individuality is threatened as again there is an external force towards widespread homogeneity.”
Holding Up Half The Sky opens on Fri Mar 8 at Gallery Five Forty Five.