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Review: 209 Women – from Parliament to Open Eye Gallery

209 Women – from Parliament to Open Eye Gallery
An exhibition of women in power, in a system dominated by men.

It is unity, more than power that stands out in the latest exhibition at Open Eye Gallery, which has travelled from London after the show, curated by Hilary Wood, Cheryl Newman, Lisa Tse, and Tracy Marshall (Director of Development and Partnerships at Open Eye Gallery), was hung in Westminster.

The first installation, in London, was opened to the public on 14th December 2018, one hundred years to the day since women voted for the first time. The same year the first woman was elected to Parliament.

In 2018 there were 209 female MPs, with less taking their seats due to Sinn Fein’s abstention from Westminster; an abstention that was extended to the exhibition, with their images omitted from the show. In Open Eye though, all 209 women take space on the walls connected only by an elected office.

With the major political parties split within themselves on fundamental ideals it is a disservice to these women to suggest that anything other than their elected title connects them. Something that is even more apparent when reading the image credits, none of which hold any information about their party alliances or their ministerial positions, simply their names, their constituencies and the women who took their photograph.

Of course there are local MPs from around the North West whose alliances we know. We voted for them after all. Some though are more familiar, from their appearances on national television. It’s easy to forget that Luciana Berger, is MP for Wavertree, or Louise Ellman for Liverpool Riverside, when you see them arguing over national issues on the news.

Louise Ellman, MP for Liverpool Riverside, by Carlotta Cerdana

It’s easy to forget Theresa May is MP for Maidenhead. They are elected by the people of those constituencies to represent them in parliament, and bring local issues with national impacts to the house.

Some of the images are in allotments, some – the MP for Maidenhead, Theresa May – are on utterly plain backgrounds. You get a sense of the individual from these images but the onus is very much on you the viewer to connect to them as individuals rather than as MPs, and through visuals not text.

Maria Eagle’s portrait is set on the industrial banks of the Mersey, in the heart of her constituency, while Louise Ellman stands proudly in front of Museum of Liverpool. The two images, though both within their constituencies, are completely different. Two MPs whose portraits reveal masses about them. Ellman is connected to the success of the city centre through her position, while Maria Eagle sets herself within a less grand, less iconic space.

Some MPs have no connection to the places they represent in their images and, perhaps cynically, the more TV time they get, the less personal their portraits appear. From Luciana Berger, whose portrait is simply herself set in a plain room, to the Prime Minister whose portrait could have been taken in any studio, or the ego of cabinet ministers whose shots look like something out of a style magazine.

Alison McGovern, MP for Wirral South, by Hilary Wood

But it is an exhibition of work by 209 photographers as much as it is of 209 MPs. And with that in mind, the style and creative expression in the images has to be in part attributed to them as artists. They have after all created 209 stunning portraits of some of the UKs most important women. Some are works of art, some even border on satire, and others focus on the real driving force of the exhibition; an opportunity to remember the significance of that number. 209 women sit in Parliament today. 100 years ago, just 1 was an elected member of the house.

Writing this in the gallery, sat in front of the work, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the statement of the exhibition, but at face value, politics aside, this is an exhibition of exceptional photography from the nation’s best female photographers. They have been brought together in a project that is unprecedented in scale and subject, in a way that very deliberately frames this time in history.

Marie Rimmer, MP for St Helens South and Whiston, by Emma Case

209 Women is at Open Eye Gallery until 14th April 2019
Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith