hero of the week: liv wynter, who resigned as tate artist in residence
After Tate director Maria Balshaw made comments that appeared to blame the victims of sexual harassment, Liv – an artist, #WhereIsAnaMendieta activist, and domestic abuse survivor – resigned to highlight the issue.
Photography Holly Whitaker
Hero: Liv Wynter, a queer, working class, female artist (and part of queer feminist punk band Militant Girlfriend) who makes performance art and text-based work about “class, sexuality, gender, recovery from violent relationships and rebuilding yourself post trauma.” Liv was made an Artist in Residence at Tate Britain and Tate Modern on the Education Programme for 2017-18.
What they did: Quit the Tate’s prestigious Artist in Residence programme -- symbolically on International Women’s Day -- in protest, following comments made by Tate Director Maria Balshaw that appeared to blame victims of sexual harassment.
Speaking to the Times newspaper in February, Balshaw is reported as answering a question concerning sexual harassment scandals in the art world by saying: “I personally have never suffered any such issues. Then, I wouldn’t. I was raised to be a confident woman who, when I encountered harassment, would say: ‘Please don’t’ ... or something rather more direct.” Following understandably offended reactions to her comments, Maria posting on Instagram, “I am sorry if this has been misunderstood. It is absolutely not my intention to say that women are in any way to blame. To be clear, it is the perpetrators who are responsible for their behaviour and not the women who are subjected to it.”
In a public resignation letter published on her website, Liv writes that, as a survivor of domestic violence herself, Maria’s comments were “a slap in the face”. “I cannot describe to you the personal shame I feel as a survivor of domestic violence, to work for someone who could think so little of me whilst simultaneously profiting off of my ‘survivorness’ and the work I dare to make about it,” she says.
Tell me more: Liv is known for her political artwork and, before being named a Tate Artist in Residence, she had engaged the institution as a founding member of WHEREISANAMENDIETA. The campaign focuses on the exclusion of Cuban performance artist Ana Mendieta from art curricula and galleries, including the Tate. Ana Mendieta fled Cuba for the US as a refugee when she was 12. She later married fellow artist Carl Andre and, during an argument with him, fell to her death out of the window of their 34th floor apartment in New York. Carl was charged with her murder, but was acquitted due to insufficient evidence. In 2015, WHEREISANAMENDIETA protested outside the opening of The Tate Project, where Carl’s work was shown but Ana’s was not, despite the gallery owning five of her works. The protesters held signs that read “Carl Andre killed Ana Mendieta” and chanted “Oi Tate, we’ve got a vendetta, where the fuck is Ana Mendieta?”
"When I entered the institution of the Tate, I was hoping I could have the same influence inside, as I did outside,” Liv writes in her resignation letter, noting the spotlight that shone on Ana Mendieta after the protest. "I feel strongly the programme I am part of, and indeed another programme I have been lucky to work with in previous years, Late at Tate, are phenomenal feats of intersectional and radical creatives coming together to work towards change. The times at which we occupy the gallery are the times when you truly see the galleries potential as a social space. When there is noise, and laughter, and experimentation -- when the space is transformed by the marginalised bodies in it, to facilitate other marginalised bodies,” she explains.
Liv says she worries, however, that these positive events and initiatives are "a distraction” from the institution’s wider lack of diversity. “Only 13% of their workforce ... identify as Black or Ethnic Minority,” Liv writes. “Tate has only 9% of its staff that identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Every single director is white. In payband 1 there is only 3% BAME. Band 2 has 12% and band 3 has 7%! Only 4% of the entire workforce identify as disabled!” she adds, asking, “Is this how the ignorance Maria spoke of [in a public meeting about the issue] gets in? Because there is no one in the room to point it out?”
Why it matters: As the Guardian report, the Tate issued a statement saying that Maria Balshaw had apologised for her comments in a meeting with staff, and that they “did not recognise the description of events given by Wynter”.
However, other artists have come forward claiming that they had similar experiences as Artists in Residence at the Tate. Art and activism “collective of one” the vacuum cleaner tweeted, “As one of @Tate’s artists in resident (2016/17), I fully support this calling out and Liv’s refusal to continue to give they labour,” with performer and artist Travis Labanza adding, “Me 2, as an artist in resident 16/17 of Tate I fully support Liv’s action. The team I was working for did great work, but the wider institution continues to fail and exploit. I’m sad they’ve lost such an incredible artist like Liv!”
What effect is it having: It’s hard to say, concretely. What’s for sure is that large culture organisations would really rather they weren’t criticised in this way. So, hopefully, there are a lot of people thinking a little harder about how they can authentically represent marginalised groups, as a core of their workforce, programmes and exhibitions, not just on ‘Diversity Day’ as Hari Nef once memorably termed it.
“Since the resignation I have been surrounded by supportive and critical conversation which has been liberating and empowering,” Liv wrote on Twitter yesterday evening. “Today, I am hit with the realisation of being a working class queer woman with a £1000 monthly loss,” she continues, referencing the loss of the position’s salary. “I am hit with the realisation that once again, being a survivor has forced me into leaving a situation much at the detriment to my own wellbeing.”
Though Liv has left the Tate, her work is, of course, as powerful as ever. A new installation and performance, Housefire (2018), is currently on show at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridge. “Referring to Aesop's fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf as much as Marx's famous quote about history repeating itself ‘first as tragedy, then as farce’, Wynter's monologue takes the position of a woman whose house burns down repeatedly,” the gallery’s website explains. It adds -- even more poignantly since her resignation -- that the work “considers the absurdity and fatigue of constantly having to speak out”.
Special mention: Dr. Sophie Smith, Associate Professor of Political Theory, University of Oxford, who posted the instantly-iconic (for all the wrong reasons) image of a cleaner at the university on International Women’s Day. “Oxford security makes a woman cleaner scrub out ‘Happy International Women’s Day’ on the Clarendon steps. What an image for #IWD,” she wrote on Twitter. And then, when the newspaper whose name we will not mention (initials: DM) asked to use the image, she swiftly responded, “No, you do not have my permission to use this image anywhere on [your website], nor in print.” But, they risked litigation and used it anyway.