Acts of Resistance

Photography, Feminism and the Art of Protest

Exhibition review by Max Houghton

Acts of Resistance, a collaborative exhibition by the South London Gallery and V&A Parasol Foundation for Women in Photography, confronts the systemic brutalisation and circumscription of women’s bodies worldwide — from persecution in Bangladesh, oppression in India to solidarity with Palestinian freedom. As Max Houghton writes, this is not a show for performative activists; it’s really doing the work — the exhibition fosters a reparative gaze, challenging historical narratives of control and subjugation, and calling for greater community involvement and institutional accountability. 

Max Houghton | Exhibition review | 4 Apr 2024

Even before entering Acts of Resistance: Photography, Feminism and the Art of Protest, a curatorial collaboration between South London Gallery and V&A Parasol Foundation for Women in Photography, the content guidance reveals the show’s necessity: ‘Artwork in this exhibition includes references to […] sexual violence, femicide, female genital mutilation, gender and sexuality-based discrimination, genocide and racism.’ This short institutional statement tells us precisely how the world is structured and how the bodies of women+ are circumscribed and brutalised, deliberately and systematically. Stepping in, the first visible work, suspended from the ceiling, takes gentle possession of the viewer, who is immediately enfolded into the plaited hair of young Iranian women. Three larger-than-life prints by Hoda Afshar are responding to Iran’s Women Life Freedom movement with the symbolism of unveiled hair, of the plait’s own revolutionary turn, or pichesh-e-moo, and of the dove’s flight between peace and martyrdom. The death of Mahasa Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police weighs heavily, as does the courage of the women who protest, risking their own lives. My thoughts turn too to the immorality and illegality of the Metropolitan Police on this city’s streets; to the lives and legacies of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, of Sarah Everard, of Chris Kaba; and to what kind of imaging or imagining might bring justice to them.

The first message, then, of the show’s images is that they open a space within which such global ultraviolence can be considered, resisted and perhaps – rarely – extinguished. Two artists whose works are curated close by, Poulomi Basu and Sofia Karim, are committed activists, whose work has given rise to legal change. Basu’s multimedia work and its dissemination contributed to the banning of Chapaudi in Nepal, a practice which sees girls and women banished from society during menstruation; left to inhabit unlit, unsanitary temporary huts, at risk of assault in remote fields.

Karim’s activism was ignited by the political imprisonment and subsequent torture of her uncle, the renowned photojournalist Shahidul Alam, in Bangladesh. Like human rights activist G. N. Saibaba, for whom she has also campaigned through her exquisite drawings and letter exchange, Alam was eventually released. Karim’s work, Turbine Bagh (2020–ongoing), resonates in any setting, though in a night at the museum, it would surely leap off its designated shelf and populate a central artery through the space. Significantly, it is the only work in the show that foregrounds the art of other activists, which Karim has transferred onto samosa packets, conferring an increased sense of sociality and hospitality within these acts of resistance. For this show, whilst works centring women’s experience have been selected, in terms of anti-rape protests in Bangladesh or Muslim girls’ right to wear a hijab in Karnataka, India, Karim’s feminism also insists upon exposing the cruelties of the caste system via a Dalit protest in Una, and the Kerala Sisterhood’s support for Palestinian freedom. From her series Sisters of the Moon (2022), Basu’s futuristic self-portraits pool, siren-like, across the gallery walls, seducing the viewer into uncertain territory, incanting through their worldly knowledge the names of pain. The spectral image of Basu on a bed, uncannily placed at the shore’s edge, alongside water urns, invites questions of refuge, of sanctuary, of survival, and helped raise £5million for WaterAid.

This is not a show for performative activists; it’s really doing the work. Three major London institutions have curated feminist/activist shows in the past year; a welcome and vital taking up of art space by, for and with women+. This outpouring of activist-propelled art, in terms, for example, of the vast scale of Re/Sisters (2023) at the Barbican and Tate’s Women in Revolt! (2024), or the geographical breadth of Acts of Resistance, is indicative of the fact that such shows are long overdue, and we have so much to say. I say this in the year the Royal Academy offered its first ever solo show to a female artist, Marina Abramovic, in its 250-year history.[i]

This show has taken the idea of the “fourth wave” feminism of the last decade as its timeframe, which is at once necessary to fit the available space, ensures intersectional and expansive feminisms – a plurality noted in the show’s subtitle – and yet misses the chance to visually connect these present concerns through time. Such legacies are not, however, absent. The show’s first section, “Body as Battleground”, is essentially a dedication to Barbara Kruger, whose own solo show at the Serpentine took place earlier this year. The legacy of the Saint of Christopher Street gay liberation campaigner and trans activist Marsha P. Johnson is enshrined in Happy Birthday Marsha! (2018) by Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel, which reimagines the night of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, when, yet again, the role of the police as guardians of the most vulnerable is found entirely wanting. The way Johnson inhabited her personal freedom was revolutionary; achingly beautifully rendered in this short film, in what Saidiya Hartman might call a ‘critical fabulation’, in which historical or archival omissions of a life are reconstructed. This work occupies the emotional heart of the show, along with that of Aida Silvestri’s Unsterile Clinic (2015). By any measure, this is an astonishingly visceral work, on a subject no one but no one wants to talk about, yet is transformed by the artist’s loving hands into artworks of such grace, they turn silence into speech. Drawing on her own experience of female genital mutilation, she has been able to work collaboratively with other similarly-affected women to visualise the different forms the procedure has taken, creating models, on display here in a vitrine, which are now used for identification – over 200 million women and girls are affected globally – by the NHS in the UK. The work also takes the form of a single, non-identifying self-portrait, in which the artist wears a wedding dress, embellished with razor blades in place of pearls, and embroidered red thread, flowing beyond the frame. The image pulsates with the injustice of the religious and social construct of virginity and every act of violence it has engendered.

I unite these two specific works in the strongest spirit of the right to self-determination – and its frequent absence – which courses throughout the exhibition. Of the two vital works on the subject of abortion, in this instance, I would have selected Winant’s The Last Safe Abortion (2023) for the light it sheds on the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, and invited Laia Abril to show her work On Rape (2020–ongoing), or Femicides (2019–ongoing), as another bloody framing for the show as a whole. Yet, as always with her meticulously researched work, Abril’s situating of abortion as a global institutional failure bristles with eloquent rage. The last time I wrote about Nan Goldin’s Memory Lost, the V&A was still funded by Sackler, a position it reversed in 2022; the result of a sustained campaign by Goldin and PAIN, which included a die-in at the museum, indicting the creators of Oxycontin, the highly addictive opioid, for their life-destroying crimes. Goldin’s way of being in the (art) world – she has been called a “harm reductionist”, surely an aspirational epithet – is propelled by honesty, and, I can’t say it too often, by love. The wrong things, she says, are kept secret. They still are, and the shame that encircles such secrecy kills with the same violence as a blade or a gun.

Much of the work in this ground-breaking show pierces such shame with love, and Raphaela Rosella’s work HOMEtruths (2022) explodes with love and care for and with a First Nations community in New South Wales, Australia. This entirely unsentimental, joyful, heart-breaking, polyvocal three-screen film shows the effects of the incarceration of women on them and their families. Part of a wider work, You’ll Know It When You Feel It (2012–ongoing), Rosella’s co-creational approach resists, intervenes in and often completely overturns juridical and bureaucratic representation and replaces it with rich familial bonds in a form of justice, both aesthetic and restorative, which is exceptionally deeply felt.

In terms of the photographic image, these artists are pushing the discipline forward, far from its histories of control and subjugation. In their hands, we encounter sculptural, filmic, archival, collaged and embroidered forms, which make for multi-sensory ways of seeing, decentring the camera’s power; a reparative gaze. Questions for the next shows foregrounding women+, no doubt already in production, include how to understand the gallery as even more of a forum, involving more community groups and building on existing links with brilliant but underfunded and therefore precarious local resources. How can the institutions that fail us, that maim, that kill, be further held publicly accountable via image-led or art-based discussion? How can artists whose practice isn’t defined within the confines of socially engaged practice in and of itself expand the social purpose of their work in a gallery space? And how can the white Western female curatorial approach, expansive and assiduous as it surely is, in terms of Sarah Allen and Fiona Rogers, as well as Alona Pardo and Linsey Young – brava to all – continue to find ways to share its considerable power ever more effectively? Not because it isn’t showing us the most pertinent, mind-expanding, courageous work, not because it isn’t taking great care of the people who make it, but because of what it – and I – just can’t see.♦

All images courtesy South London Gallery

Acts of Resistance: Photography, Feminism and the Art of Protest, with a public programme curated by Lola Olufemi, runs at South London Gallery until 9 June 2024.

Max Houghton is a writer, curator and editor working with the photographic image as it intersects with politics and law. She runs the MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, where she is also co-founder of the research hub Visible Justice. Her writing appears in publications by The Photographers’ Gallery and Barbican Centre, as well press such as Granta, The Eyes, Foam, 1000 Words, British Journal of Photography and Photoworks. She is co-author, with Fiona Rogers, of Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now (Thames and Hudson, 2017) and her latest monograph essay appears in Mary Ellen Mark: Ward 81 Voices (Steidl, 2023). She is undertaking doctoral research into the image and law at University College London and is the 2023 recipient of the Royal Photographic Society award for education. 


[i] I say this in a year when the police force with responsibility for London remains institutionally sexist, racist and homophobic. I say this when two women this week, as every week, will be killed in the UK by the hands of their partner or former partner. I say this on a day when the US abstained from the UN vote for a ceasefire in Gaza, where sexual violence is being frequently reported as a weapon of war.


1-Hoda Afshar, Untitled #14 from the series In Turn, 2023. © Hoda Afshar. Image courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Meeanjin / Brisbane.

2-Sethembile Msezane, Chapungu – The Day Rhodes Fell, 2015. Photo: Courtesy the artist

3-Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel, Happy Birthday Marsha!, 2018. Courtesy the artists and Chapter NY, New York.

4-Poulomi Basu, from the series Sisters of the Moon, 2022. Courtesy the artist, TJ Boulting and JAPC.

5-Guerrilla Girls, History of Wealth & Power, 2016. © Guerrilla Girls, courtesy

6-Mari Katayama, just one of those things #002, 2021. © Mari Katayama

7-Zanele Muholi, Bester, New York, 2019. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy Yancey Richardson, New York.

8-Sheida Soleimani, Delara, 2015. © Sheida Soleimani. Courtesy Edel Assanti.

Liz Johnson Artur

If you know the beginning, the end is no trouble

Exhibition review by Taous R. Dahmani

If I say “black female street photographer” who do you think of? There is a good chance that you will hesitate for a moment and then finally recognise that no or almost no names come to mind. Then, most likely, you will ask yourself: why? Is it due to a real lack of activity or that of omission and failure within the history of photography and its institutional actors. Perhaps though, in 2016, you were lucky enough to come across Liz Johnson Artur’s eponymous book of photographs, published by Bierke, which revealed in almost 130 pages what she had been photographing for the previous thirty years: hundreds of images that constitute her Black Balloon Archive. Maybe you even saw her exhibition Dusha at the Brooklyn Museum this summer or If you Know the Beginning, the End is No Trouble at South London Gallery. Then, Liz Johnson Artur’s name might have crossed your mind. Thus, it’s worth discussing two aspects of this question that largely remain unanswered to put forward an argument for the need of a twofold mapping: that of a circuit, or an inclusive history of photography – despite lost, hidden, or worse, dismissed, evidence and traces – and that, undertaken by black female photographers when they pick up their cameras possessed by the urgency of representation.

A flashback is essential. In the mid-1980s, Liz Johnson Artur, then in her early twenties, was given a camera for the first time and took it onto the streets of Brooklyn. She continued this practice when she moved to London in 1991, turning it into a career working with magazines, while still carrying on as a street photographer in Peckham and beyond. At this time, the limits of a certain kind of photojournalism were becoming obvious and discussions about representation were emerging. Photography’s theoretical progression and the study of the power of the gaze were happening at the same time as decisive events for the Black populations of the United States and England. In 1980, the Miami uprisings broke out following the death of an African American salesman and former Marine followed by Los Angeles experiencing major unrest in 1992 as a result of the LAPD aggression against Rodney King and the acquittal of his attackers. On the other side of the Atlantic, in England, in 1981 and again in 1985, social and economic living conditions, racial discrimination and the relationship between communities and the police in inner cities led, in quick succession, to upheavals by the Black British population.

It was also in this period that women photographers, in the United States and in England, decided to write their herstory. In 1986, North American photographer and photographic historian, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe published Viewfinders – Black Women Photographers – developing the work started by Deborah Willis and Valencia Hollins Coar. Positing an inventory of the photographic production of African-American women since the beginnings of photography in the 19th century  going back to true pioneers such as Mary E. Flenoy  Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe pin-pointed the crux of the problem in her introduction: ‘Significant contributions of hundreds of black women have been lost to history  their works, papers, photographs  as the eleventh-hour attempt to fill in the gaps and document their roles begins.’ At the same time, in London, the exhibition and the publication Testimony – Three Black Women Photographers brought together the work of Black British photographers Brenda Agard, Ingrid Pollard and Maud Sulter. Lubaina Himid, Testimony’s curator, stated in the catalogue the need to be both artists and organisers since ‘as women we organise together to challenge our triple burden of racism, sexism and economic oppression.’ The year after, in 1987, Chila Kumari Burman published her essay There Have Always Been Great Blackwomen Artists where she continued, once again, the work of asserting and insisting on the importance of an inclusive history of art. Legacy, transmission and the history of photography exist only by the acts that implement them and it is important to unfold and explain these issues in order to understand the need for a shift of paradigm.

Therefore the work of Liz Johnson Artur needs to be placed in a historical and transatlantic continuum: on the arc alongside Elaine Tomlin, official photographer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference  a leading civil rights organisation of the 1960s  who covered racial and social upheavals and together with Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe who in 1982 published, Daufuskie Island: A Photographic Essay, a photobook on the lives of the remaining Gullah-speaking black inhabitants of South Carolina. It is the richness of this heritage and the diversity of this history that allows us to capture the singularity and uniqueness of Liz Johnson Artur’s photographic work. Guided by the greatest women photographers of the post-war period, Johnson Artur transformed the old idea of the “flâneur photographer” into an empowering and complex photographic practice by starting in the streets, documenting an atlas of faces and recording the diversity of the communities she lived in. In spite of an urban world designed by and for white men, the photographer surveyed the streets of the biggest cities, particularly New York and London, in search of the individuals that make up the African diaspora and transnational youth. Today, at a time of rampant nationalisms, her diasporic perspective seems more relevant than ever. In the 1980s, it was a pan-African vision that brought photographer Armet Francis to gather, in similar projects, photographs from Africa, the Caribbean, New York and London. Published respectively in 1983 and 1988, The Black Triangle and Children of the Black Triangle converge toward Johnson Artur’s mapping project. As Aby Warburg did with his Mnemosyne Atlas, Liz Johnson Artur juxtaposed and sequenced photographs that fostered immediate, synoptic insights into transnational identities. In her recent London exhibition, she presented her work on a bamboo cane structure, allowing her Black Balloon Archive to float, and to some extent, mirror the cloud-like image composition made by Warburg in the 1920s. The lack of captions or detailed information turns Johnson Artur’s images into a representational system of transnational cultures.

No doubt the artistic landscape is currently being transformed, but we must insist on continuity in order to carry on celebrating individual paths and anchor them in collective roots, which will, in time, usher in a cohesive history of black photography  quilting as an art of stitching together photographs, linking the past and the present, making it whole. And, as such, reminiscing and stressing the importance of Toni Morrison’s 1987 statement in Beloved as Sixo remembers the Thirty-Mile Woman: ‘The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.’ A genealogy of photographers intertwined, looking out for the new generation in the images of Rhianne Clarke and Adama Jalloh. This is also what Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and Adama Delphine Fawundu have done with the publication of MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora (2018), a reference book that aims to establish and represent the diversity of contemporary photographic proposals of the African diaspora. 

All images courtesy of the artist and South London Gallery. © Liz Johnson Artur

Installation views of Liz Johnson Artur: If you know the beginning, the end is no trouble at South London Gallery, 2019. Photo: Andy Stagg

Taous R. Dahmani
is a photography historian, working between Paris and London. She is a PhD fellow at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University Paris, where she teaches 20th century photography history. In 2019-20, Taous will be a researcher attached to the Maison Française in Oxford. Her thesis project is built around the representation of struggles and the struggle for representation. Her writings and her talks always tackle politics and its relations to the photographic medium.