By Oyin Akande
On Friday 28th October 2016, the print and online magazine representing and represented by women of colour, gal-dem celebrated the launch of the gal-hood issue, its first print publication by occupying the traditional space of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A hosts a Friday Late where the museum extends its public opening hours until 22.00 on every last Friday of the month. Last week, however, was perhaps the first time that the 160+ year old institution was celebrated beautiful female diversity in this way.
It was a striking clash of fossilised artefacts with active, energetic voices; of a hegemonic establishment with non-normative, progressive feminism.
There is something about simply occupying a space that lends itself so well to social activism. The Occupy Movement in 2011, for example, was a multilocal socio-political movement against social inequality. On Wall Street, at St. Paul’s and elsewhere, occupying a public, civic space was at the centre of a cause that aimed to give a voice to those who felt themselves disenfranchised. They were placing themselves right before the symbols of the institutions that had not recognised their plights. They were claiming their own validity.
On Friday, Soul Food Kitchen gave workshops on African and Caribbean recipes in the V&A Café, Sharmadean Reid set up a WAH nails popup in the Learning Center and the Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre was the site of a Twerk workshop, considering the consequences of twerking on the power of the female body. Ibiye Camp had girls in beautiful hand-painted denim in the cast courts. The entire museum was claimed for the expression of the social experience of young women of colour.
At the Salon in the recently re-opened European Galleries, Lotte Anderson of Maxilla and Lynnette Nylander of i-D magazine were in conversation about female confidence and what its place means in a contemporary society. It was here that the discourse of occupying space was shown to be all the more poignant for its significance to female social activism.
Lynette referred to Gloria Steinem and the social precepts for women to take up as little space as possible, both metaphorically and literally. ‘We are conditioned to be dainty, to want to be thin; to not want to be loud or to be boisterous; to not want people to see us or hear us because that is not what women do. And I think that those messages, from a really young age, can permeate. And they can be how we think of ourselves, in a myriad of different ways’ said Lynette.
This idea of the female ‘smallness’ is still at the centre of the feminist concern. It is an issue in Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s 2012 TED Talk We Should All Be Feminists, from which we have the pop-culture near-slogan: ‘We teach girls to shrink themselves; to make themselves smaller’. More than just a commanding opening to a Beyoncé song, the quote introduces challenges to traditional archetypes of female identity.
For Lotte, confidence is about being big in a way you feel comfortable with. ‘It’s hard to talk about being small after spending about four hours with mates covering up a space in which no one would doubt that I’d been there’, referring to the posters that had been scattered around the Salon in typical Maxilla-style, ‘its just so completely unnatural’.