Olivia Plender’s work is based on historical research that analyzes pedagogical methods and revolutionary, social, political, and religious movements mainly of the 19th and 20th centuries. She finds her sources in institutional archives, as well as in literature and anonymous and popular narratives, using them to make installations, videos, and comics that address the present, intending to unmask and understand current hierarchical structures and social conventions.
Olivia Plender’s research into Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), a socialist feminist and anti-fascist from the UK began when she found Pankhurst’s unpublished and unperformed play Liberty or Death from 1913 in the archives of the Women’s Library in London. The work became the starting point for a video installation, Hold, Hold, Fire (2019), and a series of meetings with grassroot activists that Olivia Plender continues to organize.
Sylvia Pankhurst is mostly known for her role in women’s voting rights, but she also campaigned against racism and imperialism and was part of the Communist Party founding in the UK. Pankhurst was trained as an artist at the Manchester School of Art and then the Royal College of Art in London. Liberty or Death departs from Pankhurst’s work with the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS).
In the two-channel film, Olivia Plender focuses on some of the sophisticated techniques of self-defense, care, and collaborative methods of feminist pedagogy that have been developed and practiced by feminist groups, especially in women’s spaces and activist organizations. These strategies enable women to deal with the violence directed against them by the authorities, including police violence and the structural violence which continues to disproportionately affect women today–particularly those experiencing intersecting forms of oppression–due to unequal pay, poor working conditions, domestic violence, and bad quality housing.
In collaboration with grassroots feminist organizations, Olivia Plender explores how the history of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes has been written. By applying their knowledge of political organizing today, the groups focus on aspects of the drama that relate directly to their own experiences in campaigning against gender-based violence, a punitive welfare system, the asylum system, and for decent housing, among other issues. Despite being celebrated in recent years, the Suffragette movement is only one part of the complex story of the ongoing fight for gender equality and has often been misrepresented. In staging these meetings, Olivia Plender tries to find a collective form of re-writing feminist history.
This exhibition is also accompanied by a new mural and the adjacent gallery features reference materials as well as a book that documents Olivia Plender’s process.
Olivia Plender, Neither Strivers Nor Skivers, They Will Not Define Us, 2020
Sound, 20 min. 36 sec. With thanks to Crossroads Women’s Centre and Focus E15 Campaign.
Filling the space of the Amant gallery, you could hear a montage of female voices describing their daily lives. They detail the return of what seem like nineteenth-century living conditions: the violent effects of the British government’s policies of austerity – which have pushed a disproportionate number of women into poverty since the financial crisis of 2008 – and the ‘hostile environment’, which has fueled anti-immigrant feelings in the UK. Forced into unpaid care work, or struggling with a punitive benefits system, precarious housing conditions, racism and detention, the women turn to protest. The experiences of police intimidation that follow, underlines the violence with which those in power continue to respond to struggles for equal rights.