By Sue Blundell
‘The State and Sexist Advertising Cause Illness’; ‘Fight the Cuts’; ‘The Freedom of the Press Belongs to Those who Control the Press’.
Though these rallying cries may seem completely relevant today, they in fact appeared on posters created in the 1970s and 1980s by the See Red Women’s Workshop.
In 1974 two women who’d recently left art school and one practising artist came together in response to a call for a group to be formed to combat sexist stereotyping in advertising. In this way the See Red women’s collective was born.
Pru Stevenson, one of the three, lives on Great Titchfield Street, and she told me about the aggro that the women encountered when they first set up their workshop in squatted premises in Camden Town. “We wanted people to know about our work, so it seemed obvious to put some of our posters up in the window.”
The result was that a passerby put a brick through it. Nothing daunted, the three artists continued producing posters, vivid calls to action linked mainly to the women’s movement, although they also did work for other campaigning organisations. “So long as women are not free the people are not free” has always been one of their most powerful artworks.
Shortly after the brick incident See Red moved to south London, to Iliffe Yard off Crampton Street in Southwark. Calendars and postcards were added to their repertoire, and, along with the posters, were distributed by mail order or in shops, both in the UK and abroad. The women’s aim was to create works which were cheap, accessible and focussed, where the message was not obscured by fancy techniques or received notions of beauty.
Issues such as social equality, sexism, domestic politics, women’s health and sexuality were all dealt with in the posters. Another aim was skill-sharing, and there were regular talks and demonstrations, plus an apprenticeship scheme. The workshop was always fairly small, usually about six women, with a total of around 35 working there over its lifetime.
All the women remained passionately committed to the ideals of the Collective. “There was no hierarchy, and that worked fine,” Pru told me. “We never fell out. And we were all opposed to the idea of the individual creative artist. When we were designing a poster we’d talk about the content, then one of us would go away and produce a few drawings. She’d bring them back, and we’d all discuss them and suggest changes.”
They would have shared the profits too if there’d been any, but for a long time there weren’t. The founders of the workshop never made any money out of See Red. Working up to three days a week on the printing, they all had part-time jobs elsewhere in order to make a living. Finally in 1983 the group received a GLC grant, but Pru herself left See Red shortly after that.
Pru demonstrated that she’s lost none of her teaching skills when she gave me a brief rundown on the screen-printing technique which they used. It’s a stencil method of printing which involves stretching a piece of meshed material over a wooden frame, outlining the design on the material, and blocking out the areas which you don’t want the ink to penetrate – the negative part of the design – with pieces of paper or emulsion. The blank poster is then placed under the frame and ink is poured over the screen and dragged with a squeegee to force it through the mesh.
It’s obviously much more complicated than it sounds — you might be using several different colours, and some of the designs could be pretty intricate. Imagine, for example, making a stencil for an image which features a woman in a patterned dress split between a kitchen and a production line (‘A woman’s work is never done’). Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe screen-print is simplicity itself compared with many of See Red’s creations.
The Workshop finally closed in the early 1990s, but the group remains in existence as caretaker to its inspiring archive of material. Last winter it received recognition in an exhibition at the ICA. If you’re sorry to have missed that, then you can visit the See Red Archive at the Women’s Library when it re-opens at LSE next July, or view some of their posters in the V&A, or online.
When I asked Pru whether she thought there was still a place for a group like See Red, she didn’t hesitate for a moment. “Oh, absolutely.” Most of their work was produced under the Thatcher Government, and things haven’t changed a great deal since then. And though the new digital technologies do offer a kind of democratisation their products can often appear too slick. What Pru herself would be keen to see would be some posters which address the theme of the older woman in society. Perhaps one of Fitzrovia’s many artists would like to respond to her plea?