Arts

Poster Girls

The iconic See Red Women’s Workshop is publishing a book of its utterly glorious posters, designed to combat negative images of women in the media. We’re clearing all our wall space.

Protest, 1973-4The See Red Women’s Workshop was founded by three ex-art students in 1973. We met through an ad placed in a radical feminist magazine asking for women interested in forming a group to look at and combat the negative images of women in advertising and the media.

See Red grew out of that meeting and a collective was formed, producing silk-screened posters for the women’s liberation movement as well as for community groups and others on request.

Working collectively was central to the ethos of See Red, as was sharing skills and knowledge. Members belonged to women’s consciousness-raising groups and were active in various radical and alternative organisations.

In the early days the posters were mainly produced about our own personal experiences as women, about the oppression of housework, childcare, exploring sexuality, and the impact of negative stereotypes on women.

For all our work an idea would be discussed, a member would work on a design, bring it back for comment, someone else might make changes and so on until the collective were satisfied with the end result; no one individual took the credit. This was a concept many in the art world found hard to accept. And quality was important to us too. Many hours would be spent on ensuring that only posters that were well printed and produced left the workshop.

The collective on average consisted of about six, but in all about 45 women passed through the workshop during its lifetime. Some were on apprenticeship schemes for a few months; others came with specific ideas to produce posters about key issues.

Until we received grants, first from Southwark Council and then the GLC in 1983-1986, funding for the workshop came through the sale of the posters, service-printing for community and other groups and from donations. We all had part-time jobs or childcare commitments. Equipment, such as inks and paper, was acquired from firms closing down or through donations.

Right On Jane, 1977Our first premises were a shop-front squat in Camden Town but after a brick was thrown through the window, See Red moved to another squat above South London Womens Centre and eventually to premises off the Walworth Road. The premises were derelict and all the renovations were carried out by the collective or by women in the building trades.

As we grew, our posters also explored wider themes and their impact on women. The workshop was attacked on several occasions by the National Front, from stickers to smashed doors, ink poured over the machinery, phone lines cut and the mail pissed over.

Our posters were sold mainly through mail order, in radical and women’s bookshops, and at conferences. We also produced posters for community and other groups, calendars, postcards and illustrations. Our early printing technique was to block out the screen using a water-soluble filler; prints were hung on washing lines to dry. We then progressed to drying racks and only after a year or two was it possible to build a darkroom and buy the equipment so that photographic stencils could be introduced.

Dont Let Racism Divide Us 1978After 1983 the workshop focused on designing and service-printing posters for women’s, lesbian, gay and community groups. Although many of the original posters continued to be reprinted and distributed, no new See Red poster designs were produced. Funding enabled better equipment to be purchased and allowed the production of (even) higher quality prints, something that even small groups were increasingly expecting.

Although the workshop continued after 1986, demand for the original posters significantly declined. Screen printing was also increasingly seen as an expensive way of getting posters made and new technology was advancing at pace. The workshop finally closed in 1990.

Two of the founding members have died: Julia Franco in 1980 and Sarah Jones in 2007. However, surviving founder members Suzy Mackie and Pru Stevenson, together with later members Jess Baines and Anne Robinson, have recently met up and are working on various projects related to See Red’s work.

The publication of this book is reflective of the resurgence of interest in See Red Women’s Workshop posters. They seem able to speak to different generations, although it indicates, as if we were in any doubt, that the struggle for women’s freedom and equality is far from won.

More of the See Red Women’s Workshop posters:

Fight The Cuts, 1975Girls Are Powerful 1979Tough, 1979Support The Womens Peace Camps 1983See Red Women’s Workshop, Feminist Posters 1974-1990, is published next week by Four Corners Books.

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