Sarah Williamson, senior lecturer at the School of Education and Professional Development at the University of Huddersfield, UK, has been protesting patriarchy in a low-key and unique way since November 2018.
She takes a Barbie doll to museums and art galleries, props her up in front of exhibitions and puts in her little hands a sign recording her protest – mainly to the objectification of women (why are there so many of them in classical paintings? naked, reading, brushing hair, walking down the street) and the lack of female artists in the permanent collections (the National Gallery in London has 2,300 works by men and 21 by women).
Williamson calls his doll Art Activist Barbie (AAB) and posts @BarbieReports on Twitter, an account with almost 16,000 followers. She has always seen the arts as a way to challenge, educate and promote change, she says. Excerpts from an interview:
Why a Barbie doll?
She is immediately recognized, probably the most famous doll in the world. And she’s also problematic with her western white beauty and impossible figure. It’s disturbing, and I thought I could exploit that and use it to create “good problems” in art galleries and museums.
At first I only had a few white Barbies to work with but soon realized that I needed colored Barbies too. It’s a protest against the fact that art galleries can also be very white. They also draw attention to the representation of non-white women when this representation is problematic, for example when they are perceived as “other exotics” to the male gaze.
Who is your target audience and what do you hope they will return after meeting with AAB?
I try to reach people who are generally not interested in gender issues and gender politics, people who just don’t realize the gender imbalance in society. Without our realizing it, museums and art galleries shape our perceptions and identity – who we were, who we are and who we could be. They are trusted institutions and I hope to help people realize the gender injustice they contain, which is also reflected in society in general.
Your Barbie doesn’t dress like an activist. How do you decide what to wear and where the clothes come from?
I find it fun to think about what AAB will be wearing, whether it’s a fabulous ball gown, apron or dressing gown and slippers, if it’s late and near her bedtime. After I started the AAB campaign, I remembered my own childhood wardrobe of Barbie clothes, made by my mom. It was precious and neatly packaged, and when I took it out I realized I had the most fabulous vintage wardrobe made from the Barbie designs from the 60s and 70s.
My mother, who recently passed away at the age of 93, was a feminist and a big supporter of my AAB project and she was thrilled that I was using the wardrobe she made all those years ago. Mutti (as my mom was called), would go with AAB around the galleries every now and then, and she would say things to me like, “Put on Barbie’s glasses because it’s serious work.” My sister (a teacher) has now taken up the torch and makes the most amazing clothes from recycled fabric scraps, discarded clothes, trimmings and broken jewelry.
What do you think are the biggest challenges you face in a project like this?
It is not always easy to do the work in situ in a gallery or museum. Some institutions have embraced the work and actively encourage it, but others haven’t, and I’m being asked to move on. Sometimes security is called. It takes courage to be an activist in these spaces and I have to keep my cool.
During the pandemic, museums and galleries closed and travel restricted, so I was unable to visit the galleries and work. However, AAB now has a rich archive of material that I continue to publish with commentary on gender issues that have been magnified during the pandemic such as the rise in domestic violence against locked out women.
What was the response?
I had the most amazing response to the Twitter account! AAB followers are an eclectic group of all ages and their fan base is international. When I am on the road with AAB to art galleries and museums, the response from the public is overwhelmingly positive. There are only two occasions when a person (okay, yes, a man) complained. For example, a man from Tate Britain last year stammered indignantly, thinking I was “very misguided”. People always stop to see what it is. AAB sparks discussion.