Meet the Barbie doll staging feminist protests at museums and art galleries
Sarah Williamson, a senior lecturer at the School of Education and Professional Development, University of Huddersfield, UK, has been protesting against patriarchy quietly and uniquely since November 2018.
She takes a Barbie doll to museums and art galleries, props her up in front of exhibits, and puts in her little hands a placard registering her protest — primarily at the objectification of women (why are so many of them in the classical paintings nude, while reading, brushing their hair, heading out down the street) and the lack of women artists in permanent collections (London’s National Gallery has 2,300 works by men and 21 by women).
Williamson calls her doll Art Activist Barbie (AAB) and posts @BarbieReports on Twitter, an account with nearly 16,000 followers. She has always seen the arts as a means to challenge, educate and promote change, she says. Excerpts from an interview:
Why a Barbie doll?
She is instantly recognised, probably the most famous doll in the world. And she is also problematic with her White Western beauty and impossible figure. She is troubling, and I thought I could harness that and use her to make “good trouble” in art galleries and museums.
At first I only had a few White Barbies to work with but I quickly realised that I needed some Barbies of colour too. It is protest against the fact that art galleries can be very White too. They also draw attention to the representation of non-White women when that portrayal is problematic, for example when they are seen as “exotic other” for the male gaze.
Who is your target audience and what are you hoping they will walk away with, after an encounter with AAB?
I am trying to reach people who do not usually engage with gender issues and the politics of gender, people who simply don’t realise the gender imbalance of society. Without us realising it, art museums and galleries shape our perceptions and identity — who we were, who we are and who we might be. They are trusted institutions and I hope to help people realise the gender injustice contained within them, which is also reflected in wider society.
Your Barbie doesn’t dress like an activist. How do you decide what to put on her, and where do the clothes come from?
I find it amusing to think of what AAB will wear, whether it is a fabulous ball gown, an apron or a 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 mother. It was treasured and carefully packed away, and when I got it out again, I realised I had the most fabulous vintage wardrobe made from Barbie patterns of the 1960s and ’70s.
My mother, who died recently at the age of 93, was a feminist and a great supporter of my AAB project and she was delighted that I was using the wardrobe she had made all those years ago. Mutti (as my mum was known), used to accompany AAB to galleries from time to time, and she would say things to me such as, “Put Barbie’s glasses on because this is serious work”. My sister (a professor) has now taken up the mantle and makes the most amazing garments from recycled fabric remnants, discarded clothes, trimmings and broken jewellery.
What would you say are the biggest challenges you face in a project like this?
It’s not always easy doing the work in situ in a gallery or museum. Some institutions have embraced the work and actively encourage it, but others don’t, and I am asked to move on. Sometimes security is called. It takes courage to be an activist in those spaces and I have to hold my nerve.
During the pandemic, museums and galleries have closed and travel restricted, so I have not been able to visit galleries and work. However, AAB now has a rich archive of material which I continue to post with comments on gender issues which have been amplified during the pandemic like the rise in domestic violence against women in lockdown.
What has the response been like?
I’ve had the most amazing response to the Twitter account! AAB’s followers are an eclectic group across all ages and her fan base is international. When I am out and about with AAB in art galleries and museums, the response from the public is overwhelmingly positive. There are only two occasions when a person (OK yes, a man) has complained. For example a man at the Tate Britain last year spluttered in outrage that he thought I was “very misguided”. People always stop to see what it’s all about. AAB sparks discussion.
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