Artist puts women's bodies at the front of latest exhibition

Photos baring all will be part of the Fifty Women exhibition, which starts next week.
Photos baring all will be part of the Fifty Women exhibition, which starts next week.

Women of all ages have bared all as part of a new show which shines a spotlight on the politics of body images.

The 18 to 91-year-olds have agreed to feature their breasts in the photo exhibition, which also looks at the issue of objectification of the female form.

Donna Barkess has worked on putting together the display, which will go on show at the University of Sunderland.

Donna Barkess has worked on putting together the display, which will go on show at the University of Sunderland.

Fifty Women aims to be a thought-provoking exhibition by North East artist Donna Barkess featuring Polaroid images of breasts and the diverse stories behind them, from surgery, breast feeding, objectification and body image, to sexism and sexuality.

A preview evening of the exhibition takes place on Thursday, September 6, from 6pm to 8pm, at the University of Sunderland’s Priestman Gallery, where Donna is a senior lecturer in graphic design and illustration.

The exhibition then opens to the public until Wednesday, September 19.

The feminist focus behind the images aims to highlight how, despite the many changes in equality in the past century, women are still stigmatised within society and often feel a sense of uncertainty surrounding their own social and personal identity.

“Material found on social media, in advertising, films, programmes, books and magazines, even song lyrics, suggest that we have a long way to go before women are finally free of destructive and damaging gender stereotyping, stigma and objectification,” explains Donna.

“There is something very messed up about how we see our own bodies and I think women need to own them again.

"This exhibition is about supporting all women and making them feel better about their bodies.”

To reinforce the message behind the exhibition on how society views the female form, Donna revealed how she has had to censor a version of a poster promoting Fifty Women for Facebook and Instagram, after the social media organisations removed her original image, which they deemed unsuitable content.

She says: “Breasts have been a political issue for centuries.

"Within society, they have been sexualised, objectified, and demonised. Breasts are the mainstay of pornographic material, yet they have been portrayed for centuries as a symbol of compassion and motherhood in religious paintings and writings.

“Even now, in the 21st century, debates still rage over whether it is acceptable for mothers to feed their babies in public, whilst we are surrounded by objectified images of women's breasts.

"The fact that women have a legal and moral right to feed their babies in public without prejudice or challenge seems to be irrelevant to a proportion of society.

"Yet this is just part of a bigger picture and the stigmatisation, objectification and sense of ownership of women’s bodies.

“Conversations with the 50 women I spoke to frequently highlighted a sense of confusion or frustration in terms of the ‘ownership’ of their bodies.

"They experience pressures, conflicts, influences and changes throughout their lives that create a lack of clarity in terms of how they, and others, view their body and their ownership of it.”

The subject of each Polaroid has their head cropped from the images, accompanied by a statement, ensuring a degree of anonymity for each woman, who all volunteered for the project.

Donna said: “The images are not high resolution and there is something less intrusive about a Polaroid image which helps the subjects feel more comfortable.”

She added: “I was privileged to be able to talk to these 50 women about their breasts, they responded with warmth, confidence and humour.

"Some were photographed on a one-to-one basis, but we also had some 'open house' sessions with constant soup, cakes and tea, where ladies would call in and socialise, eat and chat about the project before being photographed.

"It created an atmosphere where the women felt comfortable was really important.

“There was a real sense of mutual respect, camaraderie and celebration, which facilitated some very honest discussions that became the basis of many individual statements.”

Fifty Women will be held at The Priestman Gallery, Priestman Building, Green Terrace, Sunderland SR1 3PZ,