‘Free The Pussy!’ - Challenger’s first curatorial exhibition.
The idea for the exhibition sprang out of her previous association with the 'Pussy Riot' when in 2012 she was asked to contribute to the book ‘Let’s Start a Pussy Riot’ brought about to raise funds for the much publicised ‘Pussy Riot’ trial in Russia. In early 2018 Challenger was informed that Synergy Concerts were bringing some of the members of the collective over to Scotland to perform their ‘Riot Days’ tour, it seemed a perfect and synergistic time to finally bring some of the visual works, made in solidarity, together in an exhibition. Challenger had always felt the works made in protest should be physically seen since her collaboration with the collective on the publication of ‘Let's Start a Pussy Riot’.
Upon opening, the exhibition ‘Free The Pussy!’ went to the top of the Guardian's Top 5 National Exhibitions list and stayed in their line up for three weeks. It was featured on BBC Scotland with the Pussy Riot collective and BBC Edinburgh Nights with Nish Kumar. Interviews appeared in Studio International, LA Review of Books, The List, The National, and the Scotsman amongst others.
The exhibition was primarily composed of art made in response and in protest to Pussy Riot’s trial and subsequent imprisonment by the Russian government in 2012, although not exclusively. There were new commissioned works and much older feminist pieces that all resonated or were represented in the book. The exhibition aimed to be not only an archive work but a celebration of visual artists’ ability and capacity for protest.
The artists gathered to represent the 'Free The Pussy!' exhibition were No Bra, Judy Chicago, Tamsyn Challenger, Billy Chyldish, Gaggle, Gera (Nadya Tolokonnikova’s daughter), The Gluts, Hayley Newman, Yoko Ono, Miss Pokeno, Pussy Riot, Jamie Reid, John Keane, Layla Sailor, Wendy Saunders, Carolee Schneeman and Voina.
At the end of 2011 an anonymous feminist punk collective wearing luminous balaclavas performed a series of unsanctioned gigs or interventions in opposition to Vladimir Putin's government and its association with the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The collective championed gender equality, LGBT rights, environmental activism and called for a female president. They challenged masculine authority and stood for freedom of expression.
They were and are the PUSSY RIOT.
In March 2012 three members of the group, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were arrested and convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred". They were sentenced to two years' imprisonment. An appeal released Samutsevich on probation but the sentences of the other two women were upheld.
Having been publicly unveiled the women faced an all too common misogynist response online including threats of rape and burning. Nadya, Masha and Yekaterina were labelled 'whores', 'sluts' and 'mad vaginas' after Russian priests, discussing them, mouthed the word 'vagina' in TV talk shows, as there is no equivalent word in the Russian language for pussy.
At trial the judge stated that they had "crudely undermined the social order". The 'Punk Prayer' performance inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour that led to their incarceration lasted for 40 seconds.
(One of Challenger’s new ‘curatorial’ interventionist works, the ‘40 second miaow clock’, is a nod to this timeframe.)
International censure of the trial and sentencing followed and the women became global feminist icons.
The Pussy Riot's 'Punk Prayer' was seen as a call to arms by artists and activists around the world. In 2012, Challenger, along with many other artists, was asked to contribute to a book called 'Let's Start a Pussy Riot', brought about by London feminist collectives, Girls Get Busy, Not So Popular, Storm in a Teacup and the performer Emely Neu. It was published by Rough Trade in 2013.
Challenger’s aim with the ‘Free The Pussy’ exhibition was for it to be an archive of the global protest in support of the Pussy Riot's call. The show included artist responses that can be seen in the book, ‘Let’s Start a Pussy Riot’ alongside many others who stood in condemnation at the women's imprisonment.
This was the first time many of these pieces made in protest were brought together for display, and is even more historic as the works were exhibited as Pussy Riot performed freely within the same building.
All of the works are as relevant today as they were then and stand as a testimony to the power of a woman's voice.
‘Free The Pussy!’ was exhibited at Summerhall in 2018 alongside Pussy Riot’s ten date residency performing their show ‘Riot Days’, an adaptation of Maria Alyokhina’s book, ‘Riot Days’.