I first discovered the work of artist Miss Pokeno at the Guildhall Art Gallery's ongoing Victoriana exhibition, which runs until 8th December this year. At first glance the Miss Pokeno piece, Trophy Chair, is a classic example of now-disparaged high Victorian furnishing and the psychology it represented: a clunkily proportioned velvet armchair, too wide and too tall, oppressively domestic yet patriarchally clubby. The view from the back, however, is a thrilling and unnerving disruption: a nest of tightly packed taxidermied foxes, bright orange, shiny pelted, squirming around each other and bursting from the stiff upholstery. It's the perfect evocation of the carnality and hypocrisy of the Victorian age, the self conscious frontage of masculine correctness and self-restraint shown in all its two-facedness by the feral chaos behind it. Yet at the same time Trophy Chair has an Angela Carter beauty about it: the foxes are gorgeous, occupying an inhospitable space with sensuality, muscularity and defiance.
Unlike the amazing Polly Morgan, the work of Miss Pokeno - artist Alannah Currie - does not use taxidermy as a principal feature. Instead, the armchairs themselves are the main object, to be explored, undressed, addressed and redressed, repurposed and reclaimed. Miss Pokeno says,
Only by deliberately and purposefully destroying that which has become so mundane and comfortable can we hope to expose the very nature of our own complacency.
Chairs have always reflected the oppressions, delusions and collusions of a patriarchal mindset. There is the historic loveseat on which socially enfranchised and entitled men betray their disempowered women partners by sexually using other, even more exploited women. There is the comfy chair, close to the fire, reserved for the man of the house; the leather armchair of the great man professor who wishes to be left alone in his library; the easy chair for the slob who wants to be waited on. There is the clichéd sofa haven of an entirely mythical woman character watching a box set, drinking Pinot Grigio and eating chocolate alone or with some 'girls' (actually women) on a 'girls' night'; or the place where 'lads' (actually grown men) sit, legs wide apart because they are so arrogant and self-righteous about what's between them, watching men much fitter than them kick a ball up and down a field. And there is the rocking chair of the loathed crone or spinster, converted into the present day armchair of the 'little old lady' in a nursing home, ignored and dismissed, made invisible.
Alannah Currie, pictured above, is a product of punk and feminism, artistic DIY culture and huge mainstream success. Originally from New Zealand, she moved to London at the time of the punk revolution. Inspired by the squat culture from which the earliest work of The Slits and KLF grew, she formed a girl band called The Unfuckables. She says,
Although we did only one gig we destroyed a lot of sexist billboards with black paint. Feminism proved more potent than punk.
Between 1981 and 1996, as one third of The Thompson Twins, Currie enjoyed global success and worked with Debbie Harry, Madonna and Grace Jones, among others. Then she pursued various social activism projects, including founding the New Zealand anti GM movement MAdGE. After a stint back in London studying traditional furniture production, Currie launched her public artistic alter ego, Miss Pokeno, as part of the artists' group Armchair Destructivists. A solo show at the Ragged School Gallery in London followed, as did various private commissions.
Over the last three years, Miss Pokeno has been working on a new creative enterprise, launching in a couple of weeks: a collaboration with a (possibly fictional, definitely enigmatic) militant feminist activist group, the Sisters of Perpetual Resistance. Think of the Sisters as both the embodiment and the source of bold, fiery and beautiful art, culminating in the exhibition, which is called HQ. Opening in a South London space, the works in HQ have been created in response to a brief to "glorify that which is too ugly for words".
The works combine an intricate, polished Victoriana beauty with the zealous confidence of the Suffragists and the brash, vocal energy of our current age of global protest. There's a seven foot round Ikea Hefner/Stringfellow type sleazo bed covered in satin, velvet flowers and bluebirds protesting bad and clichéd sex, a barricade of eight brightly coloured Slut Riot chairs celebrating young militant women and a tailored marching coat with pockets concealing glass hammers and silver plated wrecking bars. For the aesthetically-minded militant like me, who appreciates fine materials and good craft along with my pain and rage, there are some gorgeous emu eggs filled with gold paint for throwing, a red velvet Fuck The Fucking Fuckers banner and Too Ugly for Words, a large oak school table that has been inscribed by visiting women (and will continue to be inscribed) with all the misogynist insults we've had hurled into our faces, "from skunt to toxic fanny to cunt like a sewer to sad sloppy menopausal mess", surrounded by tall chairs (the chairs of the boys' club) covered in black bags of shame which also represent the shadowiness of women's absence, our shrouding and erasure from public life and from all tables of power.
HQ is a blazing, committed, politically fervent and exquisitely crafted show, the meeting point of gentility and profanity, skill and ardour. You can give no finer tribute than to visit, approach the table and carve your own insult.
HQ by Miss Pokeno and the Sisters of Perpetual Resistance will be showing at 1 Doyce Street, London SE1 0EU. HQ opens on November 14th for private views by appointment and will be open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays from 10am to 5pm until 13th December 2013.
Quotes and images by Miss Pokeno and the Sisters of Perpetual Resistance project, with thanks. Thanks also to Rose Rouse.