World Half Full
Exhibition challenges stereotypes of sex work
There’s no shortage of depictions of sex work in media, from films such as Moulin Rouge and Memoirs of a Geisha to, more recently, the HBO teen drama Euphoria. However, we’ve come to expect a certain narrative when hearing stories about one of society’s most taboo career paths.
“Even Pretty Woman — a great film that I really enjoy, which is the rags-to-riches [story of a sex worker] being saved by this man who’s her client — if you look at it from a feminist angle and you look at it from a sex worker rights angle, it’s not great,” says Elio Sea, co-curator of Decriminalised Futures, a new exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London that explores the topic of sex work through art.
The exhibition showcases ten artworks that explore the humanity, hypocrisy and — sometimes — humour of the much-maligned sex work industry, as well the prohibition laws that make it, or parts of it, a criminal act in many countries.
Better representation was the main purpose for Sea and fellow co-curator Yves Sanglante when they were planning the exhibition, which they say aims to celebrate those who have championed sex workers’ rights and campaigned to end exploitation, criminalisation and poverty within the industry. Each work was selected from an open call-out that received around 90 applications from international artists, sex workers and allies alike.
“Often in mainstream media the stories about sex workers are not by sex workers,” Sea told CNNstyle. “They're very simple tropes, you know, the bad woman or the fallen woman or the victim who’s trying to fight her way back. And with this exhibition, we’ve tried to broaden that and give people an opportunity to tell their stories on their own terms in more detail and in more nuance from all different perspectives.”
Throughout the exhibition, common stereotypes are subverted in works that blend creative expression with education. In “ẹjẹ” (Blood), by artist Tobi Adebajo, viewers walk through a hackneyed plush carpeted room lit poignantly by red light, but are met with a narrated film that speaks to the ancestral roots of prostitution and the security it can provide. “I am a sex worker,” the video booms, “my child has access to safety because of my work.”
The show is at its most absorbing when it’s illuminating the many and diverse invisible realities of this line of work. An installation by queer Pakistani Egyptian writer and artist, Aisha Mirza, gives an intimate and distinctly human glimpse into the bedroom of a dominatrix — recreating a bed, a side table decked with sex toys and an array of well-watered houseplants. While the demands of the job are never far away — draped above the bedroom mirror is a toolkit of paddles, fringed leather whips and other toys — the space retains an air of domesticity and sanctuary.
Far from simply promoting sex work, as some critics of the exhibition claim, the curatorial team believe Decriminalised Futures provides a spectrum of experience. “When you really engage [with the art] there’s this nuance and interconnectedness that’s much richer,” Sea says, “and a lot of people don’t want to do that. They want something that’s simplistic, or they want to just say, ‘Everybody’s a victim and everybody's exploited’.”
As the introduction to the show notes state, the sex workers’ rights movement has a long and storied history dating back as far as the 1800s. “They have always been the muse, always as the subject,” says Sanglante. “Now there’s just a rising sense of who is actually given the spotlight? Who is given the opportunities?"
On a corridor wall inside the gallery is a quotation from English suffragette Alison Neilans, penned a century ago in 1922: “The prostitute is the scapegoat for everyone’s sins. Perhaps no class of people has seen so much abuse, and alternatively sentimentalised over as prostitutes have been but one thing they have never yet had, and that is simple legal justice.”
ABOVE Aisha Mirza’s installation recreating a dominatrix’s bedroom
PHOTO Anne Tetzlaff/Institute of Contemporary Arts