Posing in front of mosaic tiles and Victorian paintings, sporting handmade outfits like feathered, cotton candy-colored dresses or quarantine-friendly bathrobes, a young woman exposes the misogynistic undertones of art at big-name museums like the National Gallery in London and the Getty in Los Angeles.
She stands at about a foot tall with an annotated notecard on a small wooden stick in hand.
Her name is Barbie.
U.K.-based ArtActivistBarbie (AAB) uses her iconic image to expose patriarchal tendencies in pieces and the lack of gender representation in the art world—like the fact that London’s National Gallery has 2,300 works by men and just 21 by women.
Sarah Williamson, a senior lecturer in education and professional development at the University of Huddersfield, began this project as a teaching tool. She wanted to use Barbie, a symbol of the perfect woman, to tear apart “patriarchal palaces of painting,” The Guardian reported.
On a class trip to Huddersfield Art Gallery, Williamson handed out a small army of AAB’s to her students, along with a blank index card attached to a popsicle stick, then gave them free reign of the museum.
The resulting (mini-)protest grabbed the attention of museum-goers, becoming a social media hit.
“I realized I had something which attracted everyone’s attention and catalyzed conversations about how women are portrayed and represented not only in art, but society in general,” Williamson told The Guardian.
AAB’s outfits were handmade in the 70s by Williamson’s mother, a 92-year-old woman named Mutti.
Since COVID-19 has kept Barbie indoors, she has not been able to stand in front of famous sexist works recently.
Instead, she teaches lessons and takes questions from her “information desk”—complete with a rotary dial phone. Most of the art she critiques from the desk comes in stamp form—which, for a doll, seems to be the size of a standard painting.
AAB is joined by a few plastic friends—including ActionMan, Ken and an African American AAB—who also help comment on subjects like decolonizing art and gender justice.
Those in opposition of AAB’s activism sometimes approach her angrily, perhaps getting offended by her identifying of art’s flaws. Rather than indulge in criticism, such comments only fuel AAB’s commentary on the patriarchy—revealing there is more work to do.
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