By Chloe Hyman
WORTH, which opened November 2nd at Praxis Gallery in Newcastle, is Lady Kitt’s first solo exhibition featuring her portraits of femmes cut, with sinuous heart shapes, into £50 bank notes. This series is a direct response to the campaign for more women to appear on Bank of England issue notes, and to the online death threats directed towards the campaign’s founder, Caroline Criado-Perez. Horrified by the undercurrents of violent misogyny in Britain that sparked this cyber-abuse, Kitt chose to use the opportunity to elevate femme voices. Many of her subjects were selected via social media nomination, allowing her work to widen and strengthen her community.
Lady Kitt’s primary medium is social practice. Her work deals with “commoning”—that is, finding common ground in a community through making. It is not surprising, then, that her mixed-media work feels so participatory for the viewer. Experiencing one of Lady Kitt’s paper-cut portraits is not like seeing a framed painting at a museum. Instead, it jumpstarts a cognitive process within the mind of the viewer.
At first, the viewer feels a bit shocked because a fifty-pound note is worth, well, fifty pounds. One associates the image of the note with whatever they’d spend fifty pounds on—a nice dinner, two week’s groceries, perhaps a pair of shoes. Forever altered—sliced by a pair of scissors, the value of the note changes, and everything it represents for the viewer changes too. But to what? What does the fifty-pound note signify if not a monetary sum? This ambiguity of significance is disconcerting.
The second thought to swirl through the viewer’s mind is likely that of recognition. One recognizes that each work is a femme portrait, and might even discern its sitter’s identity. (Lady Kitt’s renderings are uncannily accurate.) In engaging with the femme face staring back at the viewer, as well as the gaze of the Queen, one starts to make comparisons between the two. The viewer wonders why Lady Kitt has carved this woman’s likeness into this bill. Why does she matter?
Lady Kitt’s intention is to make us think about worth. Is it a fiscal value? A moral one? What does a person have to do to be worthy of being printed on a British pound note? Is this judgment colored by color and gender? Lady Kitt’s portraits are a reminder of our society’s imbalanced reward system that determines social value. That the artist gets the viewer to this headspace is part of the work. Lady Kitt is as focused on the effects of collaboration as she is on her own physical craft.
This emphasis on collaboration explains why the artist took to social media to find her future subjects via online nomination. “These are not just people who I admire,” Lady Kitt says of them. “The choice of subjects is a reflection of my local and global community—an attempt to document, rejoice in, and develop our common identity.” It is delightful to think of the femmes featured in WORTH as part of one large community. Some—like Malala Yousafzai—are famous worldwide. Others have made smaller arenas their stage, but they share common values and are equally worthy of being cut into a 50-pound note.
Venus di Milo is a differently abled drag queen whose performances use humor to address difficult subject matter. Lady Kitt’s portrait of Venus is deeply moving. Their eyebrows arch dramatically, demonstrating the expressivity of drag. Their eyes glance to the side, just past the viewer, as if they are onstage in their own blissful world, almost unaware of the audience’s adoration. It is a testament to Venus’ presence and significance as a performer.
Fran DiGiorgio is a colleague of Lady Kitt’s whose activism focuses on income inequality and public transport accessibility. Because of the nature of her work, DiGiorgio requested that her portrait be cut into a 5-pound note, and the remaining 45 pounds be donated to the housing union, Acorn. DiGiorgio reads as incredibly kind. Her big, heart-shaped eyes lock with the viewers’, and a small smile turns the corners of her lips up ever so slightly. Her portrait is large, too, colliding with the side of the Queen’s face, threatening to burst over the edges of the note. This detail suggests her value transcends any paradigm of fiscal worth.
All of the femmes featured in WORTH have quite a bit of social value, as one learns walking through the exhibition. Lady Kitt’s social practice and dexterous craftsmanship ensure that the viewer internalizes this message. And it is thanks as well to feminist curator Michaela Wetherell that the artist’s narrative is told so cohesively. Wetherell, who co-founded Nasty Women North East along with Lady Kitt, weaves these tales together tightly. In a single space, WORTH demonstrates the power of the collective to elevate femme voices, especially when channelled through the hands of an artist as conceptually and technically talented as Lady Kitt.
WORTH is on display at Praxis Gallery in Newcastle until November 30th