A Hackney photography collective’s exhibition about childcare provision is on display at the Hayward Gallery, 36 years after it was first shown there. Who’s Holding the Baby?, by the Hackney Flashers, highlights the lack of affordable childcare and the impact it had on women’s lives in the 1970s.
Now artist Hannah Starkey has reprised the exhibition for History is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain, which opened at the Hayward Gallery last month.
The project combines photography, appropriated imagery, cartoons, text and statistics in laminated panels, using them to illustrate the problem many women in the 1970s faced of needing to work but not being able to afford or find adequate childcare.
According to Michael Ann Mullen, a photographer in the group, Who’s Holding the Baby? is as relevant now as it was then.
“It was never made as an art installation – it was more an agitprop tool to raise consciousness of women with families to demand affordable childcare, and it’s very sad that it’s certainly not any better now than it was in 1978,” she says.
A women-only collective, the Flashers didn’t see themselves as making art. “What we were doing was going to be used in settings other than art galleries,” says Liz Heron, who joined the group in 1976. “We saw it being used – and indeed it was – in trade union events, women’s liberation conferences and other events that were more to do with political activism.”
The collective only agreed to show Who’s Holding the Baby? in 1979 on certain conditions, such as there being a room in the Hayward that could be used as a crèche, and some were against it being shown at all.
According to Mullen, these arguments caused tensions that were never completely resolved, which made it difficult for the Hackney Flashers to continue. There must be mixed feelings, then, to be returning to the Hayward?
“I think now the arguments have gone under the bridge,” assures Mullen, explaining that the group got back in touch after discovering a copy of Who’s Holding the Baby? was in Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum. “We had to sort out the copyright, we had to make sure it was ours. So that got us on the path to working together again.”
Even for the History is Now exhibition, adds Heron, they were not told about their inclusion until receiving an invitation to the opening. “Part of the problem of things happening without our knowledge was anonymity because when we were active we never attributed the work to individuals, we were a collective with no names attached,” she explains.
Now the group has set up a website, and last year held a 40th anniversary event at Chats Palace. This month members of the Hackney Flashers
will be talking at an event at Four Corners Film.
“It has turned out to be a lot more work than we anticipated, to be rediscovered,” adds Mullen. “We feel like we’re historical artefacts that have been unearthed. Which is quite good.”