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Urania - The Open College of the Arts

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Olivia Plender is an artist working extensively with and from archives, with a focus on histories of British radicalism. Radicalism and the avant-garde have been formative in our contemporary understanding of what it means to be an artist through discourse around how far as artists we can enable society to imagine new futures and possibilities (for example the micro utopias of Michel de Certeau). In a recent group exhibition Plender’s work around a little known early twentieth century journal ‘Urania’ (published between 1916 and 1940 ) was displayed alongside other work dealing with radical strategies and protest.
In an article in Elephant, Plender describes how she discovered the journal:

“I came across the journal in the archives at the Women’s Library in London and when I started reading, one of the things that struck me was their internationalism. Urania published articles by and about feminist movements from around the globe, including Japan, Egypt, India and many countries in what we now refer to as the Global South. What is striking is that the journal existed during the same time period as the British Empire Exhibition, which represented non-western peoples as inarticulate and in need of Britain’s paternal guidance, but Urania presents us with women in the Global South articulating their own complex feminist struggles. The journal encouraged their subscribers to learn from these other struggles.” (Plender 2016)

In the exhibition Plender displayed pages from the journal and the stories really were remarkable. As a painter, when I went to art college at 19 all my tutors were men and I spent a fruitless day in the art library looking for books about women painters. I genuinely thought that there hadn’t been any really good ones. It felt as if women only came onto the scene in any real capacity in the seventies. This had an impact on my sense of worth as an artist that I am only now really beginning to grieve. As the histories are being rewritten and new facts are emerging I discover there has been a flourishing female professional art scene literally for centuries. It is absolutely amazing to me – like finding out I live on another planet. The world has been badly misrepresented to me and has actually been a more open and diverse place than the narrow bottle neck of white male academics has led me to believe. Why did I fall for it for so long?
I had the same sense of wondrous paradigm shift looking the pages, stories and illustrations from Urania when I considered the vitality and international reach of this Gender binary challenge. Pre internet, pre Television these women were able, using international print media, to map a massive amount of activity pertinent to their cause and distribute it back out to the world. There was a mappable global LGBQT+ community. As Niamh Carey writes, the journal which “made it its mission to debunk the very notion of ‘sex’.” And did so through  “a collection of articles from across the world that seek to undermine gender stereotypes and promote the ‘abolition’ of gender (Carey)

There is a story from China, written in 1926 about a wife who discovered that her husband was in fact a woman, but kept it a secret until his death. Another in 1928 reports a “world’s women welfare directory” being compiled in India. I was amazed by the internationalism of the journal, and its fresh approach to gender which takes the notion of utopia in the same way as de Certeau framed it as a chance to push ideas around and challenge norms, much as your tutors will be asking you to do in your visual art practice.  
Plender says; “The journal Urania is somehow poly-vocal. Urania ran from 1915 until 1940 and it was the first British magazine to produce a cultural and political discourse on gender issues and the demands of lesbian and gay individuals and communities. The name refers to a specific idea of Utopia, as a place where the categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ do not exist. In the early twentieth century those people who did not neatly conform to social and sexual norms often referred to themselves as Uranians. Subsequently, the journal Urania was a kind of catalogue of incidents of gender troubling and feminist struggles, in the context of that time which included the rise of Fascism, Imperialism and the struggle by women for the vote. It was comprised of a collection of articles clipped from newspapers from around the world, which were re-published with very little editorial and analytical commentary, and distributed privately to a wide network of friends and supporters. Any commentary was often unsigned or published under a pseudonym used collectively by several writers, which made Urania into an ‘institution’ that constituted itself through a collective voice.” That polyvocality and shared authorship is a wonderful advertisement for the power of visible diversity to avoid the mistakes that overshadowed my own early development as an artist.
https://frieze.com/article/olivia-plender – accessed 05/02/2019
https://elephant.art/5-questions-olivia-plender/ – accessed 05/02/2019
Carey, N. The Politics of Urania https://womenslibrary.org.uk/explore-the-library-and-archive/lgbtq-collections-online-resource/the-politics-of-urania/ – accessed 05/02/2019
February is LGBT History Month. #LGBTHM19

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Posted by author: Emma Drye

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