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Sara Knowland and the witches of East London

Knowland’s witches may be ugly, but so are the harmful expectations and stereotypes imposed onto women

By Issey Scott

At Soft Opening, a small but promising new gallery space in Bethnal Green, East London, an exhibition of paintings by British artist Sara Knowland brings back a figure most contemporary audiences will not have seen for some time: the green-faced witch. While the show, titled Mostly Women, is comprised of only three paintings, the lack of quantity allows us to appreciate the abundance of quality. These works simultaneously portray perceptions of womanhood by using the figure of the witch, which has appeared in popular culture throughout history. However, now that gender binaries are being recognised as more fluid than ever, the works almost seem to highlight and question archaic representations of women.

Despite the fact that the exhibition title takes its name from a solo show of Willem de Kooning’s work, shown in New York at the turn of the century, it is also reminiscent of the influx of women-only group exhibitions which have taken place following the #MeToo movement. Kick-started by Saatchi Gallery’s Champagne Life in 2016, many commercial galleries in London were soon following suit. While undoubtedly intentions were good, throwing together exhibitions where artists have nothing in common beyond their gender is rather tedious. Representation is important, but given that women’s histories globally are tainted by various forms of oppression, subordination and harassment, work made by women artists gesturally sitting in a Blue Chip gallery seems some distance from what #MeToo is really about.

Knowland’s largest piece in the show, Landscape, works on many levels and the title hints at the seemingly intrinsic link between the feminine and the natural environment. Intriguingly, the figure of the witch is trapped inside a transparent box, overlooking a brooding dark sky and a barren desert. This fruitless environment makes me think about the idea of the ‘perfect woman’ and through her work, Knowland goes against these stereotypes imposed on the female figure. These witches epitomise the flawed and unattractive parts of women’s histories, shown through their physically ‘ugly’ manifestation. However, just as we only really see witches in fantasy tales, it is something of a fantasy to assume that these stereotypes are completely shifting; instead they are becoming more insidious.

In fairy tales, the witch or leading female villain is usually plotting the downfall of an innocent, more traditionally attractive, younger woman in the story. This presents age as another factor that women are discriminated against within society. With sharp, jagged features, Knowland’s witches are far from aesthetically pleasing; portraying the stereotypical idea that they are not to be trusted and have evil intentions. Janus is a truly stunning piece, with a layered composition it almost becomes an optical illusion whereby the witch is trying to escape the canvas. However, this could also represent the multifaceted expectations on women, where they are constantly confined by gender roles and stereotypes.

When viewing work by contemporary artists, it is important to think about how the themes they explore relate to modern society. It only takes a click on social media to see the vilification of women for being too thin, fat, loud, shy, prudish, promiscuous and the list goes on. Given that witches have often been gendered as women, Knowland’s work provides an exploration of the perception of women and witches in contemporary culture. Her work is visually compelling, with strong green hues that draw you in. Knowland’s witches may be ugly, but so are the harmful expectations and stereotypes imposed onto women.

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