Edinburgh Art Festival, photo by the author. )
Metaphors for womanhood are many, varied, and ubiquitous. We are flowers, we are animals, we are silks and satins, muses and melodies. The grittier tropes are fewer but nonetheless necessary for full figurative vision: we are also machines, armies - we are whole worlds. As Audre Lorde observes in “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism" in Sister Outsider: “Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being.” When we take aim, we can be beautiful and outraged. We are useful and lethal - we are warships.
Turner Prize-nominated Ciara Phillips manifests that last vision in her most recent work Every Woman. Her dazzle ship bobs in the grey docks of Leith, north of Edinburgh, a beacon in many ways. The ship Phillips painted was, in its former life, the MV Fingal, a lightship. Some terms: lightships are vessels used as guiding lights in waters too deep and dangerous for the construction of lighthouses, and dazzle ships were WWI warships given the Norman Wilkinson treatment, painted with mad stripes and spots designed not to disappear them, but rather to obscure their speed and direction and make them harder to target by the seemingly unstoppable German U-boats.
Phillips raises her hand here and says stop, stop, stop. Remember: it was largely women who designed the patterns - students at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, most of them. Phillips’ ship is the fourth of a series of dazzle ships commissioned to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.
Draped in Phillips’ characteristic painterly swoops, this signal fire signals anew with a new purpose. I stand in the rain in the docks and I find myself, bizarrely, identifying with this ship. It has its face on. The ship has donned its finery not to impress, though, not to hide, but to draw attention - to shout HERE. To confuse. To confound. Lorde again: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”You think you see me but you see my countenance, not my complexity. You cannot come inside.
As night falls around me and Every Woman, a border around the ship’s hull starts to glow. It’s morse code, and reads: “every woman is a signal tower”.
SEE HERE is a monthly musing on a single artwork from anywhere, written by Amy Stewart: @A_L_STEWED // ASTEWARTWRITING.COM.