For the past three Tuesdays, while at my volunteer job in the local community art gallery Depot Artspace, I have found myself in an interesting situation. The current exhibition is titled Sex Workers of Aotearoa: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF, 2020, curated by a member of the group. And although the curator and many of the artists have shown their names, for privacy reasons I have chosen not to include them. Our manager had said that we may need to be aware of some peoples’ reactions, and if we felt uncomfortable with speaking about the artworks, to seek assistance from management.
A few days back the gallery put up a promotion for the exhibition on the Devonport Locals’ Facebook page. As was anticipated, a person, who was clearly against such an exhibition, requested that other locals might like to voice their opinions about such ‘normalising’ of prostitution. Well, what occurred was most interesting, on two fronts, mine and the gallery’s visitors.
When the exhibition first went up, I looked at all the artwork, which displayed a mix of various levels of artistic capability. I did not really engage with the work on that initial viewing. Then I went around the room again, carefully reading the text beside each artwork. I realised that I now had a way to read, and to interpret each piece – the personal reality of being a sex worker in New Zealand. I was feeling empathy. Not abhorrence. These women had found a way of telling their stories through their art, using many mediums – colour pencil, printmaking, paint, ink, conté, and watercolour – just as any artist from any other background might. They spoke of the enjoyment, the camaraderie, the empowerment, and the downside of their daily lives.
Yes, the gallery had a steady stream of visitors. And yes, they had seen the Facebook comments, but decided they would like to form their own opinions about the show. I had anticipated that many visitors would be looking for salacious images, and most likely be middle-aged men. I was wrong. Most visitors were women, who wished to talk about why they had visited this exhibition – to learn about a group in society they knew nothing about. Many bought the catalogue which accompanied the exhibition, planning to tell others about their reactions to the show.
The curator’s statement above says it all. I think she will be pleased with the conversation that the exhibition inspired. Thank you, we applaud your courage.