Claudia Clare’s powerful exhibition on surviving the sex industry tells a story of recovery from abuse, writes Jo Bartosch.
It’s easy to think art exists in an elitist bubble, and indeed much of what’s hung in galleries bears very little relation to the everyday reality of people’s lives. But the work of ceramicist Claudia Clare does not shy away from the social issues that shame us all, in particular, the horrors of the sex industry. Claudia Clare makes work that is at once tender and grotesque, onto her pots she captures the brutal reality of men’s violence and the tenacity of the women and children who survive.
To launch her ‘And The Door Opened’ exhibition, Claudia Clare performed what might be described as a ritual. A shopping centre in a London suburb was an unlikely setting for the ‘All The Door Opened’ exhibition ceremony. In the hushed and darkened room, those assembled included survivors, campaigners and friends of the artist. Following a minute’s silence when the audience were invited to reflect on the lives and deaths women in the sex industry, Claudia Clare lifted one of her pots before dashing it to the ground.
At the moment of impact there was an audible gasp, and the fractured clay images were scattered across the floor. The tension broke, and it felt as if something had been freed – the audience once again began to look at one another.
Claudia Clare not only tells the stories of women on her pots – she also draws attention to the all-too often ‘invisible men’ who keep the sex industry running. In ‘I’m Not The Criminal’, a piece that still radiates with the heat of the furnace, a grotesque carousel of pimps and punters chase one another. With forms reminiscent of Otto Dix, the men are portrayed venial, bestial creatures riding and raping horses on the hellish merry-go-round. The faces of women who have escaped from the industry stare out through gilded cracks in the pot. In this way Claudia Clare’s work is the staunchly feminist, celebrating the resilience of women whilst graphically demonstrating the violence of men.
Other works in the ‘And The Door Opened’ exhibition are calm and reflective, showing women looking back on their journeys from the sex industry. The stories of those who leave, the women who break free of abusive pimps, are seldom told. One of those featured in this exhibition is that of Fiona Broadfoot. Feminist campaigner and founder of the Build a Girl Project, Fiona was groomed into prostitution as a teenager before exiting in her mid-twenties. She explains:
Exhibitions like ‘And The Door Opened’ are vital. There’s a lot of money invested in promoting the ‘happy hooker myth’ and it’s easier to believe that the women and girls abused in prostitution chose to be there. Social services and the police write women and children off, and those who are prostituted are blamed for their own abuse. This must change, and I hope those who see this work understand this and that they learn about the stories of the women behind these pots.
Whilst ‘stigma’ is a trope often used by those who campaign for full decriminalisation, it is true that women in prostitution are ‘othered’ and cruelly marginalised. The dignity and hope of those in prostitution are sacrificed so that those comfortably outside the industry can pretend it is a choice freely taken. This is perhaps an easier narrative, one which absolves us of blame and burden of worry. Claudia Clare’s work is a powerful antidote to this comforting lie – it resonates with a vivid, angry truth.
A thread that runs through ‘And The Door Opened Exhibition’ is recovery from abuse. The slow process of piecing together the pots is an obvious but moving metaphor, leaving a finished piece that is a record both of completeness and destruction. There is still a degree of snobbery in the art world about craft. Ceramics suffer from the stigma of being a practical medium, not ‘pure art.’ So much of Claudia Clare’s art is concerned with the female experience, and as such it feels fitting that her chosen medium is one that is often overlooked and underestimated. Ultimately Claudia Clare’s work speaks of hope, and looking around the room at the faces of the exhibition audience a future free from the trade in human beings seemed possible. At the end of the evening I asked Fiona how it felt to see herself staring from the inside of one of Claudia’s pots. She replied:
I exited the industry and have transformed my life – my cousin was not so fortunate, she was murdered. Looking at Claudia’s pots I can see my story represented on many levels- like the pots I still carry cracks from when I was broken and can still feel fragile at times, but I am whole and I am proud.
Future dates for And The Door Opened:
Mar 20th-22nd 2020 Ceramic Art London, Central St Martins, Kings Cross.
May 1st-Sept 30th 2020 Beyond the Streets with St. Botolph’s without Aldgate.
Presentations and city walk with Beyond the Streets on the last Thursday of the month: May 28th 6.15-8pm, June 25th, July 30th, Aug 27th, Sept 24th 6.15-8.pm
Sept 10th-Nov 3rd 2020 Southwark Cathedral, London Bridge.
Funded by Arts Council England, The programme is constantly growing, so check Claudia’s website for details and updates.
Claudia Clare is a potter-painter, best known for her large painted earthenware jars depicting the impact of big events on ordinary lives.
She is also known for her broken and mended pots, a response to the words: ‘I was shattered. Now I’m piecing myself slowly back together.’
She is represented by Zuleika Gallery, is a regular contributor to Ceramic Review and is the author of ‘Subversive Ceramics,’ Bloomsbury 2016.