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Opinion How not to be an art twat

An exhibition in Deptford shows that you have to do it yourself

“THE QUALITY of mercy is not strained,” as I discovered on a rare trip sarf of the river.

I’m in Deptford for Fantasy, an exhibition of art by sex workers where Mercy, one of the artists, tells me: “There’s not enough space for people like me and no space in major galleries for sex workers. They’re conservative and don’t view sex work as real work.
“They might push boundaries on canvas but not in real life.”

The curators, Sam, Harriett, and Kez, have been working on the project for a while and did a similar show last year. Kez says that they “wanted more from the sex workers’ community in the art world. I’d hope art people turn up and see that it’s important.”

The trio are all studying at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Harriett relates that there had been problems with the show: “We were hoping to get funding from Goldsmiths Alumni and Friends but they rejected us.” To be honest, I’m glad they did. The show has a more honest voice without the taint of quackademia.

Mercy was at St Martin’s School of Art, where she “didn’t fit in cos of where I was from, the accent I’ve got, and the work I was doing. I didn’t have money. With my work now, I don’t have daddy’s money like most the other art students.”

She laughs and adds: “I have somebody’s daddy’s money but not mine.”
Locals have obviously taken to what the women are saying. The gallery's on a gentrified street and it isn’t the Deptford I remember from terrifying trips to Millwall FC back in my youth.

A month back, in a protest against the rampant gentrification of the area, the row of offices and commercial gallery spaces all had their windows smashed, bar the gallery the show is in. “And earthly power doth then show like God's, when mercy seasons justice,” as Shakespeare again has it.

Money was raised communally. “We crowdfunded from our stretched community,” Harriett tells me. “We had bigger plans but these were limited by money but not by ideas.”

Mercy’s work repeats the theme of fantasy. One large piece, a photo looking like a sex worker’s ad found in a phone box is captioned: “One day in a galaxy far far away... rich art kids will find their own aesthetic and us whores can finally use our language and art the way we want to without it being filched by stuck-up art students who ‘create’ supposedly ‘revolutionary feminist’ art...”

I like the stridency of what she’s saying. Pole dancing is now a keep-fit trend middle-class women pay for and many enjoy the frisson. In much the same way, there’s no shortage of middle-class women doing burlesque.

No reason that they shouldn’t but Harriett points out that sex workers are paid to pole dance, it’s a job. Mercy, as in her art, goes further: “The difference between what we do and posh girls doing burlesque is I get paid more and I never cry.”

Printed on the work Fantasies Come True mentioned above is the statement: “Maybe they just hate my shit cause I’m a whore.” Is it indeed a play on sex-worker phone-box cards or a defiant comment from herself?

Towering over me in spike heels and looking a work of art herself in a close-fitting power suit she tells me: “We’re frequently the blank canvas that others thrust their fantasy on to, literally. My fantasy is not to be an art twat.

“It’s to be in charge of myself, what I say and what I do.”

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