Age no barrier for artist who presented Hugh Hefner and Captain America in a whole new light

New drawings and watercolours illustrate Margaret Harrison's firebrand politics and unique sense of humour

She has flour-bombed Bob Hope at a Miss World contest and portrayed Hugh Hefner in a bunny girl costume and Captain America in comedy breasts. At 73, she shows no signs of compromise in her art. Margaret Harrison, winner of this year's prestigious Northern Art Prize, talks to gallery owner Joanne Shurvell about her new show 'On Reflection'.

Margaret Harrison, the winner of this year’s prestigious Northern Art Prize, has been at the forefront of British feminist activism for nearly 50 years and is still producing work that addresses current concerns with feminism, gender stereotypes, celebrity culture and power play. 

She says: "I think you have to be obsessive if you’re an artist and you want to continue working. People ask why I didn’t give up when I wasn’t making any money and I think, well, what else would I do? That’s what I was trained for, that’s what I’ve done all my life, what else would I do?!"

Harrison flour-bombed the Miss World stage and presenter Bob Hope in 1970 and participated in the 1980s Women’s Peace Camp against nuclear weapons on Greenham Common. Her feminist activities fuelled her artwork and inspired her satirical portrayals of pop culture figures like Hugh Hefner in a bunny girl costume and Captain America wearing comedy breasts. Betty Page features in Margaret Harrison's Common Reflections (Greenham Common fence), 2013, Courtesy Simon Warner/The …

New drawings and watercolours illustrating her firebrand politics and unique sense of humour, along with several historic pieces, can be seen until 20 July in On Reflection, her second solo show at PayneShurvell in London. 

Captain America and Superman make an appearance, alongside 40s pinup Betty Page, Ena Sharples and Elsie Tanner from Coronation Street and Eastern European feminist activists currently in jail 'for their attack on public morals and decency'.

Harrison is also part of part of Keep Your Timber Limber, a radical new group show that just opened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Harrison’s drawing of Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner wearing a Bunny girl costume got her 1971 London show closed by the police after the opening night, on the grounds of ‘indecency’.  While women were portrayed in sandwiches with the ironic title Good Enough to Eat, the objection was to the way men were portrayed, giving them breasts and dressing them in women’s clothes. Harrison claims that the police ‘were reacting as males to the notion that there were other manifestations of sexuality than the strictly heterosexual variety and they found that threatening.’ Bunny boy went mysteriously missing amidst rumours that it was taken by Playboy staff who attended the opening evening.  Harrison recreated the Bunny boy piece 40 years later for her I am a Fantasy exhibition in 2011.

Harrison says she didn’t set out to be controversial with her 1971 show. Her work came out of the English traditions from satirical 19th-century artists like George Cruikshank  and James Gillray who made political commentary through rude engravings on issues of their day.  Harrison’s art was influenced by her co-founding of the Women’s Liberation Art group and their protest at the Royal Albert Hall of the Miss World competition in 1970.  The group flour-bombed American presenter Bob Hope - and Harrison, dressed as ‘Miss Loveable Bra, wearing a pre-formed plastic chest (the kind used for displaying underwear in the lingerie departments) with orange fur nipples and a smile on a stick - thought humour would hold the day.’

Margaret Harrison, portrait by Simon Warner, Courtesy of Northern Art Prize

Some of the most memorable exhibitions in recent years have been by women artists above the age of 60, including Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, Paula Rego, and Bridget Riley.  However, the majority of the press headlines announcing Margaret’s win of the Northern Art Prize focused on her age. This might have been partly because it is the only major art prize which doesn’t have an age restriction. The age limit for the Turner Prize for instance is 50 (and it was 45). Nevertheless, Margaret Harrison at 73, believes ‘this focus on age is a British thing, which is used against an artist to demean their achievements.’ 

Harrison, who lives part of the time in California and New York, points out this focus on her age in relation to her win of the prize, contrasts with the reception of her work outside of the UK. Young artists in San Francisco welcome Harrison’s work and see it as validating their own production. And in the major international shows she has exhibited in recently - Spain, US, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, and at the Istanbul Biennial (where she was the only British artist exhibiting), the focus on age hasn’t been an issue except in respect to the artist’s work over time.

All this is ironic when you consider that Margaret Harrison, who has been so active in combating social injustices like class, race and gender discrimination, is now faced with ageism. Perhaps ageism will be one her new causes and make an appearance in her art.

Margaret Harrison’s solo exhibition On Reflection at PayneShurvell London continues until 20 July. Keep Your Timber Limber, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, runs until 8 September.

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