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With Graphic Works on Sex and Inequality, a New Show Addresses Artistic Censorship

Artists who have faced censorship are taking center stage at Unit London. “Sensitive Content,” curated by artist Helen Beard and art historians Alayo Akinkugbe and Maria Elena Buszek, presents artworks that have challenged the status quo by raising questions on artistic freedom and foregrounding issues linked to the circulation and suppression of art.

On view through October 16th, the group exhibition examines censorship and artistic freedom from multiple standpoints. The interrogative nature of “Sensitive Content” expands on social, cultural, and political issues touching upon gender, sexuality, religion, race, and eroticism, among other topics. Featuring 19 artists whose works have fought against the culture of censorship, the show addresses agency, access, and power to encourage viewers to engage in an expanded public discourse.

The personal is political in “Sensitive Content.” The works of Polly Borland, Micol Hebron, and Emma Shapiro draw attention to sexism’s role in the policing and censoring of specific body types, deeming them as inherently sexual when unclothed. Feminist themes also emerge in Leah Schrager’s “Infinity Selfie” series (2016) and Caroline Coon’s performance piece I AM WHORE (2019). Schrager’s digitally manipulated photographs blur the line between model and photographer to question how one is represented and by whom. Meanwhile, in Coon’s compelling historical examination of misogynistic tropes, the artist forces the viewer to encounter the uneasy truths about the violence women still face in today’s patriarchal societies.

With artworks depicting erotic and sexual themes that have often been deemed obscene, controversial, or inappropriate, “Sensitive Content” features pioneers in feminist art—such as Carol Rama, Betty Tompkins, Penny Slinger, and Linder—who prominently incorporate explicit imagery in their practices. In the 1970s, French customs confiscated photorealistic works from Tompkins’s “Fuck Paintings” series, declaring the pieces obscene. Whereas thousands of copies of Slinger’s 1978 book Mountain Ecstasy were seized and destroyed by British customs, Linder’s collages had to be published covertly due to the ongoing restrictions. Many of the show’s artists still frequently battle with the limitations placed on exhibiting and disseminating their work.

Operating as a site for thought-provoking public discourse that welcomes both contemporary and historical artistic acts of resistance, “Sensitive Content” responds to the complex sociopolitical and cultural mechanisms involved in silencing and suppressing narratives deemed threatening, disruptive, obscene, divergent, or offensive. As the curators stated in the exhibition catalogue, “Ultimately, despite their many differences, the artists in ‘Sensitive Content’ have a shared commitment to the real over the fake—whether in our politics, interactions or expressions—that binds them more deeply than their works’ censorship. This exhibition hopes to honor that courageous common bond.” And indeed it does.