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MADRID — A woman steps onto the center of the stage. She seems timid, but is smiling. Her hair is cropped short, and her white coat suggests she could be a doctor, a scientist, a chef, or a housekeeper. “Hello,” she says brightly, in a crisp English accent, “I’m going to start as I always make a very firm point of doing when I appear in public, by introducing myself. On many occasions mistakes have been made, and people have expected to see a man. I should like to make it absolutely clear that I’m Bobby Baker and I am a woman!” Following this introduction, Baker might make a large drawing on the floor with food, host an imagined dinner party atop a table, or immerse herself in a bathtub full of chocolate. But first she speaks herself firmly, with a wink, into the space and the world. She’s in control of her story, and she wants to share it with us.
Jars of Chutney at La Casa Encendida is Baker’s first exhibition in Spain. It is dedicated primarily to the artist’s lesser-known drawings and watercolors. Executed in 10- to 30-minute daily intervals, they have titles like “Keep Moving,” “Steady Fragmentation,” and “Give me 14 hours non-stop effort and I will achieve an immense amount.” Her never-before-seen Timed Drawings (1984–1985) chronicle her struggle to continue working creatively while raising children and managing her family’s home. Made several years later, her Diary Drawings (1997–2008) span her 11 years as a cancer and mental illness patient and survivor. Frank, harrowing, and funny at turns, the drawings are a testing ground for material that has appeared in the artist’s performances. In addition to her drawings, a new documentary produced by La Casa Encendida features the artist’s commentaries alongside archival photos and videos spanning 40 years of her career. The film underlines the artist’s gutsy enthusiasm and generosity of spirit, as well as her firm belief that making work about complex and important topics including domestic labor, physical and mental health, and women’s bodies can be engaging and even entertaining.
Machismo and monumental sculpture dominated Baker’s art school experience in the late 1960s and early ’70s. She says in the book Bobby Baker: Redeeming Features of Daily Life that she sought refuge in the works of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, reading A Room of One’s Own at least once a month while studying at St. Martin’s School of Art (now Central St. Martin’s). Her breakthrough came in 1972 when she made a bright yellow cake in the shape of a baseball player’s boot, laughed at her irreverence, and then decided it was art. She came to see baking as not only legitimate labor, but also a means of discovery. By privileging domestic skills and using food as a medium, the piece crystallized Baker’s interest in women’s productivity, value, and gratification as it went against conventions of the male-centric art world and the (implicitly male) artist-genius art canon. Baker would go on to reject the elitism of art school to focus on domestic and personal life. From the 1980s onwards she organized performances at her children’s schools, neighborhood churches, and even her own kitchen, as well as performance venues across the world. For Jars of Chutney, she did a live performance of Drawing on a (Grand) Mother’s Experience (2015), a food-based meditation on motherhood and aging.
Seeing Baker’s work first made me think of the mothers of my Spanish friends, most of whom dedicate themselves to homemaking. Women of Baker’s generation in Spain were subject to Francoist rules that denied them the ability to work, open a bank account, and other tasks without their husband’s consent. Despite the economic crisis and rapid social change, 99% of Spanish homemakers are female and Spanish and Italian women face the highest European rates of inequality when it comes to time spent on domestic chores. But Baker’s message isn’t limited to women or the domestic sphere. As the exhibition’s curator, Clara Zarza, points out, the artist is asking broader questions about the priorities US and Western European societies consider secondary, irrelevant, or not worth discussing. Baker uses humor and irony to draw attention to and critique that imposed invisibility. Her work utilizes food, families, and femininity to tell those stories, and turn them into artwork.
The anti-elitist attitude that surfaces in Baker’s art practice carries over to her outside projects. She is the Artistic Director of Daily Life Ltd, an organization funded by The Arts Council England that is dedicated to changing the perception of mental health, and to promoting the work and visibility of creative people with mental illness. As a mental illness survivor, Baker’s connection to the program is professional and personal — and all the more poignant as a result. She reminds us of the struggle some artists face, pigeonholed by audiences as motivated by their illness alone, a presumption that undermines their critical agency as artists. Baker’s work offers us a framework to examine the relationships of power — for instance, patient-doctor, healthy-ill, parent-child, man-woman — that are embedded in our daily lives, and in so doing enables us to better understand ourselves and the world around us.
Jars of Chutney, premiers Baker’s newest piece Epic Domestic (2019), based on the idea of creating a Domestic Revolutionary Party. With Spanish political elections are coming up, all 1,000 of Baker’s screen-printed Epic Domestic propaganda posters have already been taken by visitors from the venue out into the world. According to Zarza, Baker is already getting emails from hopeful collaborators. The Feminist March brought record turnouts in Spain last week, and an Epic Domestic-inspired demonstration (lead by the Spanish artist Alicia Ríos) scheduled for early April. With so much on the horizon, Baker could be part of where the world, and especially Spain, is going next.
Jars of Chutney, curated by Clara Zarza, continues at La Casa Encendida in Madrid, Spain through April 21. Special thanks to curator Clara Zarza for her help with this essay.