BY Babeworld in Opinion | 24 FEB 22

How Can Galleries Support Artist Sex Workers?

As ‘Decriminalised Futures’ opens at London’s ICA, members of Babeworld draw on their own experiences to examine the parallels and ethics of organisations working with artist/sex workers

BY Babeworld in Opinion | 24 FEB 22

‘The ick’ – that moment when attraction suddenly becomes disgust – is so much more than an impulsive change of taste. Sometimes, it is necessary for self-preservation, alerting you that you need to alter your proximity or behaviour to keep yourself safe from somewhere or someone. The blur between ‘the ick’ and ‘the red flag’ is constant in our experiences of both sex work and art-making: a relationship that intensifies when the two intersect. 

One clear parallel has emerged from our involvement with sex work and art production: the party with the money assumes control over your story, time and work. Both clients and the commissioners often confidently assume they’re the only thing in our world. To them, we’re sitting around ready to suck dick or make art about it 24/7. In neither industry do we clock on and off neatly. Our so-called free time is filled with painfully laborious conversations about prospective projects that sometimes amount to nothing. 

Decriminalised Futures
‘Decriminalised Futures’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: ICA, London; photograph: © Anne Tetzlaff

The similarities between relationships with clients and commissioners are many. If we close our eyes during a commissioning meeting, we could be with any interchangeable client in any interchangeable bar. In both scenarios, our narrative becomes an offer on the table. Usually, they want us to seem vulnerable-yet-shocking, sexy-yet-pitiable. In one moment, we are artists/sex workers brimming with ‘quirky’ achievements against the ‘harrowing’ odds; the next, we are seen as sorrowful creatures, begging (preferably gratefully) for help. It’s rare for us to be asked to discuss the good things that might counter their assumptions. They want to know the worst thing that has ever happened to us. They want to know what it is really like – whatever that means. 

This cocktail of ‘ick’ and ‘red flags’ means that the artist/sex worker’s trust in the commissioning process must constantly be rebuilt. Shows such as ‘Decriminalised Futures’ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London – a group exhibition featuring 13 artists whose work speaks to the multiplicity of contemporary sex-worker experiences – can play an important part in rebuilding this trust. Exhibitions about sex work and marginalization require a process of critical observation and investigation, with participation underpinned by instinct. Yet, the invitation to engage critically with the socio-political themes that surround sex work suggests a genuine commitment from the ICA to develop this conversation further.

Tobi Adebajo
Tobi Adebajo, ẹjẹ (Blood), 2022, triptych panel, digital collage. Courtesy: © the artist and ICA, London

Crowded with artists, allies and sex workers, the opening night felt truer to a busy world and mind than the usual meticulous white cube. ‘Decriminalised Futures’ explodes with things to look at and read. On the back wall, Tobi Adebajo’s triptych ẹjẹ (Blood) (2022), with its video essays instructing us to ‘EAT THE RICH’ and shifting dark lights, constantly catches our peripheral vision. Aisha Mirza’s installation, the best dick i ever had was a thumb and good intentions (2022), consisting of potted plants and a gorgeous fur rug, adds to the sense that this exhibition is more of a home.

What is most evident in this space is that the ICA and its exhibition partner Arika – a political arts organization based in Edinburgh – have neither depoliticized the subject matter nor folded under pressure to make the show more palatable to general audiences. Co-curator Elio Sea tells us that ‘Decriminalised Futures’ is part of a longer-term project which seeks to demonstrate that sex work does not happen in isolation while acting as a lens on broader modes of oppression – stemming from racial injustice, migration, austerity, labour rights, disability rights and trans rights, among others – to seek a transnational understanding of the realities of sex work. 

Commissioned illustration by Babeworld

While sex work can allow for distinct experiences of oppression, it also contributes to multifaceted experiences of joy. The artists in ‘Decriminalised Futures’ were encouraged to explore this, with the exhibition recognizing that no personal experience is linear: joy is textured and relative, birthed in response to individual realities. 

In the past, many cultural institutions have taken a hit-and-run approach to the subject of sex work: they announce themselves as intervening for good but never stick around long enough to do so meaningfully. In elevating separate organizations to curate ‘Decriminalised Futures’, the ICA has played its part within a larger project which has a track record and a legacy in its work with both sex workers and allies. Sea confirms that the ICA exceeded the nominal commitment institutions usually make by mentoring the artists, bringing in the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM) for an organizational briefing, communicating in a long-term way and, most importantly, actively listening. 

Anna Danica
​Annie Mok and Danica Uskert, Unsustainable, 2022, page from comic. Courtesy: © the artists and ICA, London

Other organizations could learn a lot from this refreshing exhibition, which made us feel almost indulged in how much representation and visibility we’d consumed in one evening. The ICA set out to give a considered platform by uplifting voices around the topic of sex work whilst simultaneously offering support – allowing those involved to share their creative responses in a way that felt genuine. All the works appear contextualised within a clear socio-political history and narrative.

Visibility is not something you proudly bestow on people – it is something that you make possible for others to take as they want. ‘Decriminalised Futures’ achieves a careful balance between allowing people to create art around the theme of sex work without exposing their exact proximity to this experience. If you set out to exhibit sex workers and decide only those who are happy to be visibly identified as such can contribute, you create a dangerous precedent. The ICA and the exhibition co-curators devised a flexible model in which fluidity between sex work and allyship allowed expression without unconsenting exposure.

Decriminalised Futures
‘Decriminalised Futures’, 2022, performance documentation. Courtesy: ICA, London; photograph: © Anne Tetzlaff

The real test for this exhibition will be its legacy and the continued solidarity of the ICA. Moments like this are not enough for an institution to sit back and feel like it has played its part. The true measure will be how much the ICA continues to support organizations like Decriminalised Futures and SWARM alongside its own programme, being vocal on issues not just around sex work but those present in the intersections of the exhibition. The key is to continue not to shy away.

Main image: commissioned illustration by Babeworld 

Babeworld is led by Ash Williams and Ingrid Banerjee Marvin, with associate artists Gabriella Davies and Caitlin Chase. Babeworld seeks to promote greater representation in the art world for marginalized voices through art-making, fundraising, grants and events facilitation. With an emphasis on collaboration and co-creation, Babeworld’s practice focuses on themes of political and societal identity, specifically disability/access, neurodivergence, sex work and race. Its interactions with the communities it creates and infiltrates consist of oversharing (otherwise known as attention-seeking) on the internet and at events – and you best believe its members would overshare at a round table, and probably also cry. Babeworld is committed to bringing its ideas and networks to institutions and organizations in the art world – whether they want to hear them or not.