“I started Girls Only while I was in NewYork as a residency programme. It changes: it’s been really hard to define it. I’ve defined it as a curatorial body, sometimes as a collective. I guess it depends where we are, but it’s more of a kind of network I suppose.” Even Antonia Marsh, curator and founder of Girls Only struggles to explain what she’s created, even whilst its members are seated around her.
Cosied up in the corner of a Chelsea flat drinking cups of tea and smoking, some still in pyjamas with unbrushed hair, I feel like I’m intruding on a sisterhood meeting when I meet Girls Only. An art collective of sorts, the group acts as a creative vehicle for social and political commentary all over the world. But, in reality, it’s a little bit more chill. Surrounding me are Lily Bertrand-Webb, Kirsty Buchanan, Jessica Mai Walker and Imogen Parry and their curatorial big sister Antonia Marsh, talking about boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, shared boyfriends, hairstyles, witchcraft and NutriBullets.
“A year ago, when Beyoncé was on stage and she had ‘FEMINIST’ in big letters,” Buchanan explains, “loads of really militant feminists were like ‘Well she shouldn’t be allowed to say that, she shouldn’t be allowed to use that word because she’s not a feminist.’ That’s a perfect example of what I think Girls Only isn’t and shouldn’t be.” Girls Only preach an accessible type of feminism, the type that lets you love Queen Bey rather than struggling to decode Germaine Greer’s every musing.
Men are allowed to join the fun, sure, but as Buchanan puts it, “So many more girls go to university to study arts than men and then when you look at the arts they’re completely ruled by men”. So Marsh has strolled headfirst with all-guns-blazing and a “Let’s just fucking do it” attitude towards her platform for women’s work. For the first of five London shows, Marsh abandoned outdated art world rules and said, “I know so many [young female artists], why aren’t we all working together?”
After binning the general consensus that you need a thesis for every show, the girls threw together a patchwork of art to suit the capital’s temperamental tastes. “I think that in London, exhibitions can be really bureaucratic and very hard to put together so they take a lot of time. I tried to do shows that were really short…” Marsh trails off. “London has this craving for the new. At the first show, you know, there were so many people at the opening and it was just mad.”
“That’s what’s really refreshing about Girls Only,” smiles Parry. “It’s got integrity about being about ideas and artwork just for the sake of artwork. I think London’s so geared towards money and I that’s why it’s difficult to make [shows] happen because everything’s so expensive. There’s less room for kind of organic, real, artistic things to happen.” Marsh bursts into laughter and reveals she’s a “terrible businesswoman”: she’s never even put a price list together for a show. “When you take commercial stuff out of it,” she reasons, “it elevates pressure and generates more freedom in terms of creativity.”
Between them, the women contribute photography, paintings, drawings, screen-prints, sculptures, films and installations, yet surprisingly given the collective’s name, the fact that they’re women barely comes into play. “I think it’s really good to move beyond fully defining your work or your creative outfit by your identity, just relying on identity politics,” explains Walker. “I just think that flattens the whole experience of being a person… It’s quite reductionist.”
It’s a message that has spread beyond its NYC birthplace. After London, Marsh took Girls Only to Copenhagen in the form of a networking event and at the time of going to press, she’s in the midst of her own Eat, Pray, Love experience in India (only much cooler, obviously). “I’m not just like spinning a globe and then putting my finger on it!” Marsh promises. “It’s come out of the girls’ communication and network. It’s this idea of mutual support.”
Marsh sends me a selfie of herself transporting artwork on her lap in a rickshaw, but she’s quick to reassure me her trip to Asia hasn’t been all work and no play. Between getting her whole wardrobe remade in silk for the cost of lunch in London, developing so many rolls of film she’s nearly gone into triple figures, and attending Gucci parties at LFW (no, not London, I mean Lakmé Fashion Week), Marsh has been gearing up towards another show.
“I came out like, ‘we’ll see what happens,’ not expecting anything, and I think it’s going to be the biggest show we’ve done,” she beams, her smile practically audible across continents. Girls Only are set to occupy an entire floor of a mystical sounding blue building in downtown Mumbai. “There’s no space here!” Marsh exclaims, “somehow we’ve managed to find this oasis in the middle of it… There’re eight rooms!” It’s a relief she’s found enough artists to fill it then, with 15 on her roster this time around.
Barely taking a breath to tell me her plans,Marsh gives me a preview. “There’s a skate crew called Girl Skate India and they’re showing their skate videos and photos from their tour that they organised on a bus all around India with girl skaters from all over the world,” I can feel her mind moving a million miles a minute. Marsh has enlisted some more established artists with gallery representation but it’s clear what she’s most excited about is the contribution from Dharavi slum project, Art Room.“They’ve just rented a room and get the kids in the slum to come and make art in the space whenever they’re not at school,” she explains. “We’ve given five of the girls a digital camera to keep and they’ve done a photo course every day with their teacher… These five girls aged 14-16 have gone into the slums and photographed women who live there… If any photographer goes into a slum, you’ll never get this perspective.”
Now, with the help of Becky Allen and Julianna Byrne, both illustrators and residents at Camden’s Cob Gallery, Marsh is bringing the exhibition back to London for the summer. It’s official, Marsh and co. have done what they set out to do — Girls Only has gone global.