Public Exhibitions, London, UK
‘All Whores Are Jacobites’ is a sober exhibition on prostitution in which Georgia Horgan unpicks the deeply misogynistic attitudes to women’s bodies across history and the way that confident women have been systematically feared, debased and ostracized. The show takes the form of a lecture, delivered as a short film and also performed on the opening night. Two quasi-functional conference chairs, embroidered with women’s faces, remain in the space while the looped film is screened in front of a ghostly pleated curtain that circles the entire room to give it the feel of an auditorium or even a morgue. If history, as Horgan has it, is a crime against women, her lecture is an autopsy of three neglected bodies: women who worked in the weaving industry and who lived in Tower Hamlets, the east London borough where the gallery is located. They are Sarah Wesker, a Jewish garment trade-unionist in the 1930s; Elizabeth Creswell, a brothel madam who became a figure in pornographic satire during the Stuart era; and Eleanor Rykener, a medieval trans sex worker and embroiderer.
All three women were weavers, who, as Horgan demonstrates, were frequently charged with being whores. The textile industry was staffed almost exclusively by women, feared for both their financial independence and the sorcery of their craft. It was a popular myth amongst the wealthy that seamstresses could shape-shift into gentlewomen simply by emulating their attire. To counter class drag, all manner of promiscuous and independent women were forced to wear shaming, striped hoods. This motif recurs through the film: in one scene, a woman’s head is draped in lined cloth while, in another, tea is served on a red striped tablecloth.
‘All Whores Are Jacobites’ was the period’s equivalent of a tabloid headline, and it is compelling to see the contemporary anxieties around difficult bodies folded into Horgan’s research. Rykener’s story is particularly fascinating: a trans woman arrested for sodomy, her case baffled the medieval law courts. By adopting female clothing and streetwalking, Rykener was no longer seen as a man and could therefore not be convicted of homosexual buggery, yet the sex assigned to her at birth prevented her from being charged with prostitution. She was ultimately released without charge.
There is something undeniably geeky about Horgan’s undertaking. Her painstaking research follows in the tradition of previous performance-lectures – including The Recording Demon, performed at the ICA in London earlier this year and Saturday at Calton Burial Ground, Glasgow, in 2016. Here, Horgan’s lecture is illustrated by scrappy footage of the tomes and manuscripts she scrutinized along the way, recording the reading rooms of Tower Hamlets Local History Archive and the engravings on benches in the City of London.
Although not explicitly referenced, Horgan draws on the work of Ruth Karras, whose Common Women (1996) examines the lives of Creswell and Rykener and medieval thinking around prostitution. Horgan’s lecture is most powerful when she calls authority into question – not only received notions about witches and whores, but her own borrowed retelling of these women’s lives. She uses her own body as a prop and a guide. Rashes on a woman’s hands and feet were a common symptom of venereal disease – or hard labour – and Horgan’s fingers creep into the film, while her heel stands in for a syphilitic crevice.
A constraint of the historical nature of Horgan’s material is that none of her protagonists speak for themselves: the surviving documents are all authored by men. As if to acknowledge this disadvantage, the film is punctuated by blackouts and the artist speaks over an empty screen. Digging up the bodies does not bring back these women; it only holds a black mirror up to the world in which they lived.
First published in Issue 187