London

Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, The whole world may, perhaps, be rather a large country house, 2021, colored pencil on paper, 59 × 43 1⁄4".

Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, The whole world may, perhaps, be rather a large country house, 2021, colored pencil on paper, 59 × 43 1⁄4".

Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings

In 2012, Theresa May, then British home secretary, introduced the hostile environment policy, restricting undocumented migrants’ access to housing, employment, and health care. By 2019, a special rapporteur to the United Nations had detailed how under May’s successor Amber Rudd, “the rotten core” of the legislation remained, “destroying the lives and livelihoods of racial and ethnic minority communities more broadly.” Immigrant women, even those with paperwork in order, had become reluctant to give birth in hospitals after staffers were effectively deputized as immigration law enforcement. More recently, current home secretary Priti Patel proposed shipping asylum seekers to remote mid-Atlantic sites, following plans to install a floating wall (or a giant wave machine) in the Channel to scupper migrant crossings. May, Rudd, and Patel all call themselves feminists. Rudd once tweeted: “Feminism is a core conservative value.” In their exhibition “Disgrace,” Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings reckoned with a long history of right-wing feminism in Britain, from the suffragettes through Margaret Thatcher to present day. In an accompanying book of essays, Juliet Jacques cites May’s quip, “What does the Conservative Party do for women? It makes us prime minister!”—summing up a rarefied vision of empowerment.

Central to “Disgrace” was a series of twelve etchings that formed something like a fragmented social realist mural. The vignettes read as daffy, then insidious. An etching that depicts a coed round of blindman’s bluff was titled for banal rituals of Empire: Tea, garden & evening parties, rifle competitions, polo matches, the trooping of the colours and other special events, 2021. Elsewhere, viewers saw women Blackshirts—raising money for Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists with “bazaars, jumble sales, whist drives, dances, etc.” in the 1930s—and politicians, including those aforementioned, striding in knee-length skirts as in the military parades from Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, 1484–92.

The large colored-pencil drawing Mother, 2021, showed an Edwardian woman capturing the Cretan Bull on the lawn of her mansion. The artists imagined this as the origin myth of the exhibition: The woman’s task is Herculean, but her power is contingent on privilege, specifically property ownership, which was a condition in the initial right of (some) British women to vote. Another large drawing, The whole world may, perhaps, be rather a large country house, 2021, was set on the grounds of Chequers, the rural domicile of the prime minister. Composed as a remake of Goya’s The Straw Manikin, 1791–92, it depicts women from different historical periods bouncing a floppy rag doll on a sheet, keeping the useless male aristocrat aloft even as they appear to enfeeble him.

Quinlan and Hastings avail themselves of both obscure layering and high legibility in their complex works—archives and reenactments that highlight equivocal liberations within capitalist structures. Their earliest significant commission, UK Gay Bar Directory, 2015–16, a four-and-a-half-hour video of empty nightlife interiors, many of them facing threat of closure, established the artists’ position of joyful ambivalence.

The duo’s presence in male-dominated venues disrupted stale hier-​archies; they might have been unintended, even undesired, guests, yet their arduous commitment to documenting these precarious enclaves demonstrated a disarming faith in allyship across identity categories.

With the works in “Disgrace,” their gaze has become harsher, though it is still not without humor. The process of rendering figurative drawings collaboratively can result in a bemusing staginess, as if the characters had drawn themselves, to their own disapproval. The awkwardness is fitting, bringing to mind May’s stilted attempt at dancing at the Conservative Party conference in 2018 or holding hands with Donald Trump. But the figures are also stately and muscular (I kept thinking I was spotting Madonna), their power not diminished but articulated.

“Bad history is everyone’s history,” writes Lola Olufemi in the exhibition book. “In the gallery, two white women put whiteness on display. They invite feedback and reflection.” Such collaboration was represented in the fresco Republic #2, 2021, maybe the only optimistic image in “Disgrace,” in which femmes of various ages and races cluster on a public-housing development. They could be discussing questions raised by the exhibition, such as, How can we cultivate a feminism that doesn’t pull up the ladder behind itself?