In her 40 years as an artist, Bobby Baker has interior-decorated in sugar, stretched her mouth round a whole sardine tin, and served soup at an imaginary dinner party, a high-heeled Lazy Susan rotating in the middle of immaculate place-settings. There’s nothing ordinary about her work but her materials are mundane and domestic: fittingly, her current online home is named The Daily Life Project.
This new five-year Arts Council-funded website links exhibitions of her own work in public lightboxes with events, performances and talks. It’s inhabited by her of course, and by a dog and a cat, Roxi and Rudi — all three appear in beautifully painted animations, shot through with songs and sight gags. “The idea is we’re guiding people around what we do and connecting them to things that are happening in a hopefully quite funny way. I’ll be alluding to the fact I’m quite middle class and an older woman, and referencing the history of do-gooding in the East End, making fun of that and my privileged position.” Her characters have a weightless quality, floating elegantly in lush matte paintings.
Her daily notebook drawings have the same lightness, with a wit and none of the oppressive cross-hatching or heavy downward strokes that are sometimes pounced on as signs of mental distress. In 2009, they went on display at the Wellcome Collection, guiding visitors around eleven years of water-coloured mental ill-health and recovery, and charting treatment in day centres and psychiatric wards.
“The aim is to use my profile and track record – I could call it notoriety – to act as leverage to raise more money and profile for people who have had experience of mental bad times. The idea is that you’re not just a patient: you could have something really useful to say.” What she calls her notoriety comes partly from her diary drawings, with their gymnastic self-portraits and visual metaphors for her situation: one, especially memorable, has her huddled inside a distilling jar in a semi-comic metaphysical science experiment. But it started with her performance of Drawing on a Mother’s Experience: “a very small part of that show was about the six weeks when I had so-called post natal depression. And yet people regularly refer to that show as being about post natal depression but it’s not, it’s about being a mother.” She first performed it in 1988, then toured it exhaustively – now, decades later, she’s revisiting it as Drawing on a (Grand) Mother’s Experience, as part of the Southbank Centre’s WOW Festival.
Her original performance emphasised motherhood as being “so lacking in status. I think the first five years of a child’s life are the most important and should be a huge priority in every society because if you get that right, your society just gets healthier and healthier, but raising children is not given status, or accommodated economically. Even now, it’s unbelievable that parents still have to fight for childcare.” But it was also funny – she spoke straight to her audience in a conspiratorial voice with radio cookery show clarity, and sent up her own fine art training while splattering a white sheet with crumbs and bloody jam smears.
It was a visual metaphor that’s painful and graphic, referencing bodily agony as much as childish slapstick. “What I wanted to do was to make works which built on my experience. What worried me initially is that might be seen as narcissistic, as not relevant to other people. But I thought there is an advantage if people look at it as not being about me, but as an approach or ambiguous response to something that’s going on. It can be quite a cunning way of getting complicated ideas across.”
Leaning to intertwine the personal and political – before the protest slogan had made its mark on an art world keen to keep its white walls unsmeared – came as part of a process. “I’ve always been a feminist before I knew the word – I was a tomboy and it wasn’t fair. I was into George in the Famous Five and that sort of thing. By the time I grew up and really got to grips with what feminism really meant I’d adopted that term for myself. So I think that most of my work has been political with a small ‘p’: issues to do with gender and daily life.”
But in the early 1970s at St Martin’s School of Art, she found that “there wasn’t even a book about women’s art, there were virtually no historic views of women’s work, virtually no women artists that you could think of as role models. It wasn’t that they didn’t exist, there just weren’t the books.”
So at 22, Bobby Baker “abandoned the fine art world as something I just couldn’t fit into as a young woman. I didn’t see any work that appealed to me as the sort I wanted to do and it didn’t occur to me I could still be an artist and do other work: there was nothing I could see that was like that. So I decided to be a business woman selling hand-dyed baseball boots from a squat in Anerley, near Crystal Palace.” “A bit fed up of that” with her socialist version of corporate life, she started making cakes. One boot-shaped creation, with yellow dyed icing and pink piping, provoked “this extraordinary moment, which is probably my favourite moment in my life as an artist, where I realised this very badly made cake could be seen as a sculpture, and a I called it ‘A Work of Art of Great Significance’. I would take it on a plate, a very decorated cake, and say here you are, here’s a wonderful piece of work. But that got me into performance through showing my cakes.”
Art history is sometimes taught as though a fountain of experimentalism followed Duchamp’s 1917 submission of a “readymade” urinal to a New York open exhibition. But the incident made a splash because he was built into the plumbing of the art world already: a director of the society that held the exhibition. I started to wish I’d pressed to hear more about Bobby Baker’s early performance: about when she served up meringue ladies at the Oval House in a homemade dress to match. Or moved out of her house in the East End (provided by Acme Housing Association for artists) to paper it, encrust it with icing, and fill it with an edible family: ready to be monstrously devoured by the visiting public. Or had found a way to see her 1996 film Spitting Mad, commissioned by BBC2, and culminating in her spelling out ‘PROVIDE BETTER FEEDING’ in semaphore, from a barge motoring past the Houses of Parliament.
You can still go to the Tate Modern and see the durable hunks of bronze or daubs of oil paint made by Bobby Baker’s young male contemporaries. Or read playtexts, or plug in headphones and imagine yourself back to more distant plush seats in the National Theatre Archive. But her long-past performances and ephemeral creations of wire armature and cake are harder to reach.
As Bobby Baker put it: “I’m 64, and I’ve been making work for 40 years. There’s quite a group of us women artists who haven’t had the same breaks, we’ve kind of worked in parallel worlds because the mainstream art world hasn’t been appealing to us or exclusive. And sometimes I think ‘Hang on, when are you going to notice?’ When you’re making work with domestic themes, people enjoy it but they also think it is lightweight or just funny, because they’ve got this model in their brain of what art is about. It doesn’t have the same status. It’s just annoying, it’s boring, that here we are in 2015 and there is still quite an entrenched patriarchal view in the arts world of what is and isn’t art.”
I think of the Guerilla Girls, who storm art galleries in hairy ape costumes and make posters that ask “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met?” The irony being that their posters are in galleries’ permanent collections, while the statistics they cite about gender ratios are largely unchanged. Bobby Baker might be bored and annoyed, but she’s not disengaged from the debate. “I just love what’s going on with the fourth wave of feminism. The statistics come out and there’s this incredible energy on the part of younger people: challenging my generation’s ideas, getting that buzz going. I don’t want to run out of steam out on this much more public debate, because I do think digital art and social media has given these ideas a power they didn’t have before.”
The Daily Life Project is harnessing this energy to produce The Expert View, a mini-festival of work from people of all ages and backgrounds in May. Among a host of names, she mentions Selina Thompson, whose show Chewing the Fat rivals Bobby Baker’s for food-fight messiness: her stage ends up covered in doughnut crumbs and torn fashion magazines. These artists are experts through personal experience of mental health issues, sharing status with similarly experienced members of the local community. With her new team of East London experts, the newly styled “Dr Bobby” will “go around diagnosing different sorts of institutions, including places like the Barbican, libraries, and museums. It’s about considering and slightly critiquing how we categorise and organise things and people in everyday life. We’re moving on from thinking ‘who’s the expert?’ to thinking that we’re all categorising things. The labels are so flexible, and the diagnoses are so subjective. And hopefully we’ll be a really unique team of diagnosticians because we’ve all got diagnoses ourselves! I ended up with about eight [diagnoses] – most people ended up with quite a bunch.”
She points out that women are particularly likely to be diagnosed – just as her own physical pain after pregnancy was constantly assumed to be post natal depression by doctors who hadn’t treated its underlying causes. “A lot of mental health campaigners and activists consider it to be about power.”Women are categorised, and framed as a problem: it’s the consequence of a very patriarchal society where women are being seen as different, disordered, other. Freud kicks it off with his case studies.” She brings in The Yellow Wallpaper – “one of my favourite books” – which Charlotte Perkins Gilman based on her own experience of recovering from pregnancy under the influence of a authoritarian doctor and controlling husband, as well as oppressive interior décor. ”She left him and became a very successful writer, after being caught up in a marriage where she was wasn’t allowed to write. That’s my other argument: that crazy-making environments make you go crazy. There are all sorts of reasons why people have bad times, but a great deal of that is isolation and sleep-deprivation. Having a baby and suddenly being on your own, losing your one way of valuing yourself and then surviving two hours sleep a night – I think that’s going to make you go a bit bonkers!”
Revisiting Drawing on a Mother’s Experience has helped Bobby Baker feel “I feel lucky to have been a mother. But I also feel compassionate for myself as a young woman of that age . I got so ill, I had 11 operations in 11 years, I was very involved in my ex-husband’s life, and I was also taking my career seriously as an artist, so I sort of had three jobs. I still think that is the practical issue that hasn’t been resolved, and I feel as strongly about that as I ever did. I survived the consequences of trying to do it all!”
Survived and come out stronger, to use a cliché that’s as worn out as the idea that women in impossible situations are just highly strung by nature. Drawing on a (Grand) Mother’s Experience is “about women’s values and place in society, but it’s also about the human condition. It’s about the fact you can get older and be happier and wiser. I’ve been through really hard times and it’s not perfect at all but I feel very comfortable in my own skin and I would like that to come across.”
As she knows from the diagnostic labels stubbornly clinging to her and her work, recovery “isn’t always a story that society likes to hear or wants to know about. You’re seen as a rather tragic figure. But you can emerge in a very good position, where you see people like myself as having creativity and a great deal to contribute, rather than being someone who’s always going to be a bit of a social blot.”
She’s inevitably frustrated at the extent to which her openness about her mental health has dogged her reputation: “I find it impossibly uncomfortable to know how to discuss my own mental health, and there was this just astonishing lack of awareness and understanding from interviewers. But I think that’s really changed, and is changing. People are engaged, interested, informed.” At the same time, “I would love that one day the work and the work around this is seen in a more general sense.” She brings up male reactions to her Kitchen Show, where combined the mannerisms of Fanny Craddock with advice to overcome violent feelings with a pear, overarm bowled at a (preferably laminated) door. “It was so clearly about the domestic, but men came up to me afterwards and said ‘No I really, really do get it,” and they were talking about their work life. And I think that’s what I like, my work makes people think about themselves.”
Bobby Baker was labelled as “difficult” in mental health treatment: in a system built on patient’s unquestioning compliance with medical opinion. “A lot of mental health campaigners and activists consider it to be about power.” Drawing an unexpected link, she explains that her next big piece of work will be about World War One – a system of government power and control on a still bigger scale.
She’s recreating the Great War, shrunk to fit into her flat, for a durational performance which will be aired in 2018. While using her own power, as an expert by experience, to gather together a whole network of artists and fellow experts of all kinds. And making cartoons, and being a sometimes-reluctant activist and speaker, too. It’s a whirlwind completely at odds with the stereotype of the established male artist as an eccentric solitary figure in a Kensington studio, wandering into pubs and gallery retrospectives with equal ease. Bobby Baker is a beneficiary now, too – of platforms, Arts Council funding, attention – but she’s thought too much about it just to devour it unthinkingly. This is a cake that’s being cut up, spread out and shared.
The world premiere of Bobby Baker’s Drawing on a (Grand)Mother’s Experience is at the Southbank Centre on 3rd March 2015, as part of the Women on the World Festival.