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A review: Oxford House exhibits ‘Women of Bethnal Green at Work’

The working lives of Bethnal Green’s women are unveiled and uplifted in local photographer Sarah Ainslie’s latest exhibition in Oxford House.

The warmth of the gallery-come-cafe is enveloping as the doors to Oxford House slide open. Cafe folk chatter over a cuppa, natters combining to a communal buzz. A whiff of brewed beans is beckoning towards the sweeping counter laden with sugared buns and spiced cakes. But, one look at the walls and all thoughts of food are forgotten.

Bright smiles, studious gazes, and focused poises of the ‘Women of Bethnal Green at Work’ encircle on the walls. The exhibition showcases the work of local photographer Sarah Ainslie who has sought to uncover and capture the energy, spirit, and grit of Bethnal Green women’s working lives throughout 2022. 

Her contemporary exhibition comprises thirty-one portrait photographs that adorn three of the cafe walls, enveloping the cafe folk. The frames feel embedded in this community-led space, the women photographed on the walls part-and-parcel of the people sitting down chatting. And, Sarah Ainslie agrees, telling Bethnal Green LDN, ‘it’s so much part of the community, it’s absolutely the right thing in where it should be’. 

Oxford House is a harmonious setting for this exhibition. Set up in Bethnal Green in 1884, Oxford House was founded by male graduates of Oxford University who started social initiatives across the East End. It was only during the Second World War that Oxford House opened to women.

Women are certainly now embraced and celebrated members of Bethnal Green through this exhibition. While there is no clear starting point in this immersive display, a cluster of portraits in the cafe’s corner is instantly captivating.

The direct stare of Ayan Mahamoud, Director of Kayd, is gentle yet intent. Her upright stance demands our acknowledgment of her efforts to uphold Somali culture in Bethnal Green. Pride emanates from her determined pose, and stirs in you a tingle of appreciation.

Drawn deeper along the journey of thick black borders, a huge diversity of women are outlined; activists, mechanics, local gardeners, firefighters, funeral directors, florists, and TFL staff. 

Afa the decorator grins from her frame, crouched as she scrapes away paint. If you weren’t in admiration of her job, perhaps typically associated with a hypermasculine stereotype, then you’ll be delighted by her other gig, the placard below detailing her as a ‘traveling clown supporting refugees across the world’. 

The portraits throw out any narrow conception of what roles women play in our community. They show us their diverse capabilities in careers, paid work, volunteering, activism, research, and domestic roles. Women don’t have to fit inside any masculine or feminine tropes, or distinct ideas of what they might be capable of.

The smokey-purpled print of Hafsa Diallo beckons. Otherwise known as DJ Diallo, Hafsa’s the Manager/DJ of the Marquis of Cornwallis pub down the road. Headphones around neck, she spins her decks, fingers tracing the transition for her next track.

Some portraits show women active, looking away but hard at work, compelling you to think of the care which is camouflaged and efforts taken for granted every day. The significance of making the hard work of women visible is outlined by Sarah Ainslie herself, who says that ‘a lot of women’s work is invisible. [we] don’t notice women are doing particular work’ and this is why Oxford House wanted to show ‘a diverse view of all the different kinds of work that goes on inside a small area’. 

The efforts and energies of women – often disguised within entrenched gender roles and expectations – are exalted from frame to frame. Women might work behind a bar counter, over a stove in a kitchen, tucked outside in a walled garden, concealed within the anonymous words of a campaign, but their hard work doesn’t go unseen in this exposé.

Sarah Ainslie’s exhibition brings visibility to the work done by women in Bethnal Green. Next time when “see tahay?” is heard on the street, Ayan will be remembered, for her efforts safeguarding Somali culture and language in Bethnal Green. Or, when you hear the hip-hop beats spilling from the Marquis, you’ll know who on the decks is bringing the funk to Friday night to the high street.

Sarah Ainslie’s exhibition is on at Oxford House until April 9th. The exhibition is part of ‘Through the Lens’, a two-year heritage program uncovering the working lives of women in Bethnal Green.

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