Walking in to Pen + Brush’s recently opened exhibition, “200 Women: Who Will Change the Way You See the World,” has a stilling effect. Filling the entire expanse of the gallery are portraits of women from all over the world, their backgrounds as diverse as the mediums through which creators Geoff Blackwell and Ruth Hobday present their stories.
Based on the storytelling project and book of the same name, the exhibition features portraits of women who were asked the same five questions. Some of these answers hang alongside the photographs they belong to, while others are presented in interview footage displayed at the back of the gallery.
We spoke to Hobday about the creation of “200 Women” and the process of mounting such a large-scale project. Featured below are images from the book, along with answers representative of the five questions asked of each of the women.
More information about the exhibition at Pen + Brush, running through June 30, can be found here.
ALL ARTS: How did the original idea for “200 Women: Who Will Change the Way You See the World” come about?
Ruth Hobday: For the past twenty years, my business partner Geoff Blackwell and I have travelled around the world making and selling books about subjects that matter to us. We’ve been fortunate to encounter people with amazingly diverse backgrounds and uplifting personal stories, but we have also experienced countless examples of painful inequality. Over the years we’ve also worked on a lot of South African books, and I’ve always wanted to do a book focused on the women of the anti-apartheid struggle — there are so many unsung heroes, and women in particular in relation to that specific part of history. This, however, wasn’t to be, and as we travelled around the world our experiences in Africa reinforced just how many challenges women from every corner of the planet and every walk of life have to face, every single day, and we decided it was time to do a book that truly celebrated women.
AA: What was your process curating the list of 200 women like? How did you go about a project of this scale?
RH: It was important to us that all the contributors’ stories were heard, and so it was important to include a number of well-known people to help illuminate the lesser known stories. So many people from all around the world, but women in particular, are denied basic freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of access to education and, in turn, employment and economic independence, freedom of control over their own bodies and reproductive rights, and, worst of all, freedom from violence, brutality and fear. So, to provide a platform for these stories was at the heart of the project.
We compiled a long list of women through deep research, and as we went along, gathered people into the project by word of mouth and introduction. And so the project evolved organically as it went along. One of nicest parts of the project is that everyone involved with the project — women and men alike — are now part of the “200 Women” “family,” and the project continues to grow as the network of contributors connects and extends.
AA: Why the exhibition component?
RH: Our vision from the beginning was for a multi-media project. When we interviewed the contributors, we filmed them against a plain fabric background to cut away everyday distractions and to place them in a democratic space. We took great care to photograph and film them so that the images could be reproduced at large scale suitable for exhibition and to be able to highlight their stories via curated films for the multi-media component of the exhibition.
AA: Was there anything that surprised you during the creation of 200 Women?
RH: When we first started the project, we envisaged that the book would be published under the first female president of the United States. We had no idea that the it would become part of a much wider conversation — the Women’s March on Washington, #metoo, #timesup etc. — but we’re profoundly grateful that we could be part of this seminal and timely public movement.
AA: What do you wish for audiences to take away from these interviews when taken as a whole?
RH: We hope that it serves as inspiration for women and men everywhere, particularly youth, to keep talking about and addressing issues of gender inequality wherever they find them. In particular, this is not a book about women’s rights — it’s about human rights — and in order to have a conversation about gender equality, both sexes need to be part of that conversation.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
All images come from “200 Women: Who Will Change the Way You See the World” by Geoff Blackwell and Ruth Hobday, Photos by Kieran Scott. Published by Chronicle Books, 2017