Shanks are weapons made illicitly by prisoners from everyday objects often stolen or found. Most prisons keep a collection of these confiscated weapons on display in the office area as an educational tool for prison wardens. In this series of Kitchen Shanks I imagine women and girls physically or psychically confined to the domestic realm arming themselves against perceived threats of attack or abuse. Like prisoners who utilize objects ready to hand, these kitchen shanks are created from the ephemera of femininity and are presented here as fetish like objects that bear testimony to women’s strategies of domestic resistance.
Fruit knives, cheese knives, pickle forks, cork screws, barbeque skewers, broken scissors, potato peelers and other small items of kitchen hardware, have been carefully wrapped and bound with pieces of used women’s tights, mostly brightly coloured, the type worn by girls and young women as fashion accessories. These hand bound handles are held securely in place by hair bands, also brightly coloured, often with sparkles; the addition of longer bands – for holding hair out of your face, like alice bands – makes a handy wrist strap to ensure your attacker can’t appropriate your weapon in a fight. Mounted on a sheet of security grill that floats in front of the wall surface, the display of Kitchen Shanks mimics that of the collections of confiscated shanks found in prison offices and wardens recreation rooms.
Other references spring to mind when viewing Kitchen Shanks. The bound utensils seem reminiscent of swaddled babies, or perhaps, given their diminutive size, baby dolls. That little girls are trained in domesticity and maternal care form birth (the choice of ‘girls toys’ in any toy shop bares testament to this gendering of play), positions the swaddled nature of Kitchen Shanks as an apt metaphor for the defensive and resistant narrative presented by this work. The binding and colour-coordination of hair bands to secure the tights and make a comfortable handle for these improvised weapons, yet also references anthropological fetish objects. The psychoanalytic understanding of fetish objects is of an object that stands in for a woman’s lack of penis and as such becomes the focus/fixation of sexual desire and gratification. The anthropological understanding of fetish is of an inanimate object that is worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is believed to be inhabited by a spirit. The mystical properties of fetish objects imbue them with supernatural influence, and with special powers and abilities that have supremacy over mortals. In the context of this work Kitchen Shanks, I was thinking about the visual references to anthropological fetish objects, of how, once created by the maker through ritualistic processes the objects magically obtain supernatural agency and become powerful as symbols of – in this particular context – the potential for girls and women to aggressively attack or defend themselves from perceived threat. There is perhaps no need for the objects to actually be used, their mere presence becomes a marker or warning of their potential, very much like the displays of confiscated weapons held by prison warders.
The use of a security grill as a method of display for Kitchen Shanks serves several purposes. Firstly it references the displays of prisons shanks mentioned above, but it also has undertones of women’s enforced imprisonment in situations like those endured by Natascha Kampusch captured in 1998 in Vienna, Austria, and Jaycee Lee Duggard captured in 1991 in California in the United States, where secure enclosures were created especially for these girls kidnapped for emotional and sexual exploitation. A less extreme situation being the cultural practice of purdah where women are screened from men or strangers by the use of a curtain or grilled windows. At the Greenham Common women’s peace camp the women tied objects to the mesh fencing that surrounded the air base as protest to the presence of nuclear weapons, but also as markers of their presence as a feminine force. This decorated boundary fence marked an exclusion zone, men, weapons and institutionalized warfare on the inside, women, children and temporary aberrant domesticity on the outside. Natascha Kampusch and Jaycee Lee Duggard made poignant attempts to domesticate their prison spaces, placing on display treasured objects and items from their lives pre-imprisonment as reminders of the person they used to be, and of the potential to return one day to become this person again, the objects perhaps becoming symbols of their imagined escape.
My Kitchen Shanks are also symbols – although many are sharp enough to actually be useful in a fight; they are symbols of women’s ongoing psychic imprisonment within the domestic realm. With the advent of the women’s liberation movement and second-wave feminism in the 1970s it was (perhaps naively) presumed that women would be freed from the drudgery of housework and maternal duties with their acceptance into the work place as equals. The situation was of course much more complicated than this, as the concept of femininity has been intrinsically tied to that of domesticity since at least the onset of the modern age, and this alignment can be seen perhaps a deliberate strategy of psychological misdirection by the patriarchy to ensure they retained the power and privilege they held. In the early twenty-first century when gender equality has been presumed to have been granted – at least in the more affluent countries of Europe and North America – there appears to be a subtly aggressive undermining of women and girls’ autonomy through the media led marketing of femininity as a desirable binary state; to be socially acceptable as female requires an adoption of certain states of passivity and self-imposed infantilisation. It is this that my Kitchen Shanks resist.