It’s hard to credit, and damning to be reminded, but only 1 per cent of The National Gallery’s current collection consists of art by women. In that sin of omission, what tongues must have been silenced, what visions blindfolded and lost.

The disparity, though a stark one, is the backdrop against which Rogue Women was roughed out, spanning the gap between absence and presence, building a community of women artists to begin to reclaim the ground lost to that imbalance. Pushing beyond the space they’ve established in Rogue Studios on Manchester’s eastern front, they’ve made their first foray into temporary territory with a stand at the Manchester Art Fair. To mark the occasion, four of their number, including founders Margaret Cahill and Jen Orpin, have shrugged off the downpours of a stereotypical city centre Sunday to take stock of their achievements with interviewer Polly Checkland Harding.

In fact, spirits are a world away from being dampened since the collective have a great deal to celebrate; both Orpin and Ruth Murray, another among its number, have learned that their pieces have been acquired for Manchester Art Gallery’s permanent collection. It’s a decision that suggests that – at long last – the tide is beginning to turn.

Certainly, it was still a long way out for women artists as recently as 2019 when the catalyst of #MeToo was one of the forces that brought Cahill and Orpin together in earnest, culminating in Rogue Women‘s first group show. In doing so, they tapped into what the latter refers to as “that power in protest”, a kind of positive ‘no’ in active resistance to being consigned to the silent margins.

Jo McGonigal, who along with Emmer Winder makes up the remainder of the panel, testifies to the importance of Rogue Studios as a space; one which remains accessible every hour of the day, every day of the week. In doing so, she acknowledges that, outside such arrangements, “you can be isolated sometimes”. Rogue, by contrast, offers a sense of community. “We’re all artists together.”

Such commonality endures, although, on the surface, all are quite different in their practice. For instance, McGonigal describes her work as “drawing as action” while Cahill uses oils and collage in settings resonant with history (such as a former Soviet airbase in Estonia) to tease apart the threads that tangle experience up with memory. Winder’s work, on the other hand, represented at the Art Fair by a piece humming with intense evil, is more conceptual in its form.

For Orpin and Cahill, it’s important that, however splendid Rogue might be, it does not exist solely in isolation but makes connections far outside the Openshaw borders, opening it up, for example, to guest curators such as The Walker’s Ann Bukantas, and, more recently, Manchester Art Gallery‘s Natasha Howes. Looking outward, as well as inviting inward, having established a foothold at the Manchester Art Fair, both are enthused by the possibilities of taking Rogue Women on tour, provided that suitably sized venues to house a full group show can be located.

Like Orpin’s landscapes, not quite urban but built nonetheless, or Murray’s portraits, postPre-Raphaelite in their detailed narratives of women too fleshed out to be reduced to muses, they seek to bridge the traditional and the current moment, looking to the future but refusing to turn a blind eye to the inequalities of the present.

The tide has turned, and, reaching out to meet it, Rogue Women‘s pier is no rusting ironwork but a gleaming platform of protest.

By Desmond Bullen


Main image: Days End, Jen Orpin. Courtesy of Saul Hay Gallery.