Complete With a Bedazzled Dildo and Miniature Sex Dungeons, a New Show at the ICA London Celebrates Sex Workers’ Rights

“Decriminalized Futures” is on view at the ICA London through May 22.

Screenshot from This is Not For Clients (2021) by Yarli Allison and Letizia Miro, image courtesy the artists.
Screenshot from This is Not For Clients (2021) by Yarli Allison and Letizia Miro, image courtesy the artists.

London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts has opened a groundbreaking group exhibition inspired by the sex worker rights movement.

Titled “Decriminalized Futures,” the show includes works by 13 international artists who create moving images, embroidered works, books, sculptures, and works in other media to address the multiplicity of contemporary sex-worker experiences.

The show, on view through May 22, advances through interpersonal narratives, histories, and artistic expressions, making a compelling case for sex workers to assert their human and labor rights.

While selling sex is legal under U.K. law, related activities such as soliciting, renting premises for the purpose of sex work, and working with other sex workers, remain criminalized. 

“Full decriminalization of sex work is the rallying cry that unites the sex worker rights movement across the world,” co-curators Yves Sanglante and Elio Sea said in a statement. “Under this banner, sex workers and their allies have fought tirelessly for strong workers’ rights, an end to exploitation, an end to criminalization, and real measures to address poverty.”

Chi Chi Castillo & May May Peltier, still from Stone Dove.

Chi Chi Castillo and May May Peltier, still from Stone Dove.

The works on view present various feminist and intersectional perspectives on sex work and interwoven issues faced by sex workers, people of color, trans people, migrants, and disabled people. In also explores sex work thought racial and social justice movements, migrant rights, labor rights, mental health issues, gender, joy, and pain.

Works include a series of life-size linocut self-portraits by artist Khaleb Brooks exploring the relationship between body, gender presentation, and sexuality; four vignette-style films by artist Chi Chi Castillo and May May Peltier focusing on sex work and queerness through the experiences of four sex workers of color; and an altar of plants, zines, medications, and a bedazzled dildo created by queer Pakistani-Egyptian artist and stripper Aisha Mirza. 

“What do I feel about being objectified from an art perspective, as opposed to from a sex worker’s perspective? I think it’s great,” London-based Spanish queer sex worker and poet Letizia Miro told Artnet News.

“I was just talking to a colleague about this and I feel celebrated in a way that goes beyond activism. The beauty and experience and depth of emotion is being celebrated, as opposed to being super politicized or victimized or glamorized.”

Installation view of Yarli Allison and Letizia Miro, This Is Not For Clients (2021. "Decriminalised Futures" ICA. Photo ©Anne Tetzlaff.

Installation view of Yarli Allison and Letizia Miro, This Is Not For Clients (2021). “Decriminalised Futures” ICA. Photo ©Anne Tetzlaff.

Miro collaborated with Canadian-born-Hong Kong artist Yarli Allison on a two-channel video installation titled This Is Not For Clients (2021). Installed among large sculptural objects, including doll-house-scaled sex dungeons, the semi-fictional documentary explores the story of an imagined “ideal” sex worker from the perspective of a fictional client.

Through digital modeling and animation, Allison has created a kind of hyperreal narrative that transcends Miro’s real-life experiences into a fantasy realm, making visible the complexities—some of them dark—that go into clients’ imagined ideals, and the precarious position of sex workers.

“I was thinking about gender expectations and stereotyping,” Allison told Artnet News. “How do you satisfy that kind of client’s needs, and how do these fantasies work as a coping mechanism?”

The exhibition is hosted in partnership with political arts organization Arika, and is part of an ongoing project led by organizers from the sex worker-led collective SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement). There is also an associated events program including poetry readings, screenings of sex worker-made films, panel discussions, and artists’ workshops.

Decriminalized Futures” is on view at the ICA London through May 22.

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