I was recently reading through Linda Nochlin’s 1971 groundbreaking essay called Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists. It got me thinking about how far women have come in general and how far we still have to go to be recognised as master artists, exceptional creatives and leading art practitioners, judged on our intelligence and skill instead of our gender.
Nochlin’s definition of the making of art was based on consistency of form, which had been studied, honed and experimented with. Women in the past have not had the freedom or time to create their individual artistic identity free of their mother, wife and sister tags. Creativity is an experimental risk-taking journey that needs time and space. What’s more, motherhood and age have often put limitations on acceptance and ability to be seen and respected.
Unfortunately in 2018, huge problems still hamper change around the world for women. Look at Lean In’s President, Rachel Thomas’ summary of 2017 at the Maker’s conference earlier this year. Here are some of the truly shocking statistics that she highlighted:
- Only 11 out of 195 countries around the world are run by women.
- None of the top ten media firms in the world are run by women.
- 70% of people living in poverty around the world are women and girls.
- Women earn 23% less around the world than men.
Donald Trump’s shocking rise to power in the US in 2017, swiftly gave rise to women all over the world saying enough is enough. Globally, between 3 and 5 million people marched for women’s rights last year and took up the mantles of #timesup, #pressforprogress, #thefutureisfemale, #metoo and #menomore, wearing them as badges of pride and strength. By sharing the harsh realities of sexual harassment, unequal pay and lack of diversity, leadership roles for women and even basic human rights for many. Women across different industries and in a variety of social groups have responded passionately to the need for change, recognition and legitimacy.
The good news is there were also some encouraging steps forward around the globe in 2017:
- In the UK, all companies with more than 250 staff must now report any gender pay discrepancies by April 2018.
- In France, Emmanuel Macron elected 11 female cabinet ministers to the 22 positions in his new cabinet.
- Iceland has made it illegal for men to be paid more than women from the start of 2018.
- In Sweden over 2,000 women working in the music industry signed a sexual misconduct open letter in support of the #metoo campaign to bring an end to sexual violence and intimidation.
- England’s Oxford University’s incoming women out-numbered men for the first time ever.
- Maria Balshaw became the first ever female head of the Tate art galleries and museums in the UK.
- In Australia, Camp Cope lead a scathing put down at the Falls Festival in their song The Opener about the lack of female musicians performing. Furthermore, hundreds of women in the Australian music industry signed an open letter in support of the #MeNoMore campaign addressing sexual harassment and assault at work.
Rachel Thomas said that, ‘people in power shape culture’ and that got me pondering over the role of female artists and how much they influence perceptions of gender and sexuality. Our ability to now expose the whole world to a single Instagram post has meant that an artist’s message of solidarity or strength can go global at the touch of a button which is a great tool for progress.
I remember seeing the Fearless Girl a year ago, standing with her hands on her hips in front of Di Modica’s Charging Bull on Wall Street, causing chaos. State Street Global Advisors, its creators have said a year on that piece of public art forced a staggering 152 companies (out of 787) with all male boards in the US, Britain and Australia to elect female board members. That’s a staggering statistic for a 50 inch bronze statue! Amy Sherald became the first black, female artist to paint a commissioned portrait of the outgoing First Lady, Michelle Obama, for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. This week the incredible Allison Janney and Frances McDormand won Oscars for playing older, weathered female characters who are fiercely independent in I Tonya and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. Both actresses are in their 50’s and still raising the talent bar for younger actresses in Hollywood. Wonderful Wakandan female characters who are strong and smart women have been portrayed in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther . They are skilled strategists and courageous warriors managing to be fierce, feminine and remain fully clothed on screen.
In the wake of the ground-breaking work over the last three or four decades by the marvellous ‘non feminist’ Marina Abramovic and other artists such as the controversial ‘feminist’ Barbara T White, the international circle of female artists today are openly committed to championing women’s rights, highlighting social problems and challenges faced all over the world. Surely that is what we should consider as great art by women these days? Here are some women you should know. Look them up, read about their work and understand how they are fighting for women’s rights through art.
From the UK, Phoebe Waller Bridge who wrote and starred in Fleabag, Jenny Saville, Aleah Chapin, for her body positive paintings of older women, Sarah Lucas, the photographer Hannah Starkey and sculptor Rebecca Warren.
From Africa, Kenyan artist, Wangechi Mutu who explores self image and gender constructs, Egyptian artist Ghada Amer’s depiction of desire and love in the male and female bodies, Nigerian photographer, Jenevieve Aken and the all female Ubhule Art Collective in South Africa.
From Asia, its leading light, Yayoi Kusama, Japanese American artist, Judy Shintani and Chiharu Shiota, China’s Huang Jing Yuan, Philippino Martha Atienza, Cindy Shih’s eerie paintings and South Korea’s JeeYoung Lee.
Hopefully, pioneering female artists as diverse as Claude Calhoun, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Tamara de Lempicka, Louise Bourgeois and Maya Angelou would support how female artists are depicting women, gender and sexuality in art nowadays. This rousing call for progress and the brave and courageous stands that women all over the world are taking every day to pave the way for change seems unstoppable.
In the face of so many barriers to knock down and the constant pressure to look gorgeous, be the perfect mother, lead, follow, compete with men for leadership roles and still have time for creativity, I’d say women are pretty amazing creatures and the change and progress that has begun is starting to snowball.
So if you’re thinking of doing something courageous, dazzling or different, do it because you CAN! Persevere. Use your grit and determination to progress. Shape and influence your culture. Embrace failure and self-doubt but don’t let either define your future. Share, collaborate, support, learn and celebrate the other women in your lives and treasure the men who support and love us just as we are!
Happy International Women’s Day! Follow our posts on social media and attend our events this month as we celebrate women throughout March.