In: Judith Butler
April 29, 2016
In my previous article I discussed what I think are some of the most interesting pioneer feminist artists. But how do feminist premises fit in contemporary artistic practices? Below you can find a selection of ten artists from all around the globe that reflect on the struggles that women still face today in their fight for equality. Whether they consider feminism as central to their discourse or not, their work explores different aspects of what being a woman entails in each of their own realities.
Brazilian artist Beth Moysés is best known for organising parade-like performances with local battered women, many of whom live in shelters, in South America and Spain. In Lecho rojo [Red Bed], however, it is a group of beautiful young women who enact a mysterious ritual. They form a circle around a 30-kilo pile of red lipstick, and mould this sensual matter into hearts while their bodies and the white sheets that cover them get more and more stained with the red substance. Domestic violence, pain, death, and regeneration are at the centre of Moysés poetic oeuvre, in which wedding dresses and blood form an intimate bond.
Joana Vasconcelos was born in Paris but lives and works in Lisbon, Portugal. As she states in her website, her creative process is “based on the appropriation, decontextualisation and subversion of pre-existent objects and everyday realities”. In Lavanda [Lavender] she reinterprets Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain by covering this object, which only men use, with colourful handmade crochet patterns. This material, traditionally associated with the domestic environment (and, therefore, with “women’s work”) is often used by Vasconcelos as a means to explore the relationship between popular and erudite culture, and between tradition and modernity. Check out how her works invaded the Versailles palace in this 2012 unique exhibition.
Cabello/Carceller is a Madrid-based artistic team formed by Helena Cabello (Paris, 1963) and Ana Carceller (Madrid, 1964), who started working together in the early 90s. Their work is influenced by feminist and queer theorists such as Judith Butler, and often revolves around the contradictions of gender stereotypes from a conceptual, politically engaged approach. In one of their most recent projects, which could be seen at the Spanish Pavillion in the 2015 Venice Biennale, they explored the idea of a multiple and undefined identity in relation to the figure of Salvador Dalí. Installation, performance and video are their preferred mediums, and in Suite Rivolta they examine the need to take action in the streets in order to keep public space as a place of dissent. The title derives from the radical feminist movement of the 1970’s known as Rivolta Femminile (led by the art critic and theorist Carla Lonzi), and presents a structure loosely based on the musical form known as ‘suite’.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Wangechi Mutu is a multidisciplinary artist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. From her extensive oeuvre, I am particularly taken by her collages, where she explores gender and racial identities through the female body. In her work Mutu continuously questions the way women are represented in western culture, and disrupts common stereotypes by introducing animal and machine parts in her images. Uniting art and activism, she has recently launched Africa’s Out!, a platform that supports and celebrates the rights, lives and creative freedom of African LGBT+ individuals.
Li Xinmo is one of the most controversial Chinese feminist artists. In 2012 she participated in the group exhibition Bald Girls, which has become a platform for the promotion and development of cutting-edge feminist art and theory whose goal is to fight against the social reality of sexual discrimination in China. Xinmo’s work is based on her own personal experience and usually takes the form of body performance, where the artist’s body becomes the centre of different ritualistic actions. This is the case of Memory, in which she deals with the painful experience of abortion by tearing off her dress into pieces and turning these strips into dolls.
Born in Sweden, Anna Jonsson has lived and worked in Seville, Spain, for more than thirty years. Sculpture and female social roles are the basis of all her work, although in the past decade she has also produced several performances in collaboration with professional dancers. One of my favourites is Perdón [I’m Sorry], in which a woman spends 20 minutes asking for forgiveness. According to the artist, “it is based on the feeling I have that I always have to apologize when I say I’m a feminist”. In her colourful clay sculptures she approaches issues such as maternity, relationships, sex, mental health and fashion, always with a great sense of humour.
Regina José Galindo
Regina José Galindo is one of Guatemala’s most internationally renowned artists. She specialises in very shocking and often violent performances in which her body is the protagonist. Her work explores the ethical implications of social injustices, and aims to firmly criticise gender and racial discrimination. Her extreme performances have led her to carve the word ‘perra’ (‘bitch’) on her own thigh, to record the surgical reconstruction of her hymen, and to shave her body completely and walk naked through the streets of Venice. In Piedra, pictured above, she adopted the static role of a rock and let members of the audience urinate on her in order to protest against abuse and unequal power relations in modern societies.
CANAN (formerly known as Canan Senol), a self-proclaimed feminist artist and activist, lives and works in Istambul, Turkey. In her art she continuously addresses the oppression and harassment of women by family, government and religion through a mixture of the old and the new, tradition and modernity. This is the case of her series Perfect Beauty, which consists in the appropriation and manipulation of Ottoman miniature paintings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which are accompanied by several texts describing female beauty traits from a book of sexual subjects written during the same period. Although the standards for women are drastically different nowadays, the artist aims to demonstrate that interference with the female body and the supremacy of the male gaze are equally present in both realities.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Candice Breitz currently lives and works in Berlin. Her main corpus of work consists in video installations where different strategies of appropriation can lead to the exhaustion of meaning. In Mother + Father, Breitz carefully edits and manipulates scenes taken from famous Hollywood films where men and women express their frustrations and feelings towards parenthood. Although her work is usually very open to interpretation, she is often concerned with identity and its representation (in her Ghost Series, for example, she explores the violence that can be performed by whiteness), as well as with contemporary mass culture and its influence on people.
Born and raised in the United States, Andi Arnovitz emigrated to Israel in 1999. Much of her work is informed by the experience of living in the Middle East, and reflects the challenges that women, and particularly Jewish women, face during their lives. As many of the artists featured in this list, she also uses art forms that have been traditionally relegated to the realm of women, such as textiles, “to create awareness, protest, dialogue, and disapproval”. I particularly like her works on paper, which adopt many different shapes and formats. In her series of etchings entitled Acid! and Before/After, Arnovitz uses nitric acid, a substance that is part of the process of making etchings but also a common weapon against women in many countries, to destroy the etching plates where she had depicted women at risk of suffering these violent attacks.
April 10, 2016
During my last year of university, my Contemporary Art professor completely changed my views on art history. On the first day of class, she asked us to think about the artists we had studied in depth during the previous three years. How many women could we remember? The answer was simple: not a single one. A few had been mentioned briefly, often as this or that artist’s wife. The next question seemed to follow naturally: Why have there been no great women artists? This was precisely the title of a 1971 ground-breaking essay by Linda Nochlin, then a Professor at Vassar College, where she questioned the whole intellectual structure upon which this inquiry is based.
Yoko Ono’s 1965 performance Cut Piece examined in a very simple way the role that the female body has played in art throughout the ages: that of a passive object. In art history, women appear mainly as models or muses. For centuries, the work of those few women that had access to artistic training has been considered to be inferior and secondary compared to that of their masters, fathers, brothers, husbands or lovers. Misleading categories such as “Genius” and “Great Artist”, reserved only for men, have been intrinsic to the discipline of art history for a long time and were not really challenged until the 1960s and 1970s by scholars like Nochlin, who stated that doing so “would reveal the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying, and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based”.
The immediate effect of Nochlin’s essay was to increase the interest of scholars in recovering the work of those women that had been forgotten by history. This idea crystallised in the exhibition Women Artists: 1550-1950 organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, which included works by more than thirty artists from different periods, such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Rosa Bonheur, Gwen John and Lee Krasner.
The flourishing of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s prompted not only art theorists but also artists to re-discover lost role models for women and attack the male-centred version of history that had always passed as legitimate. Perhaps the most important work in this sense was Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), an installation where the names of thirty-nine notable women from history (most of which still do not appear in any history textbook) were represented by embroidered textiles and porcelain plates, artistic expressions that have traditionally been considered “women’s work” and have therefore been excluded from the category of “high art”.
It is important to remember, however, that not all art produced by women is necessarily feminist or aimed against patriarchy. In opposition to the initiatives that simply sook to lessen the effects of discrimination, such as women-only exhibitions, important voices like that of feminist scholar Griselda Pollock urged for a more political model of feminist interventions. Rescuing the work of women who have been excluded from art history is not enough; in order to undermine patriarchal society, it is necessary to explore and deeply question the social structures that have led to this process of exclusion.
Many female artists have brought awareness to the oppression, marginalization and violence that women have suffered for centuries through their art, particularly after the 1960s. One of the most iconic pieces in this regard is Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), a video performance in which the artist not only criticised women’s roles within the home, but also the culture of frenetic consumption fostered by capitalism.
The female body, very often the artist’s own body, became a key tool for visually expressing a multiplicity of issues that directly affect the lives of women, such as menstruation, maternity, sexual violence, gender roles, and body image. For me, one of the most interesting examples of this is Frida Kahlo, who in the 1930s depicted her own birth in a way that finds no parallel in the history of art. This unusual image is still shocking today, as is any that deals frankly with female genitalia, often erased by male painters in their idealised depictions of the female body. In the 1970s, artists like Chicago, who insisted on the existence of a distinct “female sensibility”, scandalised audiences and generated controversy in feminist circles with their use of vaginal imagery.
Sexual violence against women was (and still is) a very prominent subject in feminist art. One of the projects that first prompted a social dialogue around this important issue was Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in May (1977), a three-week performance that took place in a shopping centre and exposed the amount of rapes reported in Los Angeles during that period of time.
A few years before, Ana Mendieta had addressed sexual violence in a very powerful manner, presenting her own body as that of a rape victim in a performance that took place in the artist’s apartment.
Finally, I want to mention the work of Cindy Sherman. From the beginning of her career she has photographed herself in many different roles and scenarios, reminding the viewer about the important role of stereotypes in modern society. I find her striking images fascinating because they seem to highlight what Judith Butler has called the “performative” character of gender and the instability of identities.
Just as there is not just one way of being a woman, there is not only one feminist approach to art. The introduction of feminist perspectives in art history is important because it puts into question the discourse centred on the white, Western, heterosexual male gaze, opening up the discipline to criticism and new points of view.
The development of what has been termed the Feminist Art Movement is greatly indebted to the work of the aforementioned artists. Although most of my examples come from the United States, similar expressions simultaneously appeared in the rest of the world. Still, the question that the feminist collective Guerrilla Girls posed in the 1980s, Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?, is, as their ongoing project shows, still relevant today.
I highly recommend reading Pollock’s recent article “The National Gallery is Erasing Women from the History of Art”. Sadly, in 2016 many museums and cultural institutions are still way behind art theory and practice when it comes to ending discrimination and promoting inclusiveness and diversity.