As with many other cultural spheres, the contemporary art world is largely white, and largely male. Women artists have had to traverse huge obstacles to attain visibility in galleries and on platforms reserved for visual arts. Linda Nochlin’s 1974 essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? investigated these obstacles, and why women artists are methodically excluded from the art historical canon.
Nochlin discusses how women were destined to be the objects (posing as a nude model in a life-drawing class), never as the artist. This is not due to women’s inability to create or her “Hormones, [her] menstrual cycles, or [her] internal spaces” it’s rather the fault of “Our institutions and our education.”
Here at Artupia, we’re fighting to make art accessible to all, by not only making it easier to enter the art world but also by changing the way we speak about artistic development.
Here are five contemporary female artists who helped rewrite the art history canon.
1. Cindy Sherman - Portrait Provocatrice
“I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self-portraits. Sometimes I disappear”
The American contemporary artist is well known for her extremely powerful and provoking portraits. Sherman uses portraiture to challenge identity and gender, often unearthing horrifying and grotesque visual scenarios. Fake limbs, doe-eyed clownish features, vomit, putrefied food and fake blood; Sherman tears down the very barriers that seek to define her innate and ‘delicate’ femininity. Through her art, Sherman rejects the binary archetypes established for women, often mocking female stereotypes and tearing apart the artifice of what being a ‘woman’ means. Her medium of photography resonates especially strongly in a commandeering age where digital existence is endemic and first appearances are, for women, everything.
2. Kara Walker - Reclaiming the Black Body
“I have no interest in making a work that doesn’t elicit a feeling”
Accustomed to fierce critique, American contemporary artist, Kara Walker, creates large-scale, provocative artworks to expose the country’s harrowing history with slavery. Walker’s works seek not only to portray but also to reclaim the long history of white ownership of black bodies. Her artwork is undoubtedly disturbing and succeeds in its quest to do exactly as art should; generate discussions about important topics such as racism. Walker’s watercolours from the late nineties sparked a hoard of criticism due to their hyper-sexual, violent and graphic content. Others, meanwhile, vehemently defended the artist’s decision to portray these abhorrent stereotypes, claiming them to be a necessity in accurately exposing the horror of how black bodies were (and continue to be) treated.
3. Shirin Neshat - Mesmerising Depictions of Muslim Women
“Art is our weapon. Culture is a form of resistance”
Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat, works predominantly in black and white to expose the, well, black and white sexist treatment of women in Iran. Perhaps her most famous work is her 1994 photography series Women of Allah, where poignant images of the artist’s body are coated with Arabic text. Neshat’s photographs are ridden with aggressive motifs, such as guns and weaponry to emphasise the country’s not only discriminatory but also violent treatment of women. Neshat’s depictions of Muslim women aim to allow the viewer to see these women from the view of the often hidden female gaze. For hundreds of years the female figure has been drawn, painted and sculpted from the perspective of the male gaze, where the ‘ideal feminine form’ has, at times, quite literally been set in stone.
4. Yayoi Kusama - Avant-Garde Extraordinaire
“Every time I have a problem, I have confronted it with the ax of art.”
Born in Matsumoto city in Japan, the young prodigy gained popularity with her unparalleled vision and vast array of mediums. Kusama painted, drew, collaged, sculpted, filmed and performed her way to New York at just twenty-seven years of age, arriving on American soil with her life-savings sewn into the lining of her dress. Identity is at the heart of Kusama’s work, where she oscillates between revealing and concealing herself as both object and subject. Kusama’s work is visual therapy for her phobias, especially that of male authority and sex. She communicates her aversion to intercourse through her works, by rendering the phallus an uncomfortable experience for her viewers. In her work, Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show, Kusama overturns the apathetic feminine role, by depicting herself lying on top of dozens of phallic sculptures, epitomising that through her art she is able to reclaim her sexuality as completely divorced from men.
5. Jenny Saville - Rewriting the Female Form
“I’d always wondered why there had been no women artists in history. I found there had been- but not reported. I realised I’d been affected by male ideas, going through a male-dominated art college.”
British artist, Jenny Saville, explores the female form on huge canvases, homing in on every pore, line and blemish embodied by her subjects. Saville’s female forms are momentous murals dedicated to the creases, folds and curves that gloriously make up the unphotoshopped female body. Rejecting the long-time objectification of women in art, Saville seeks to portray an honest account of what a real woman’s body looks like, and how it transforms and blooms with perspective, puberty, emotions, childbirth and age.