Women in Art, a Politically Unbalanced Relationship

Rosa Martínez

Chief Curator of the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art

The work of numerous female artists is today an example of the desire of women to move out of the domestic domain and occupy territories historically forbidden to them, such as art and politics. Figures such as the Egyptian Ghada Amer show that it is possible to overcome the difficulties for a woman to break down cultural and gender frontiers. The advances achieved in the 20th century clearly reveal that sexual difference is a social and not a biological construct. In this respect, the work of artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Mona Hatoum or Lygia Clark is fundamental to understand the evolution of the role of women in the artistic panorama. Today, it is necessary to reject the label of “female art” and overcome the formalism of modernity to put forward new dynamics of gender, race and class to live in a more balanced and healthy world.

The statement “70% of the poor in the world are women” was used by Egyptian artist Ghada Amer to create a sand garden in the summer of 2001 in Barcelona. Large red wooden sandboxes made up each of the letters, and the phrase, almost 70 metres in length, stretched lengthwise down the central boulevard of the Rambla del Raval, a new urban artery opened up with the aim of sanitising one of the most socially deprived areas of the city. The economic differences between the industrialised world and the “third world” turn into flagrant disparities when the distribution of wealth is quantified in terms of gender with statistics revealing how women are the most marginalised group even in developed nations. 

Brought up in an Islamic culture and now resident in New York, Ghada Amer(Cairo, 1963) provides an example of the ability to escape from the margins and from the difficulties that women have in breaking through the cultural and gender ceiling. Ghada Amerregards herself essentially as a painter and in her works takes figures from men’s pornographic magazines and stitches them on to another traditionally male preserve: abstract painting. Through this dual appropriation she questions the viability of escaping the dominant languages, while pondering the ways in which power roles in sexual love and creative relations are distributed. Ghada Amer has produced, in addition to her beautiful paintings, significant works in urban contexts which have often taken the form of gardens. Love Park (Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, 1999), Women’s Qualities (Pusan, Korea, 2000) or the previously mentioned 70% of the Poor in the World Are Women (Barcelona, 2001) are some of the most notable examples. These public space contributions reclaim a woman’s right to escape from the domestic sphere and to occupy areas, both artistically and politically, which historically have been denied them. They signify an enormous step forward since Virginia Woolf claimed the right to “have one’s own room”. However, confinement in limited physical and social spaces (the harem, the home, the family) and being given a subordinate position within the economic slot of the workplace continue to constitute part of the politics of women’s subjugation, as Ghada Amer and many other artists reflect in their work. 

In 1908, Sigmund Freud wrote to his fiancée: “I believe you and I are in agreement that the management of the home, the children’s education and the care they require completely absorb a human being to the exclusion of any possibility of earning a living.” And when, nearly half a century later, Louise Bourgeois designs her renowned Femme-Maison (1948) it reflects how the home continues to be a chore, how it engulfs the human body, how they fuse into each other. It is for that reason that Tracey Emin’s work I’ve Got It All (2000) where the artist places a heap of money between her spread legs is so provocative and liberating. Her demeanour is full of punk fury and she becomes a symbol of a self-sufficient woman who no longer needs, like Danae, to be impregnated by any god, but rather manifests her independence as she wishes with the money she earns from her work.  

The institution of the harem or female circumcision are extreme symbols of women’s servitude. But the unambiguous Kant, among the plethora of other giants of western philosophy, can be equated with the worst of the fundamentalists when he affirms that women are not endowed with analytical thinking and need to carry on taking care of domestic duties. In the Europe of the Enlightenment, the ban on letting them attend art schools was another example of the desire to silence them, to restrict their field of vision and, in consequence, their capacity for knowledge and action. Today, Pierre Bourdieu states that the codes on body image exert such violence on women that they negate their capacity to strive for power and Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi affirms that such physical slavishness is the prison that defines the walls of the “western harem”.

Awareness of the fact that the personal is political and that forms of oppression in daily life are strategies to submit women socially runs through the work of many artists

The late 19th century suffrage movements, the contributions from essayists like Simone de Beauvoir in the 50s, the spread of feminist revolt in the 70s and the cultural studies of the 90s configure a line of questioning and awareness which has clearly demonstrated that gender difference is a social as opposed to a biological construct which is prompted by patriarchal ideological interests and that it is necessary to deconstruct it critically to articulate a genuine equality between the sexes. Yet, despite significant progress, financial, legal and social inequality vis-à-vis men still persists. Coming out from places of silence, making themselves visible, questioning the cultural legacy, reinterpreting experience by seeking new codes to represent it and claim equality in all arenas – most especially the economic – are still tasks that can be performed through the visual arts.  

Notwithstanding the enormous influence of the mass communication media in the processing of the message and transmission of ideology, the visual arts are still today an “elite” territory, a prestigious area in which to produce sense and articulate ethical and aesthetic values. Although significant pioneers emerged in the 20th century aided by the avant-garde linked to the Russian revolution and whilst there have been singular creators such as Meret Oppenheim or Frida Kahlo, women remain in the minority, as can be seen from the data offered by the Guerrilla Girls, the group of activists who quantified during the 80s and 90s the sparse presence of women in the galleries, museums, etc., of the supposedly egalitarian western world. Updating the percentages of female participation at such an important event as the Venice Biennale constitutes a very clear indicator of how tendentiously false the “backlash” is in affirming that equality can be forgotten because it has already been attained. In 1895, the inaugural year of the Biennale, just 2% of those selected were women. In 1995 – that is to say a century later – that proportion had only risen to 8%. And it is not just curious, but also politically significant that it was not to be until 2005, after 110 years of existence, that two women – María de Corral and myself – were charged for the first time to direct this international event.

For women artists, the last thirty years have been especially significant. The new technologies (as an area not totally dominated by male tradition); the practice of body art and performances (as ways of dissolving the categories of object-subject/art-life); or the validation of features and activities traditionally associated with the world of women (vulvas, vaginas, home wear, make-up, sewing) have run parallel with the assertion of content as against form, and have challenged the perceived neutrality and universality of art, demonstrating that such “neutrality” and “universality” were exercised mainly by white men from the developed world. All that, alongside deconstruction of hierarchies within disciplines and casting doubt on the autonomy of art, has opened up new roads to creativity. In the 80s, the return of painting and monumental sculpture led to many women artists concentrating on demonstrating that they too could execute large-scale works and handle heavy materials, such as iron. In the 90s more subtle poetics were restored and greater recognition was achieved by extraordinary artists like Pipilotti Rist, who connects her work to video, television and pop music, or like Mona Hatoum or Janine Antoni, who in minimalism recognised a language that they found interesting as artists but that excluded them as women. There were comebacks too for key figures such as Brazilian Lygia Clark, whose relationship themes are a type of healing catalysation addressing the dysfunctional features and unease in contemporary culture. Ana Mendieta, from Cuba, with her search for lost identity and ritual acts fusing with the primeval is another milestone in configuring new ways of thinking, creating and resisting outside the dominant logocentric norm. Nevertheless, Louise Bourgeois’s extensive career gains her a place as the paradigm of a secret artist who only achieved recognition following many years of silent work. Her art is confessional, having as its starting point her childhood experiences and traumas, but her work transcends her own psychological biography by virtue of its potential for linguistic innovation. In Destruction of the Father (1974) she alludes to a double symbolic killing: that of the daughter wanting to kill the father (who has betrayed her by deceiving her mother) and that of the father who, with his obscene behaviour, destroys the love of the daughter. The huge “spiders” are the prime metaphor to define the mother, conceived as a symbol of the ability to weave and to cure. Her “cells” are spaces in which she brings together objects that are laden with memories. They blur the borders between disciplines as they are neither sculptures nor installations, but rather emotional structures. 

Awareness of the fact that the personal is political and that forms of oppression in daily life are not individual problems but strategies to submit women socially runs through the work of many artists. Using the visual syntax of advertising and general interest magazines, Barbara Kruger exemplifies through her work We Have Received Orders Not to Move (1982) the old patriarchal command that is now blown sky high by women’s dynamic energy and their invasion of areas formerly closed to them. Miwa Yanagi,from Japan, captures the uniformity of female submission in her series on the theme of the Elevator Girls who welcome visitors to department stores and invite them to buy. 

Globalisation has triggered a massive movement of products and people worldwide and has led to huge tensions between local traditions and the imposition of transnational capitalism. Many of the emerging artists in the postcolonial context are seen as attractive because they are “exotic”, since by speaking primarily about their identity they occupy the place of the “other” where the West wants to see them. But by moving around in intermediate spaces they go beyond their places of origin and their versatility allows them to constantly redefine their positions. Soo Ja Kim,from Korea, is a good example of this. She spreads her exquisite cloths over woodland and museums, peppering these shimmering surfaces with bits of clothing that evoke change, suffering at having to leave the familiar behind, the constant need to pack and unpack our geography and our mind. 

African Fatimah Tuggar, born in Nigeria, uses collage as juxtaposition and for its potential for negotiation. Images of Nigerian women performing domestic tasks are intermingled with objects from Western technology. With an awareness of the access to power that technological advances allow, the artist seeks to reconcile two extremes of heritage: that of her own tradition and that of colonial domination in the light of a globalised future. Shahzia Sikander, from Pakistan, reinterprets the art of the miniature, hybridising it with features of contemporary culture and with her own fantasies of armed women, astride swift moving steeds, thus endowed with movement and consequently with the means to escape. Shirin Neshat’s photographic series Women of Allah alludes to the role of mothers, wives and sisters as instruments of a revolution that fails to defend their rights as women and demonstrates the need to rethink the division of roles in Islamic culture. Aydan Murtezaoglu, from Turkey, executes melancholy photo-montages in which a woman, the artist herself, seen always from behind, looks upon the uncertainties of time and the places where she has found herself living, from the roofs of Istanbul or from a bench facing the Bosphorus. Lida Abdul has broken into the international scene thanks to the exquisite work entitled White House (2005) shown for the first time at Afghanistan’s pavilion at the latest Venice Biennale. In this performancevideo the artist patiently paints the crumpled walls of two buildings that have been bombed in her native country. The brush, soaked in white paint, caresses the structural ruins in a symbolic gesture of renewal, healing and hope. At the end of the video, a man enters onto the scene and his black clothing is also painted white by the artist. The concepts of destruction and rebuilding, of loss and recovery, are beautifully expressed and it is the care of a woman that is seen as auguring the expectation of a better world.

Today, women artists, mobile and dynamic, eat away at the purist formalism of modernity, reject having their art labelled as “female” and demand that the values of the old French Revolution – equality, freedom, fraternity – be readdressed from the new perspectives of gender, race and class. It is not only the statistics which clearly demonstrate that this is a revolution as yet unresolved and essential for life in an ethically and politically more equitable world and, consequently, one which is aesthetically and morally healthier.