By Noma Moyo
Although some of the barriers that restricted female artists from participating in the arts in the past have been lifted, it is a known fact that it’s still hard for female artists to make it in the art world. This is why, on International Women’s Day, we are celebrating the achievements of five contemporary female artists who have shown that they are a force to be reckoned with.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will no doubt have seen Yayoi Kusama’s polka dot covered art and Instagram-frenzy inducing infinity mirrors somewhere at some point in your life.
The 89-year-old Japanese artist, who will be turning 90 later this month, has been voluntarily living in a psychiatric ward since 1977. Although she works in a wide range of mediums including painting, sculpture, performance and installation, one central theme in her art is her obsessive compulsion to paint endless polka dots on every surface. Her lifelong obsession with repetition and infinity is rooted in the hallucinations she has suffered since childhood.
In a climate where galleries and museums everywhere are fighting a decline in the number of visitors, Kusama's exhibitions consistently draw crowds and are known for selling out. Tickets to her last show in 2018, The Moment I Entered the Moving Universe at the Victoria Miro Gallery, sold out within days – before the show even opened.
For those who think Kusama is a one-trick Instagram pony, money talks. The latest figures from Artprice reveal that Kusama was the top-selling female artist in the global art market in 2018, with an auction turnover of $102.5 million. In fact, she has generated the highest annual auction turnover for a female artist in the world for the last four years consecutively. She claims that artists who are now recognised as icons of the pop-art movement, such as Andy Warhol, copied her original ideas. But her recent achievements show that he who laughs last laughs longest.
Tanzanian-born Lubaina Himid's art challenges the lack of representation of black people in art history and the media. Although she works primarily as a painter, she also uses ceramics, makes prints, drawings and installations that are influenced by her background in theatre design. Himid first rose to prominence in the 1980s with the Black Arts Movement, which sought to highlight issues of representation, race and gender in the art world.
Most people probably became aware of her after she became the first black woman to win the Turner Prize in 2017, but she was doing great things before that as well. For example, in 2010 she was awarded an MBE for her services to black women’s art. In fact, it is Himid’s humble personality and consistent support for underrepresented black artists that makes her such a star in our eyes. She uses her platform to request that the galleries that show her work also reach out to other black artists. When asked what she planned to do with her Turner Prize Money, in a candid interview with The Guardian she said she planned to spend some of the £25,000 to "buy some really fancy shoes, but most of it on helping out other artists."
Himid didn't have a consistent commercial representation until 2013 and her works are not selling in the millions. However, that could soon change following her participation at last year's Art Basel, where she was a hit with collectors. She was represented by London gallery Hollybush Gardens, which dedicated its entire stand at the fair to Himid. Hollybush Gardens’ director Lisa Panting noted how only a small handful of Hamid's works remained after collectors snapped up her art en masse.
Fleshy, obese and bruised – the women portrayed in Jenny Saville's large-scale paintings challenge the traditional perceptions of beauty and the female body.
The Cambridge-born artist made her debut in the art world in 1992, emerging as part of a collective of young artists called the Young British Artists. Her painterly style is highly pigmented and emphasises the flesh and mass of the body, resulting in a seemingly grotesque exaggeration of the subjects' form. And that is just the way she wants it to be. “I like the down and dirty side of things. I don’t like things to be too polished. We’ve got fashion magazines for that,” she was noted saying in an interview with The Telegraph.
In 2018, Saville became the most expensive female living artist following the sale of her self-portrait, Propped (1992), which took £9.5 million at an auction at Sotheby’s. The final hammer price for the painting not only shattered Saville's previous auction record, but also the initial estimate that was set at £3 to £4 million. Saville's Juncture (1994), a portrait depicting a woman's back, was sold for £5.44 million at auction at Sotheby's a few days ago – a hefty increase on the £434,000 it sold for in 2009. 2019 is looking set to be another year of highs for Saville it seems.
The remarkable thing about the figures in Yiadom-Boakye's oil paintings is that they are not drawn from life or experience - they exist purely in her imagination, yet they appear so at home in their timeless habitats. Her sublime portraits are underscored by expressive brushstrokes and dramatic, dark tones.
Yiadom-Boakye, who was born in London, has been making steady gains in the industry over the last few years. She was the 2012 recipient of the Pinchuk Foundation Future Generation Prize and was short-listed for the 2013 Turner Prize. In 2018, she was awarded the prestigious Carnegie Prize at Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.
Earlier this month, Tate announced Yiadom-Boakye as one of five artists that will be getting a major exhibition at Tate Britain over the next two years. The news was unveiled as part of a campaign called #5WomenArtists, which is organised by Washington DC’s National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Rachel Whiteread is one of Britain's leading contemporary artists who primarily produces sculptures. She creates casts of everyday objects using materials such as rubber, dental plaster and resin to capture their so-called negative space. Her sculptures explore memory, architecture and absence.
Whiteread was the first woman to win the Turner Prize in 1993 and represented the UK at the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997. In 2000, Whiteread was chosen out of ten artists to create a Holocaust memorial in Vienna dedicated to the 65,000 Austrian Jews murdered during the Holocaust. In 2018 she created a wall sculpture, titled US Embassy (Flat pack house; 2013-1015) for the United States Embassy in London. She also started 2019 on a high after winning the Whitechapel Gallery's Art Icon award earlier this year.