We have not yet reached a stage where female artists are as ubiquitous as men – but what’s new
In a recent article, I explored the craft and graft of Japanese woodcut artist Naoko Matsubara. Writing this piece led me to think about other artists whose work I thought related to or intersected with Matsubara’s, and it was to my great discomfort that the following comparisons came to mind: the colour schemes of Gerhard Richter; the compositions of Richard Hamilton’s sparser ‘Interiors’ collages; and a visual idiom akin to the written language of novelist Haruki Murakami. Like Matsubara, Murakami is capable of conveying unprecedented depth through seemingly simple formative units; what Murakami does through sentences, Matsubara does through squares. The reason for my malaise lies in the fact that the list of comparable artists above is exclusively male – a disheartening male-aise.
Countless female artists could – and should – have quickly sprung to mind. And they did, eventually, but not immediately. Why, when considering which artists, like Matsubara, also use rich and sharply contrasting colour palettes, did I not instantly think of Helen Frankenthaler? Why did my mind not jump straight to Rachel Whiteread, as an artist whose compositions are also highly attuned to shape and space? Why, when racking my brain for a writer who does with language what Matsubara does with line, did I not consider the poet, and master of linguistic economy, Anna Akhmatova?
Writing about artists often invokes comparisons with other artists, either as points of contrast or to draw parallels. If, even when writing about a female artist, the offshoot artists alluded to are often male, what does this both indicate and propagate? Excuse me for answering my own question, but it is not a rhetorical one. First and foremost, this indicates that we have not yet reached a stage where female artists are as ubiquitous as men – tell me something new, you say.
In turn, if our frames of reference are predominantly male, then conversations about artists propagate tightly closed and concentric circles, where a male is reminiscent of a male, who calls to mind another male. Of course, we can and should cross-reference male and female artists – and indeed any outside or between that binary – indiscriminately. But until lists of female artists can be readily reeled off without need of a Google search, women remain guests of honour at the Gentlemen’s Art Club.
“Hyperbole!” you yell, “there are women artists galore and they’re being celebrated left, right and at the Serpentine! Have you not seen every gallery gift shop’s Frida Kahlo collection?” I have and I think Kahlo would absolutely hate the fact that her mug is on a mug. But it is no exaggeration to say that even in 2019, there is a dire dearth of female artists not only in galleries, but – and this is a direct repercussion – in our heads. In 2016, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) launched an ingenious campaign that asked a single question: Can you name five women artists? According to the NMWA, most people could not.
Four years into the campaign, the NMWA are now no longer simply highlighting the underrepresentation of women in art, but inviting all and sundry holler about it. The gallery proposes a range of functional pledges and active steps that both institutions and individuals can take to leverage female artists. Cultural organisations and museums are given the sage advice to acquire and exhibit more artwork by women, to achieve gender equity along their walls. NMWA, based in Washington D.C., has already teamed up with the Tate, who earlier this year hosted a series of events dedicated to the campaign during Women’s History Month in March.
Of individuals, the ask is that they flag galleries showcasing few or no female artists, acknowledge, thank and promote those who feature equal, majority or entirely women artists, and, for those who can afford to do so, to buy more artwork by women.
The very fact that the #5WomenArtists campaign exists is somewhat bittersweet. It is crucial that it does, so we are forced to consider the often uncomfortable lack of female artists in both museums and our minds. And yet, for all its admirable intentions and execution, it is heart-breaking that the campaign is so pertinent and still necessary in 2019. Until listing five female artists become easily achievable rather than aspirational – that is, when the campaign becomes utterly obsolete and laughably atavistic – there’s quite a way to go.