Photograph of Mira Schendel’s installation at the Tate
Answers to the question “who are the greatest artists of all time?” are, of course, subject to personal taste and interest in the art world.
Yet, I so frequently hear the same list of names: Picasso Van Gogh, Warhol, Monet. Perhaps also: Manet, Rembrandt, Rubens, Rodin, Michelangelo, Duchamp, Da Vinci, Turner, Titian, Pollock, Matisse and Hockney for those more familiar with art history. Each of these artists is unique in movement and style, but they are all united by their gender.
Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe are two names that for many make up the entirety of women artists throughout history. The names Gentileschi, Nelli, Hoch, Schendel, Hanworth and Frankenthaler remain unfamiliar to most — and googling “women artists in history” presents results almost entirely about “the one’s history forgot”.
Despite creating art being one of the few means of expression that is free from oppression, the same cannot be said for the art world. While women artists freely rebel and create at will, the world in which art it is sold, bought, exhibited and represented is complex and hierarchical.
Western mythology tells us that the first ever drawing was by a woman named Dibutades — it was a tracing of her lover on a wall. In spite of this, however, the exclusion of women artists continues to be perpetuated through education, practice and acceptance by galleries and art spaces. Today ‘compliments’ of women’s still art bare striking resemblance to Han’s Hoffman’s words to Lee Krasner, an abstract artist in the mid-20th century: “This is so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.”
Women of Colour are the arguably the biggest victims of this exclusion.
When researching exclusion in the art world, the terms “women” and “artists of colour” frequently appear alongside each other. But as Alma Thomas (who is part of the worldwide artistic phenomenon Guerilla Girl) aptly asks: “How does the phrase ‘women and artists of colour’ actually parse out? Who are the women and who are the artists of colour? Where in the tables do the Woman of Colour sit?”
At the moment, my answer to her question is that Women of Colour artists sit at the bottom. There are little, if any, Women of Colour artists with equivalent fame to the plethora of white and wealthy males I listed above — and the few women who attain global recognition for their work are usually white and wealthy women.
This is not because there are by any means a shortage of Women of Colour artists. Rather, the struggle to name ‘great artists’ who are also Women of Colour reveals the institutionalised male dominance in art history and contemporary art culture.
In light of this reality, it is easy to feel frustrated and disillusioned when making and studying art. However, as is the case with feminism more broadly, I believe that resistance is crucial in furthering the representation of women of colour in the art world. Just like almost every other discipline in which women are undermined, unappreciated and misrepresented, there are artists who dedicate their practice to exposing these issues, whether it be directly or subtly.
In studying painting, I am constantly inspired by the women in my classes; the small community of women that I am a part of brings has helped me gain confidence when creating and discussing art. I am constantly witnessing powerful women challenging male dominance, creating subversive art, and launching events such as the Art School Ball which implements equal gender ratios for both performers and exhibiting artists.
Of course, one’s taste in art is a personal preference. But I assure you that when given the appropriate opportunity, the diverse range of art by women of colour will not disappoint you, and is more than deserving of your support.