Reflecting upon the under representation of female artists

By Nanke Franks

The world of art is typically associated with a sense of creative freedom and expression; art serves as a form of social commentary and throughout history artists have contested social norms through their work.

You’d think then, in terms of representation, there would exist a balance between male and female artists. Unfortunately, once you etch away at the faux-rebellious surface, it’s apparent that the art world has as much of a deeply engrained patriarchal drive as any other industry.

You only have to briefly glance at the history of art to see what I’m getting at. It’s not uncommon that female artists are set in history as being purely muses of male-defined ‘beauty’ or are alternatively portrayed as intensely tragic individuals.

Despite the common belief that belonging to any ‘minority demographic’ is a sure-fire way of catapulting an artist into the limelight, in actual fact women who come from anything but a white, straight and middleclass background are at a greater disadvantage of getting mainstream representation.

When Manchester Art Gallery held the 2009 exhibition Angels of Anarchy, an exhibition on the theme of female surrealism, I had hoped that the exhibition would highlight the role of female artists without drawing male artists into the equation. Furthermore, with Frida Kahlo being featured on most of the advertising, emblazoned with graffiti-style wings, I had expected the exhibition to take a broader, more contemporary stance on how black female artists are portrayed. Granted, the exhibition was of an extensive size and all of the works were by female artists; nevertheless, the exhibition was rather conservative in that many of the artists chosen were from white or middleclass backgrounds. Moreover, it appeared that many of the artists featured were portrayed as having an underlying sense of characteristic emotional instability – a certain fragility and wretchedness that is all too quickly expected of and associated with female artists.

It could be reasoned that black surrealists simply didn’t exist, hence why so few were featured in the exhibition, but this proposition is pretty ludicrous. Surrealism was a worldwide movement, present in Central America and the Carribean, as demonstrated by the 1940s journal Tropiques, formed in Martinique, which featured the essays and poems of Suzanne Césaire and Lucie Thésée – two Martinician women who, along with others, used Surrealism as a form of rebellion against European culture and colonialism. Despite the significance of their work, both in terms cultural and social history, these women aren’t widely known today.

However, the dynamics are changing. Well, somewhat. This past summer, three of Manchester’s major cultural venues held a collaborative exhibition of West African art, entitled We Face Forward. Visiting the exhibition, it’s great to see such a wealth of contemporary African art. There is, however, one drawback: of the thirty-odd visual artists featured within the exhibition, only five are female artists.

In short, women, especially black women, are massively underrepresented in the art world. If you ask most people to name a key artist from a major art movement, they’ll probably name a male artist: Cubism – Picasso, Impressionism – Monet, Surrealism – Dalí, Expressionism – Kirchner, Romanticism – Waterhouse, you get the idea.

Part of the issue is that there doesn’t exist enough funding and encouragement for black women to develop themselves as artists. Without role models, black women aren’t inspired to consider a career in the arts, yet without the adequate funding, these role models will never come to be.

So, how can women artists break this cycle of suppression? It starts first with women recognising the inequality that exists and actively speaking out against it. The greater demand there is to see and read about the work of female artists, the more likely it is that galleries and publishers will invest money into exhibitions and books, which will educate society on the significance of women as artists. You can’t change history, but you can always shine a light on those who have been left in the shadow of their male counterparts.

We Face Forward is on until the 16th September and features the works of Amarachi Okafor, Lucy Azubuike, Nnenna Okore and Victoria Udondian and Hélène Amouzou. For the sake of supporting these women as artists, I would recommend readers of this blog to visit the exhibition.


About Black Feminists Manchester

This is a group for women who are ‘black’ in the political sense. I.e: women who self- identify, originate or have ancestry from global majority populations (i.e. Africa, Asia, Middle East and Latin America) multi heritage and indigenous backgrounds.
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