MORE!! - Nora-Swantje Almes
Feminisms are thriving. Last month, “Equal Pay” chants dominated the celebrations of the US-women soccer team’s victory, and, coinciding with this year’s Art Basel, 50,000 people marched for the women’s strike to raise awareness for the existing pay gap. For her first Dior collection in 2017, designer Maria Grazia Chiuri printed writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We should all be feminists” on t-shirts and brought them to the shop windows of posh streets. Beyoncé used Adichie’s words in her song “Flawless” and entered the mainstream. Where are we going from here?
The imbalance of gender representation in the arts – evident in collections, collection displays, programming, and further reflected in press coverage and art market prices – has been challenged for decades by feminist activist groups (most famously the Guerilla Girls) and by feminist-minded curators. But, despite their progress, disparity is still undeniably visible and present. In Britain in 2017 only 22% of all solo shows at London’s major institutions were by female artists, and in the same year only 28% of artists represented by London galleries were female. Female artists continue to be excluded from the mainstream commercial market. These sobering statistics are contrary to the celebratory press articles that lead some cis-male white artists to complain that “all the grants are now going to women or people of colour” (pers. comm. with the author).
Maura Reilly, the New York based writer and founding curator of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, has published the book Curatorial Activism – Towards an ethics of curating (Thames & Hudson, March 2018) which is a manifesto for change in the art world (Reilly, 2018). Gathering statistics from all sectors of the so-called art world, including commercial galleries, biennials and museum collections, artists and cultural workers, Reilly’s research clearly shows the urgency of continuing to push forward for equality amid such disparity. She analyses exhibitions that exclusively focus on resisting masculinism and sexism, confronting white privilege and Western-centrism as well as challenging heterocentrism and lesbo-homophobia (Reilly, 2018). While these exhibitions have been milestones for opening up the discourse, “the real issue”, according to Lucy Lippard in her preface to Reilly’s book, “is not to be invited to more “special” or thematic exhibitions (....). More appealing is to be simply be included in the pool of respected artists when shows are being selected” (Reilly, 2018, p. 9). One-off exhibitions on feminisms, on queerness, Latin American art, Black art histories, or the occasional inclusion of notoriously critical artists such as Andrea Fraser or Hito Steyerl, do not resemble a sustainable change in the landscape of art institutions. In fact, they allow institutions to return to their heteronormative neoliberal programme feeling like they have done their part – by demonstrating their institution’s auto-critique. To draw on one of Reilly’s examples, a large-scale radical gesture by curator Camille Morineau was to rehang the Pompidou Centre’s permanent collection in 2009. The ‘new’ permanent collection, Elles, only showcased art works by female artists. For the first time in the world, a museum decided to show its collection exclusively focussing on women artists and therefore creating a completely new perspective on art histories in the 20th century. The exhibition was extended due to its success and remained on display for almost two years. The following rehang of the collection included only 10% of art works by women (Reilly, 2018, p.88). Again, the institution returned to a normative way of operating. Consequently, Morineau left the Centre Pompidou out of frustration (Reilly, 2018, p.89) and founded the not-for-profit organisation AWARE, short for Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions, with the aim to create, index and distribute information about 20th century female artists.
The art world needs to keep up with the Zeitgeist. Shows such as Richard Soultan’s “100 % Women” programme in 2019 (which presented only their female artists for a full year) are leading the way. In 2020 Marina Abramovic will be the first woman to have a solo show across the entire Main Galleries at the Royal Academy. The National Gallery will open their first solo exhibition on a historic female artist – the 17th-century Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Let’s remind ourselves, it is 2019. Feminisms are not just a t-shirt with a slogan, or a compartmentalised extra. Frieze London put female artists in a segregated section titled “Sex Work” (2017) and “Social Work” (2018) to show how female artists are made visible to the art market – by boxing them up. What is missing here is a genuine effort and commitment to much-needed structural change.
“The question for institutions should be not how to diversify per se, but how to normalise such diversity” (Flanagan, 2018), Bonaventure Ndikung, curator at large for documenta 14, director of SAVVY Berlin, stated in a recent interview. How can we alter the concept of white people, white walls, white wine (Randhawa et al., 2018), institutions and gallery models, in the long-term? The sporadic insertion of more artists of colour, female or queer artists does not currently signal a larger structural change. If diversity were normalised, intersectional inclusion would no longer be merely a trend. Structural change doesn’t come within the snap-of-a-finger but creating permanent channels of visibility for historically underrepresented artists and critically engaging with existing inequities, are important steps. Jack J. Halberstam notes in the preface of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons: “(...) we refuse to ask for recognition and instead we want to take apart, dismantle, tear down the structure that, right now, limits our ability to find each other, to see beyond it and to access the places that we know lie outside its wall” (Moten/ Harney, 2013, p. 6). He is underlining the importance of the active involvment of the historically excluded. This is what would eventually lead to sustainable change, not only on a surface level to prove political correctness. What would happen if we no longer had need for slogans on a t-shirt because feminisms were already in the main room?
Flanagan, R. (2018). Art Must Be A Space Of Dissonance: In Conversation With Bonaventure Ndikung. [online] Ignant.com. Available at: https://www.ignant.com/2018/04/27/art-must-be-a-space-of-dissonance-in-conversation-with- bonaventure-ndikung/ [Accessed 30 May 2018].
Goldberg, A. (2016). Estrangement Principle, Nightboat Books.
Moten, F. and Harney, S. (2013), The Undercommons,MINOR COMPOSITIONS.
Steedman, M. (2017), Representation of Female Artists in Britain in 2017 [online] Available at: https://freelandsfoundation.co.uk/research/representation-of-female-artists-in-britain-2017 [Accessed 18 July 2019].
Randhawa, S., Shorunke, B., Chahal, G., Fleary, S., Kolie, J., Dalilah, Z., Jean-Baptiste, L., Little, L. and McGhee, J. (2018). The White Pube: resuscitating art criticism | gal-dem. [online] gal-dem. Available at: http://www.gal-dem.com/the-white-pube/ [Accessed 30 May 2018].
Reilly, M. (2018). Curatorial Activism, Thames and Hudson