A place from which to continue the conversation regarding gender inequality in the arts is to acknowledge that this has been, and remains to be an international issue. Despite oppositions, artists and organizations have inspiring and well-documented histories of working with resilience through such inequalities. This article does not attempt to fully address the massive issue of gender inequality on an international scale but rather seeks to provide a glimpse into the current news around this topic as well as examples of artists who are forging forward and making a dent.
Last month, the New York Times reported the astonishing yet not surprising finding that a mere 11% of museum acquisitions were of artworks created by artists who identified as women. Since the release of this article, a necessary discussion has (re)occurred once again acknowledging the issue of inequality in the arts. The organization “National Museum of Women in the Arts,” based in Washington DC provides resources and guides for fixing the gender gap that has long existed in the arts. On the NMWA website are sources to consult for education, leadership and the art market, among others. Of this, the organization’s mission is to empower female artists with the resource of information. Furthermore, significant U.S. based feminist artist Judy Chicago recently has been acknowledged for the significant impact she has made to art history with decades of influential art through fighting the erasure of female artists such as herself.
Another historical example of a group of artists fighting gender inequality in the arts is Guerilla Girls who for decades have protested against discrimination. The message is to get female artists into museums, be that through acquisitions or even through taking collected work from storage and putting it on view. Guerilla Girls have staged protests fighting for equality in the arts over the years across the United States, the Middle East, and Europe to name a few. The drive to spread their message internationally is not an arbitrary decision, rather, it emphasizes the necessity in addressing inequality as an international, not just a localized problem, and that gender inequality in the arts has been and still persists to be a major issue. Since 2008 Elvis Richardson has reported on the representation of gender within Australia on their blog “CoUNTess: Women Count in the Art-world”. These are just a few examples that describe the organizations with mission statements to balance the scales regarding inequality in the arts. The reason for mentioning location-specific examples is to emphasize that because art happens on an international scale, it is important to set examples and even begin exchanges to reciprocally strengthen one another.
It is necessary to identify the way in which gender inequality is being defined and understood internationally. The World Health Organization offers a brief definition of gender as: "Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men, such as norms, roles, and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed." It is important to reference this international definition and to highlight that change is part of the definition itself because it touches on some of the larger issues inherent in this conversation around artworld representation and marginalization. Because gender is a social construct, and these constructs translate to expectations, and these expectations are often biased—there are many contexts in which artists are excluded from participation because they are not performing in a certain way. Those involved in the arts would not be unfamiliar with the ongoing discussion of gender inequality.
This conversation continues beyond museums and extends into other institutions such as gallery spaces, art fairs, as well as numerous other platforms. However, it must be reiterated that the issue of gender inequality in the arts is an international-scale issue. A positive move is a rise in independent curators that offer to support the arts of often marginalized persons, and encouragement of forward-thinking organizations that implement frameworks to exhibit works of artists who are not traditionally represented. This is seen in the rise of online gallery spaces.
Despite the obstacles, artists time and time again have demonstrated their resiliency to not only sustain a practice but to create meaningful dialogue and impact with their creative works through pushing back and demanding a space for their voice and work. An emerging generation of young artists shows the necessity of exchange on a larger international scale and the conceptual drive to communicate questions through the work that are both personal yet universally applicable. The following artists are a glimpse into some of the artists making an impact today. These artists are working with the exploration of some of the following concepts: body, identity, mortality, time, repetition, duration, change, and space, infinite, and timelessness. Furthermore, these artists embrace diverse, poignant concepts through contemporary approaches in mediums of photography, painting, and installation among others.
Artist Lavender Chang, born in Taiwan and lives in Singapore, is interested in the photographic medium to document traces of her existence speaking to the fleeting nature of time and mortality as both a personal and shared experience. Her photograph “Block 12, My Territory, My Dignity #6” depicts a sparsely decorated domestic interior space of a shared bedroom. There are two beds, which are pushed up against one another. The minimal design of the space is illuminated by the sunlight pouring in from the exterior space of the world outside the bedroom walls. The intimate space that Chang captures and presents permits a viewer to understand the shared space of this room to be both a physical and psychological reality. Few items adorn the walls, most of which are markers of standardized timekeeping such as the clock and several copies of daily and monthly calendars. Time and the multifaceted questions it raises contingent on what bodies, what time and what spaces are being addressed are evoked here.
Moving from the domestic space into a discussion of the infinite potentials of external space artist Lexi Sun is a multidisciplinary artist interested in the notion of repetition in various forms. She was born in China and lives in Germany, and is interested in addressing the way that we understand ourselves through her artistic practice. Her belief is that through repetition in and of itself that infinity can be achieved. As seen in her series “In a minute, I have a minute” the composition consists of two subjects dressed in identical pants, blazers, and tops. The series successively moves from a full-body capture of the two figures seated side by size, to a portrait capture of the two figures faces pressed against one another.
In the third version, an intimate close up on the side of one of the figures faces while the other looks past the figure and into the viewer space is seen. The arrangement of these figures in different locations and proximities to the camera lens speaks of the multiplicity of ways that we can see the world, thus affecting the way in which we understand reality. Sun’s title “In a minute, I have a minute” is a provocative statement because it means that there is not only a shared experience of time, but that time is the same time for everyone. To reiterate, time is a crucial element in both Sun and Chang’s works on conceptual and formal levels.
Moving on, the work “Raw” by Jee Young Lee, the artist works with notions of reality which challenge the viewer to consider where the imagined spaces that Lee creates in her compositions begin and end. In the work, the artist sits in a red dress at a table set for one. The room is covered with flowers blooming on vines that hint at a growth that will fill the space (9). The surreal scene is both alluring and claustrophobic at once; a door slightly ajar in the background of the composition offers the option for potential escape. The artist transports the viewer from their own headspace into her imagined world. Her face is turned away from the camera, which further adds to the mystery of the space she inhabits. Lee lives and works in Korea.
Lastly, artist Emily Lau’s “In the Box” incorporates the iconic imagery of Alice from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in a ragdoll position clasping a UFO saucer in the fingers of her right hand. The strange surrealist assortment of images creates tension within this composition. The strangeness is further emphasized by the pigeon toe stance of the figure Alice, which appears to balance on a pile of snow until one notices the astronaut planting a flag on what would contextually be the moon’s surface. The space between dream and reality, between interior and exterior, is emphasized through this imagery as an intimate, psychological interior space. Lau was born in China, raised in Hong Kong and now living and working in France.
Conclusively, there is much work to be done still regarding gender inequality in the arts. Now more than ever, artists need to continue to challenge the systems responsible for inequality. It is essential that artists and persons in positions of privilege extend a literal or metaphorical hand to assist others. Persons that are able to offer help should make a considered effort to do so. Reflexivity is required on behalf of organizations such as galleries and museums to ensure that gender inequality is addressed in a proactive and forward-thinking manner. With international mobility, advocacy for gender inequality and network of artists are all essential components to continue to progress beyond the current situation.
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