… is for Feminist Art.
The term “feminist art” is commonly used to refer to the Feminist Art movement beginning (particularly in New York) in the 1960s-70s, which sought to challenge the way that institutions and the public thought about women and, consequentially, women artists.
Though it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment of its inception, the movement is popularly thought to have been kicked off by art historian Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, in which she criticised the art world for failing to consider female creatives with the same seriousness with which it praised male creatives and investigated the reasons why many male artists had become giants of art history while their female contemporaries who were often as good as, if not better than they, faded into obscurity.
Key figures from the height of the Feminist Art movement include the Guerrilla Girls, Barbara Kruger, and Jenny Holzer, all of whom took their art to the streets by plastering their works across billboards, marquees, lampposts, and other public spaces. By using text and the printed word, their confrontational slogans disrupted every day sexism in the art world and also the world at large. These feminist artists didn’t want anyone to have any doubts about what they were trying to say, and they wanted to make sure we all heard them.
In Southeast Asia (and the larger postcolonial world), it’s been a little more complicated. Feminism as a cause has often been integrated within other political issues such as nationalism, colonialism, war, and religion, all of which have always disproportionately impacted women. While the feminist cause and the Feminist Art movement were kicking off in the Euro-American world, women and women artists in Southeast Asia of the 60s were battling for the liberation of their countries. Feminists and feminist artists in Southeast Asia have had to forge their own path, one that is quite distinct from that of their Western counterparts, because their struggles are unique to them. As such, many Southeast Asian women artists have refrained from identifying with the feminist movement, because they feel that it does not adequately represent them.
But feminist art doesn’t need to be art that is overtly political. It is still possible to “read” art by women through a feminist lens, as art made by any woman proffers a chance to reclaim a space within a long history of male artistic control and objectification. As John Berger has so succinctly put it, in an essay on the female nude for his seminal art text Ways of Seeing, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” In contrast to the way male sculptors and painters have depicted the female nude for centuries, consider Filipino surrealist sculptor Agnes Arellano’s Three Buddha Mothers, which depicts women as representing the cycles of birth, life, and death. These women represent sacred symbols to be considered seriously, rather than sexualised figures for the male gaze. (For more on the subject of the female nude, see our article on Reappraising the Female Nude.)
Another example of art that seeks to subvert the male gaze is a work by Malaysian artist, Engku Iman, titled Aku Keturunanmu Perempuan, a series of wax strips, with body hair still stuck to them, sewn together to make a carpet. The aestheticisation of an aspect of womanhood that is generally considered taboo subverts conventional notions of what art can be, but also of what women are allowed to talk about.
For curators and gallerists, adopting a feminist approach to art and exhibition-making could simply be about taking the trouble to discover and shed light on the work of women artists, regardless of whether their art is political or not. Female artists are still disproportionately underrepresented, when compared to male artists, by galleries and art institutions globally – and we are all the poorer for it.
[Editor’s Note: The feature image is of Filipino artist Imelda Cajipe-Endaya’s painted sculpture, Sa Plantsahan ni Marra (At Marra’s Ironing Board), 1992, currently on display at the National Gallery Singapore’s exhibition, Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s – 1990s. Cajipe-Endaya co-founded women’s art collective KASIBULAN and is a leading figure in the Filipino feminist movement.
The work is a critique of societal conventions that restrict and confine women. The tablecloth in the work is inscribed with Marra PL Lanot‘s poem Babae Kami (We are Women) written in Tagalog which, translated, reads: “Also human, not robots, nor rags; Not casseroles/ nor toilet bowls, /Not mindless dreams, /Nor images to chase in nebulae./We are women.”
It is exhibited in the section of the exhibition entitled Gender and Society, which addresses problematic gender relations in Asian society in the 1980s and contains works by various Asian female artists in response to these issues.]
Letter ‘F’ illustrated by Nadra Ahmad