Artworks and Artists of Feminist Art
Some Living Women Artists/Last Supper
Mary Beth Edelson used an image of Leonardo da Vinci's famous mural as the base of this collage to which she affixed the heads of notable female artists in place of the original's men. Christ was covered with a photo of Georgia O'Keeffe. Aside from challenging the painting's male-only club, it also confronted the subordination of women often found in religion. The piece quickly became one of those most iconic images of Feminist Art and reinforced the movement's desire to negate women's absence from much historical documentation.
Lithograph on paper - Smithsonian American Art Museum
The installation Womanhouse encompassed an entire house in residential Hollywood organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro as the culmination of the Feminist Art Program (FAP) at California Institute for the Arts in 1972. The twenty-one all-female students first renovated the house, which had been previously marked for demolition, then installed site-specific art environments within the interior spaces that ranged from the sculptural figure of a woman trapped within a linen closet to the kitchen where walls and ceiling were covered with fried eggs that morphed into breasts. Many of the artists also created performances that took place within Womanhouse to further address the relationship between women and the home.
The entire collaborative piece was about a woman's reclaiming of domestic space from one in which she was positioned as merely a wife and mother to one in which she was seen as a fully expressive being unconfined by gender assignment. This challenged traditional female roles and gave women a new realm to present their views within a thoroughly integrated context of art and life.
Mixed media site installation
In 1974, when artist Lynda Benglis was feeling underrepresented in the male-heavy art community, she reacted by creating a series of advertisements placed in magazines that took critical stabs at traditional depictions of women in the media. Her most famous ad was run in ArtForum in which she promoted her upcoming show at Paula Cooper Gallery by posing nude, holding a double-headed dildo, with sunglasses covering her eyes. She paid $3,000 for the ad, a small price for something that would establish her as a major player in Feminist Art history. Also, by paying for the ad, Benglis was able to assure her voice would be heard without editing or censorship. She later cast a series of sculptures of the dildo, bent into a smile, a cheeky "f*** you" to the male-dominated art institutions.
Anatomy of a Kimono
Anatomy of a Kimono is one of many "femmages" Schapiro created, starting in the mid-1970s, and is based on the patterns of Japanese kimonos, fans, and robes. Schapiro used the term femmage to describe works that combined collage, painting, fabric, embroidery, and other "high art" and "decorative art" techniques, simultaneously highlighting women's relation to those materials and processes.
Here, the artist collected donated handkerchiefs while touring the country and cobbled them together with other fabrics to form ten large panels filled with Japanese-inspired shapes. The work adopts the monumental scale of Abstract Expressionist canvases, but by using fabric instead of paint, Schapiro elevates a utilitarian and feminine material to the realm of "high art."
Fabric and acrylic on canvas - Private Collection
Semiotics of the Kitchen
Now one of the canonical works of feminist video art, Semiotics of the Kitchen examines women's bondage within the context of home through the trope of the televised cooking show. In it, we see Rosler as a self-described "anti-Julia Child" as she picks up an alphabetized stream of kitchen utensils (some strange and antiquated) and gives them random names before violently demonstrating their use with pantomime. The woman and her implements disrupt the familiar system of everyday meanings - the safely understood signs of food production erupt into anger. In listing the kitchen implements, states Rosler, "when the woman speaks, she names her own oppression." She, like many feminist artists of the 1970s, wished to interrupt and change the preconceived notions about women's roles within the home, and how these were represented in mass media.
Black and white video with sound - Electronic Arts Intermix
At a 1975 exhibition called "Women Here and Now", Carolee Schneemann performed the unforgettable Interior Scroll. For the piece, she undressed in front of an audience until she was wearing only an apron. Then, while reading from her book Cézanne, She was a Great Painter (1975), she began to paint her body. Afterwards, she stripped completely and shockingly began to pull a scroll of paper from her vagina while reading its contents aloud. The text was inspired by a recording she had made of a filmmaker talking about women and how they were unable to access certain traits such as logic and rationality, which he described as specifically male. He concluded that women were only capable of stereotypical attributes such as intuition, emotion, etc. By pulling the scroll from literally inside her own body, Schneemann made the point that only a woman could truly represent the female experience or speak on its behalf - anything else was hearsay. By placing her vagina front and center, and using it to birth a provocative message, she proved no longer interested in suppressing the authentic feminine, or asking permission to fully inhabit her female sexuality or reality.
The Dinner Party
The Dinner Party is one of the most well-known pieces of Feminist Art in existence and is permanently housed at the Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. The installation consists of a large banquet table with place settings for thirty-nine notable women from history and mythology. The settings have gold ceramic chalices and porcelain plates painted with butterfly- and vulva-inspired designs representing Mother Nature, the vagina, and the life-giving properties of being female. By doing this, Chicago offered unabashed femininity on the plate rather than a meal cooked by a woman whose identity would be cloaked passively behind her food offering. In addition to the thirty-nine settings, there are the names of 999 other women painted on the tiles below the triangular table.
The Dinner Party participates in the feminist revision of history, initiated during the 1970s, in which artists worked to rediscover lost role models for women, rewriting the past that had previously only included male voices. In the combination of intricately wrought textiles, tile, and porcelain, Chicago reclaimed the realm of "high art" to include what had traditionally been relegated to the lower status of "women's work."
Painted porcelain plates, silverware, chalices, fabric, tiles - The Brooklyn Museum, New York City
In Mourning and In Rage
Organized by artists Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, In Mourning and In Rage was a powerful example of Feminist Art's use of current events to broaden social awareness around women's issues and affect real change. In 1977 the news was filled with stories of the "Hillside Strangler" - a particularly chilling time in Los Angeles in which a serial killer was strangling women and dumping their bodies on roadsides. A climate of fear and superstition arose amongst the female population as tales of the seemingly random killings dominated the media along with personal glimpses into the lives of the victims. Lacy and Labowitz took the opportunity to engage the community during this time by putting the tragic events through the lens of a feminist analysis of violence. Along with participants from the Woman's Building, the Rape Hotline Alliance, and the City Council they orchestrated a public demonstration of rage and grief in which a motorcade of sixty women followed a hearse to City Hall. Once there, ten women robed in black climbed from the hearse to the front steps and each announced a form of violence against women to which the women in attendance replied loudly, "In memory of our sisters, we fight back!" The performance was largely covered in the press and even spurred the Rape Hotline Alliance to start self-defense classes.
El Tendedero (The Clothesline)
Early Mexican Feminist artist Mónica Mayer fused art and activism by passing out over 800 pink papers to women of various classes, ages, and ethnic backgrounds in Mexico City. Each card had the prompt, “As a woman, what I most hate about my city is…” The women then filled in the cards with their responses (with many recurring problems such as sexual harassment, feeling unsafe, and suffering various forms of abuse), which were then hung along a clothesline in a participatory installation that formed part of the New Tendencies exhibition which aimed to foreground work that embodied a “spirit of searching, challenging, and rebelling.”
Mexican-Canadian cultural historian Gabriela Aceves Sepúlveda writes that “By installing a clothesline in an art museum to exhibit the ways in which women’s experience of urban space was mediated throughout their bodies in highly gendered and sexualized terms, Mayer was also transgressing the divide between the public and the private, a key issue at the time for feminist artists and activists. […] In Spanish, the word tendedero refers not only to a place of female domestic labor (where women gather to hang clothes after washing them); the term is also used pejoratively to signal a place where women gather to talk, gossip, and reveal things to one another. […] Mayer’s El Tendedero [thus] elevated female domestic labor to the stature of art and thus momentarily transformed the art museum into a public forum where women’s everyday experiences could be discussed and made visible.”
Mayer had been active in feminist activism in Mexico throughout the 1970s, which she described as diverse yet at times polarized, and characterized by “violent discussions, radical attitudes, [and] painful recriminations.” She also read texts by Feminist activists and artists in the United States, such as Judy Chicago, and shortly after the New Tendencies exhibition, she traveled to Los Angeles to study at the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW), where she also connected with art historian Arlene Raven and artist Suzanne Lacy (whose 1977 participatory work Three Weeks in May, which aimed to visually present occurrences of rape in Los Angeles on a map, influenced Mayer’s own art making approach). Mayer took her experiences and the methodologies she had learned in Los Angeles back to Mexico, where she influenced many other local feminist activists and artists, for instance, through her involvement in the Feminist Women’s Coalition, and through initiatives she developed that brought American Feminist artists to Mexico and vice-versa, for the purposes of holding collaborative workshops and exhibitions, thereby continuing the transnational dialogue and knowledge-exchange process.
Pink paper, clotheslines, clothespins - Museum of Modern Art, Mexico City
Untitled (I shop therefore I am)
This piece is characteristic of Kruger's early work, depicting a phrase placed over a photographic image from a newspaper or magazine. Kruger first worked in magazine advertising, and used her graphic design expertise in her art. The slogan in this work refers to images of women in the media, specifically product advertisements designed for women, which are usually created by men. It is a reminder that most of the media that is geared toward women is based on men's assumptions about women's desires, lives, and ideals, interrogating the belief that women only need material objects to feel happy and that men can keep them under their control by those means. Kruger's work is accessible and direct, and was incredibly influential among the artists of the 1980s.
THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING A WOMAN ARTIST
This is one of the Guerrilla Girls' early posters, and exemplifies their strategy of using humor to defuse and break down discrimination and prejudice within the art world. Adopting a tongue-in-cheek tone, they list the "advantages" that still faced women artists in the late 1980s, like "Knowing your career might pick up after you're eighty."
Guerilla Girl "Lee Krasner" stated, "The world of High Art, the kind that gets into museums and history books, is run by a very small group of people. Our posters have proved over and over again that these people, no matter how smart or good-intentioned, have been biased against women and artists of color." This poster reflects how pervasive that bias was in 1989, despite almost two decades of feminist activism. The fact that the Guerrilla Girls are still making posters and appearing globally implies that this problem persists to this day.
Rainbow Series #10
South African-born, New York-based artist Candice Breitz, created the works in her Rainbow Series by cutting, combining, and pasting sections of women’s bodies (particularly Black tribeswomen’s bodies from tourist postcard photographs presenting an idea of an exotic, “primitive" Africa, and White women’s bodies from Western pornographic magazines which began to flood into South Africa during the Post-Apartheid era). The end result became jarring, monstrous-looking images, reminiscent of Hannah Hoch’s Ethnographic Museum photomontage series of 1924-30 in which the artist juxtaposed images of women from fashion magazines with images of tribal art and masks, creating hybrid figures that drew a parallel between the inferior treatment of both women and “primitive” peoples in Weimar, Germany at the time.
The title of Breitz’s Rainbow Series references the South African post-apartheid public relations strategy of referring to and visually presenting the country as, the “Rainbow Nation,” but, which, in Breitz’s view, “elide[d] significant cultural differences amongst South Africans in favour of the construction of a homogeneous and somehow cohesive national subject.” Nigerian curator, critic, and art historian Okwui Enwezor asserts that through this series, Breitz equated the “colonial ethnographic capture of the black body as the same as pornographic capture of white women.” Art historian Yilmaz Dziewior understands Breitz’s work as taking on the perspective of intersectional feminism (in which issues of sex and gender cannot be isolated from other issues of identity like race and sexuality), asserting that in this and other series, Breitz “addresses themes of racial discrimination, sexism, and the exotic connotations of the gaze directed at the African woman.”
Moreover, the act of literally cutting up women, for Breitz, derived from her “constant awareness of just how many women are getting cut up out there, literally or otherwise.” Many scholars, and even Breitz herself, recognize a parallel between her use of cutting in her art making, and French artist ORLAN’s approach to cutting up her own body in her performative works of the 1990s that document her undergoing a series of plastic surgeries to alter her appearance. While many viewers understandably find Breitz’s Rainbow Series to be offensive and objectionable, she argues that "Women should confront the capacity of representation to violate, rather than believing they can avoid this sense of violation, somehow keep their hands clean and their minds pure by avoiding imagery which they find threatening.”
Miss Hybrid 3
Through her drawings, photographs, and multimedia works, Iranian artist Shirin Aliabadi explored the effects of contemporary consumer culture on the women of Iran, and the tension between many women’s desire to follow Western trends and their loyalty to their national traditions. In her Miss Hybrid series, she used the simple portrait photograph format to present unconventional images of Iranian women, as in Miss Hybrid #3, which shows a woman with bleached-blonde hair, a purple jean jacket, a bandage on her nose (indicating a recent rhinoplasty), and a trendy, striped (rather than drab and monochromatic) headscarf, blowing a bubble of bright purple chewing gum. The stark black background further emphasizes the vibrancy of the subject who, although following tradition to an extent in terms of the modesty of her outfit and her use of a headscarf, also defies tradition through the other elements of her appearance.
Aliabadi is also well-known for her 2005 series Girls in Cars, which was inspired by her experiences driving around Tehran and seeing young girls in cars, rebelling against traditional expectations by being dressed up to go party, playing loud music, and hollering at boys through their windows. As she put it, “Although respectful of the laws, they were having fun,” and she wanted to capture these images to counter the common international perception of Iran as a place were women were oppressed, “chained by tradition and the hijab,” and certainly not allowed to deviate from the prescribed norms of Iran. In this way, her work is playfully political. She once asserted that “I don’t believe that you automatically become a rebel with a Hermès scarf around your neck, but in the context of the society in which we grew up, within an educational system that has different values to those in the West, the phenomenon of fashion turns into an interesting paradox. But ultimately, these young women’s concern is not to overthrow the government but to have fun.”
Aliabadi was educated in Paris, split her time between France and Iran, and exhibited her work internationally. Aliabadi also collaborated with her husband, artist Farhad Moshiri, on series such as Operation Supermarket (2008), in which the couple took everyday consumer products like chocolate bars, cereal boxes, and cleaning products, and replaced the logos and brand names with texts that mocked the effects of globalized consumerism (such as “WE ARE ALL AMERICANS.”) Cultural historian Shiva Balaghi asserts that “Although she made art in Iran and about Iran, her art spoke to more universal issues — about gendered representation, about the politics of the everyday, about urban life, about the beauty industry and consumerism. And about tolerance.”
Sadly, the artist passed away due to cancer in 2018, at the young age of 45, yet her work has no doubt opened a pathway, not only for future female artists in Iran to push the limits of how they can depict feminist ideals in their art, but also for all Iranian women to explore their identity and the boundaries between tradition and contemporary, global culture.
Inkjet print in plexiglass