In 1984, the famed Museum of Modern Art in NYC opened an exhibition titled "An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture" which claimed to feature the most important painters and sculptors of the time from 17 countries. The show featured 169 artists, of which 13 were female. There were no women of colour included.
Enter the Guerrilla Girls.
In 1985, 7 anonymous women wore gorilla masks and started an art movement called Guerrilla Girls, which is still alive and aims to fight sexism and racism in the world of visual art. At the time, it began in response to the erasure of female artists from historical and contemporary art.
Closer home, we've got the example of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group (PAG). This short-lived but extremely influential group of artists came together after the Partition in 1947 and disbanded in 1956. Originally started by 6 famous male artists, several others were associated with the group later. One of them was female painter and sculptor, Prafulla Dahanukar, whose abstractions on space would not have been out of place with the various styles within the group. She was, however, never considered an official member of the PAG and never attained the same amount of fame outside the art world.
Something similar can be said for Amrita Shergill. While she is very well-known and renowned in the art world, she isn't a prominent household name, despite the fact that she was a revolutionary who pioneered new styles in Indian art. The average person may not be able to identify her paintings or her style. Indeed, who has seen reproductions of any of her works? Hotel corridors, offices, and receptions are filled with Hussain, Raza, and Souza, but not a single Shergill can be seen in a public place.
So where does this whole thing begin? How do we talk about women in art and their work? That has been a point of contention among art historians and lovers and there appear to be two approaches to this question, each with their own set of complications:
Do we write separate books about women in the art world?
That would cause further division and exclusion of women in the art world. 'Women in art' would continue to be a separate category, isolating them from movements and eras they have influenced and been a part of.
Do we just write sections about women artists and add them to the pages of existing history books?
That would imply ignoring the fact that women have historically been discounted and disregarded in mainstream history textbooks.
There are several examples of women artists who have not received their due, like Judith Leyster and I might even argue for Amrita Shergill. In Leyster's case, several of her paintings were kept in the Louvre but were wrongly attributed to Franz Hals, a prominent male contemporary of hers.
Female artists, in general, tend to face a lot more opposition and have to deal with double standards. This brings me to women as subjects of artwork. 'The first solo feminist art exhibition' in 1971 by Margaret Harrison was shut down by the cops because they deemed her drawings to be 'too pornographic'. Yes, the work she exhibited was not child-friendly or conservative by any stretch of the imagination, but there's a catch: one of the police officers spoke to the curator and said that they didn't like the disgusting manner in which Harrison had treated the male body.
Absolutely vile; I agree. Wanna learn about what else could possibly be portrayed in a disgusting manner? I do too and it really beats me.
If reading about the systematic erasure of women artists makes you uncomfortable, fear not, for here is a list of contemporary artists you ought to check out.
1. Sheba Chhachhi The Water Diviner - Sheba Chhachhi
Sheba Chhachhi is a women's rights activist, photographer, and installation artist. Most of her installations are relevant to the place that she installs them in, and her subject matter falls under women's rights, urban transformation, and the environment.
2. Reena Saini Kallat Measurement From Evaporating Ocean - Reena Saini Kallat
Installations, drawings, paintings, mixed media, rubber stamps - Reena Saini Kallat has worked with it all. There are several conceptual undertones in her art meant to evoke questions and observation in viewers. She is interested in the role that memory plays in human society.
3. Anjolie Ela Menon Jadoo - Anjolie Ela Menon
You might have worked on canvas and seen paintings on that material, but Anjolie Ela Menon prefers not use it. Her oil paintings on masonite are what she is best known for. They encompass religious themes, portraits, and nudes. She's been recognized as one of India's leading contemporary artists, having been awarded the Padma Shri in 2000.
4. Lorna Simpson Wigs - Lorna Simpson
In 1990, she was the first African-American woman to exhibit at the prestigious Venice Biennale. Simpson primarily uses photography and video installations to portray general perceptions of African-American women within American culture.
5. Cornelia Parker Cold Dark Matter - Cornelia Parker
A sculptor and installation artist, Cornelia Parker has braved social and economic obstacles to arrive where she is now. Her work is vast, usually dark and provocative. The installation displayed here was made out of a garden shed that she got blown up by the British Army. She then suspended the fragments as if to capture the explosion process in time.
There is indeed a long way to go when it comes to women in art, both as artists and subjects. As is evident, visual art is a strong catalyst for social change.
Art is free. Tied to the reality of this world though, it's evident that artists may not be as free due to multiple reasons. There is much work to be done to enable and empower all sections of society to be free in art.