Subverting the Orientalist Gaze

During the 19th century a European art movement defined as ‘Orientalism’ began to flourish. The artworks of Western artists depicting richly sensual, colourful and exotic worlds beyond Europe became highly fashionable. Such artistic interpretations included Western depictions of an amalgamated ‘Near East’, a simplified and often demeaning vision of the cultures of North Africa, the Middle East and Turkey. In turn, such portrayals have had lasting impact and influence.


(19thc artworks by Ingres and Delacroix)

Such ideals were embedded by creating a binary between ‘East’ and ‘West’ supported by positive and negative assertions and mythology. Orientalist art incorporated detrimental views of ‘non-Western’ people and societies corresponded to colonialism, acting as visual propaganda for European Imperialism. In turn, framed through the eyes of colonizers, complex cultures were often reduced to exotic and primitive stereotypes. In doing so the West was given validation for their perceived right to conquer and rule, claiming intellectual, social and political superiority.

The depiction of ‘non-Western’ women by Western artists had it’s own particular meaning. Men were the vast majority of producers and consumers of art in European societies and therefore controlled and propagated the image of womanhood and the ideals of femininity. Women from beyond the borders of Europe however, were defined by white men in particular racist and misogynistic depictions.


(20thc artworks by Matisse and Picasso)


The Orientalist motif of the eroticised and exoticised Arab/Muslim woman was shaped around a colonial and patriarchal agenda. Designed to titillate the white male gaze, images  of ‘the harem’ became a particular conduit for European male sexual fantasy. The concept of a man’s right to access such spaces is one associated with domination and control.


blog 34
(Artwork by contemporary Turkish artist Selma Gürbüz)
Images of naked women as passive exotic objects for the white voyeur became a common theme. Associations with lesbianism, debauchery and sexual availability for the white colonizer fulfilled the desires of white men, while leaving the ideal of the pure and virtuous white woman intact. However, ‘harem women’ were often portrayed with very white skin as restricted open sexual desire for white women was projected through Orientalist fantasy.  Erotic and exotic stereotypes of Arab and Muslim women suited an agenda of imperialist control and a reality in which white male sexual domination and abuse could exist.
(Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi, Les Femmes du Maroc: Harem Woman #1, 2008)
To counteract such embedded racist and misogynistic mythology, in recent decades many North African, Middle Eastern and Turkish women artists have set out to subvert the visions of the Orientalists.
blog 34blog 34blog 34
Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi’s artwork, for example, incorporates and explores many of the exotic motifs employed by the Orientalist painters such as Ingres and Delacroix. While enjoying the aesthetics involved however, the artist as an Arab and Muslim woman is also subverting the fantasy and claiming it as her own. In turn, Essaydi not only confronts white Eurocentric control of the female body, but also the oppressive patriarchal divide created within her own contemporary culture.
Lalla Essaydi, Harem #19b, 2009 (1)
(Lalla Essaydi, Harem #19b, 2009)
Algerian artist, Houria Niati’s painting ‘No to Torture’ questions the exotic stereotype of Algerian women represented within Orientalist art. The artist takes a stance against false narratives from those outside of the culture she herself is part of. This is both in relation to colonizers and patriarchs, to herself as an Algerian and also as a woman.
blog 32
(No To Torture (1984) by Algerian artist Houria Niati)

Likewise, Turkish artist Gülsün Karamustafa aims to deconstruct the Orientalist mythology. The artist reveals aspects of the Western artists work to highlight the racism and misogyny involved, therefore revealing their colonialist and anti-woman agenda.

blog 31
(Turkish artist Gülsün Karamustafa, Double Action Series for Oriental Fantasies 1999-2000)
Such re-framing of colonialist male artwork enables the artists to dismantle the hugely damaging and influential fantasies and narratives encoded into such paintings. In turn, women once portrayed as merely exotic toys have claimed back their own representation.
(Lalla Essaydi, Les Femmes Du Maroc, La Grande Odalisque, 2008).















Women’s Liberation of Art

In a late 1960s/early 1970s Western context incorporating civil rights demonstrations, gay liberation, questioning of class privilege and new discourses on post-colonial theory, challenges to all existing social conventions and hierarchies began pervading society, politics and culture. The movement for the liberation of woman was a major part of such a social uprising. Concerns such as self-determination and representation of sex, class, racial, cultural and sexual identity were also increasingly apparent in art therefore.

This was a cultural era in which art historians and academics began theorising art as moving away from the modernist theories and practices which had previously governed mainstream culture in the twentieth century. It was therefore defined as post-modernism.

blo 23

(Elizabeth Catlett, ‘Homage to My Young Black Sisters’ (1968))

In terms of the production of art, many artists were beginning to address a variety of political, social and philosophical issues. Contemporary art was also being characterised as incorporating an assortment of radical new ideas and practices from performance to land art.

Artists themselves were also beginning to typify  those who had previously been marginalised due to sex, sexuality, locale, disability or ethnicity for example. In turn, those who had been physically and ideologically omitted from the systems and institutions of the Western cultural world began to inspire a whole diverse and complex philosophical movement on artistic expression.

As the latter twentieth century continued, many theorists and art historians, informed by anthropological and sociological studies and developments, have analysed the idea of cultural exclusion and oppression. Within this, with growing calls for women’s liberation, came a corresponding questioning of culture in terms of the role of gender and art.

blog 22

(Womanhouse (1972), feminist art installation and performance space organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro)

‘Woman’s Art’ (1972) by Austrian artist and writer Valie Export, for example, was a manifesto that was produced for the feminist art exhibition ‘MAGNA’ in 1972.  Writing at the time, Export highlighted how historical and contemporary male control of female representation had created a reality shaped by men and informed by masculinity. She stated that ideas of womanhood had been created to suit a culture suppressing women’s own language and production. Export called for female self-awareness that challenged oppressive social expectations and artistic conventions. The writer demanded the right for women to develop an autonomous image of themselves in order to transform society.

blog 24

(Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your body is a battleground) (1989))

The art historians Parker and Pollock, in their landmark book Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (1981), utilised feminist analysis to explore constructions of gender and art history. Such theorists not only identified female exclusion from representation as artistic producers, but also investigated how art is informed by particular ideological concepts involved in the construction of masculinity and femininity. This included exploring representation as indicative of an existing sexual and social hierarchy.

In turn, black feminist theorists such as bell hooks have discussed the particular oppression of black women in terms of gender and race in accordance with representation and access.  The issue of sexist and racist iconography in culture and the negative stereotypes of black females that have ensued, in addition to systematic exclusion on the grounds of sex and race,  have been identified and explored.

blog 26

(Adrian Piper, Catalysis III, 1970, from a series of conceptual performances in Manhattan that violated social norms of public behaviour. The artist addressed ostracism, otherness, racial “passing,” and racism)

Feminist theorists  defined the importance of analysis of the creativity of women in comparison to (white) male production of art. Interpretation was considered in conjunction with such concepts as, for example, ‘the male gaze’ and the idea of an ‘oppressed personality’ imposed on women, to reflect the limiting conditions on the production and reading of artworks.

blog 27

(Valie EXPORT, The Birth Madonna , 1976)

Defining the issue of marginalisation was certainly integral to this post-modern period. However, despite the rise in women producing challenging work as a result, art must be viewed within the wider context of a culture in which ‘woman’ is continuing to be (largely) “constructed by man” as Valie Export stated.









The Pioneering Women of Inuit Arts

In contrast to the Western art world where women have endured cultural exclusion, in the Inuit society of Cape Dorset, Canada, it is the women who are recognised as the leaders of the contemporary Inuit art movement.


(Pitaloosie Saila, Dorset Woman (1972))

In the culture of the Inuits, female artists have won the most awards and accolades, and have achieved the highest prices at auction for their artworks and received worldwide recognition.

The Dorset Culture dates back to around 600 BCE, and has a tradition of producing artworks and sculpture depicting a variety of landscapes, activities and animals common to the Inuits, such as bears, birds, seals, caribou and whales. However the work also contains a ritualistic and spiritual significance relating to the shamanic beliefs of the people.

kenny 6

(Kenojuak Ashevak, Spirit of the Raven, 1979)

In the mid 20th century, printing techniques were introduced to the community, such as stencilling and block printing. As many artists were already familiar with carving techniques and due to the availability of the materials, stone printing was especially accessible. Female artists carved their own stones for the process.


(The print block for Helen Kalvak’s The Power of Amulets (1987))

kenny 4

(Kenojuak Ashevak, Rabbit Eating Seaweed (1958))

Artists such as Kenojuak Ashevak began producing works in what a Western reading would describe as semi abstract, naive or naturalistic style. This was to prove popular to European and American tastes in an era of Western modernism. In turn, Ashevak’s first print, Rabbit Eating Seaweed (1958) was well received in a burgeoning global art market. Subsequently the artist went on to become the most well known of all Inuit artists of the 20th century.


(Kenojuak Ashevak, Enchanted Owl, 1960 )

Ashevak was born the daughter of a shaman, into a traditional life of nomadic tribal hunting on the southern coast of Baffin Island. It was the role of women to cut and work skins and furs, an intricate and skilful process involving design work, contrasting colours and even pictorial arrangements. These were thought to be comparable and easily transferable skills/talents and processes to producing the patterns and forms involved in graphics, drawing, painting and printmaking.


(Kenojuak Ashevak, 1963)

Co-operatives were created in which art could be produced in a changing economy for the Inuit people. Women artists often shared any economic gain, investing into the artistic processes in order to maintain community productivity.


(Kenojuak Ashevak, 2013)

Artists such as Mayoreak Ashoona, Pitseolak Ashoona, Pitaloosie Sailaand, Helen Kalvak and many more Inuit women artists have emerged and gained success. Each artist, in turn, clearly has an individual style whether reflecting dreams, goddesses, shamanic shape-shifting, evolving camp life or landscapes. Themes relating to the artists as women and their own particular experience such as memories of girlhood, motherhood and family life are however, a common thread between the artists.

helen kalvak

  (Helen Kalvak, Adopted Sons (1966))
The artworks of the Inuit women reflect the intimacy of particular human lives, women’s experience, spirituality and daily life creating a fascinating insight into a culture with a history of rich traditions and values, however, from a female perspective. Their work is both intriguing and creativity inspiring in doing so.









Personal and Political, Women’s Performance Art

When the body is central to artistic production and representation, the personal and the political meet. Performance art itself has therefore been a medium utilised by those often marginalised.

The practice has modernist avant-garde (Dadaist) origins, and was also employed by groups such as Fluxus and the neo avant-garde ‘happenings’ of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Feminism however, played a significant role in the continuation of the medium into the latter part of the twentieth century. Performance has been especially relevant to female artists who aimed to counter female stereotypes while having artistic agency.

carol scheeman

(Carolee Schneemann, Eye Body #1 1963)

The rise in the use of performance art came at an era of calls for women’s liberation. By utilising the medium artists were able to question the ‘subject-object’ relationship inherent in many male produced artworks. The female performance artist could also subvert assumptions of the perceived artistic masculine mastery of high art, by emphasizing her own production and agency.

One of the forerunners of feminist performance art is Carolee Schneemann. In her ground breaking series Eye Body (1963), the artist presented herself as paint smeared and naked among various objects. The image was not one of passivity but of confrontation in her reclamation and active embodiment of the female nude.

The medium has been utilised to highlight many issues of ‘difference’. As matters such as gender role have been explored within evolving feminist analysis, so in turn, have debates arisen around selfhood and identity in conjunction with ideas of ‘otherness’ surrounding culture, race, disability and locale, for example.

Cuban artist Ana Mendieta’s performance work has explored not only her experience of womanhood but ideas of her identity in terms of place and ethnicity .


(Ana Mendieta, Imagen de Yagul, 1973)

The artist created many outdoor performances in which the focus is on the landscape and goddess-like female body. The use of the medium enabled the work to be read in terms of empowered and iconic female imagery in addition to the transitory nature of life and meaning. The work has been perceived as inspired by Mendieta’s feminist politics, Cuban heritage and exiled status.

buf 2

(Lisa Bufano, Home is not home , 2011)

Interdisciplinary artist Lisa Bufano, who legs and fingers were amputated when she was 21 due to illness, also utilised performance. Despite the various props and prosthetics the artist used, the medium enabled an intimate focus on the body as a central theme of her work. This, in turn, raised particular questions on perceptions of the female body in terms of disability, in addition to the artist’s own telling of her personal experience.

Women artists utilised performance as a medium as it enabled and reflected self-ownership of the body and significantly – the female body, which had been represented and controlled for centuries by male artists.


Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was an early 20th century (1920’s-30’s) literary, artistic, and intellectual movement in Harlem, New York. As African-Americans migrated from rural Southern plantation slavery to areas such as the US urban North East, communities were formed and civil rights sought for.


This, in turn, creating the foundations for black cultural expression to manifest and become globally influential.


Lois Mailou Jones in her Paris studio, c. 1938


Sculptor Selma Burke

Within this movement there were many women who were artists such as Augusta Savage, Selma Burke, Elizabeth Prophet and Lois Maillou Jones. The blossoming of  creative African-American female talent had, in turn, been enabled by previous sister pioneers of the art world such as Edmonia Lewis.

In the 19th century, Lewis was the first African/Native American sculptor to gain international recognition. The artist lived for many years in the European cities of Rome and London, and her pioneering work included African-American and abolitionist themes.


Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free (1867), the emancipation of African-American slaves after the Civil War

Like Lewis however, the women of the Harlem Renaissance faced prejudices of both race and sex. They braved not only the ongoing hostile racist environment of exclusion and suppression but also the challenge of gaining independence as women to pursue their artistic goals.

lmj 1

Two Women, 1950 painting by Lois Mailou Jones

The racial and gendered prejudices of the institutions of the art and outside world challenged the ambitions of artists such as Lois Mailou Jones. While living in North Carolina, for example, the artist was subject to the humiliation of segregation, forcing her to  move north. Despite the racist injustices she endured, Jones eventually studied art abroad, becoming a highly influential, internationally exhibited artist and educator during the Harlem Renaissance. She later became Professor of design at Howard University in Washington, D.C.


Lois Mailou Jones, Self-Portrait, 1930’s

Like Jones, Augusta Savage also became influential in the movement. When struggling with poverty, the Harlem community, including  African-American women’s groups, fund raised to send the artist to Paris to study. Later, in 1934, Savage became the first African-American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.

har 88

Augusta Savage in the studio, 1939

In turn, such artists’ talent and creative persistence in the face of adversity aided in forging the idea of the “New Negro Woman”, a complex cultural identity for African-American females based on intellect and creativity.

This was an early voice for the civil rights movement and the creation of an intellectual role for black women in both the arts and wider society.

The Dinner Party (1979) by Judy Chicago

In 1979 US artist Judy Chicago exhibited her ground breaking and iconic (collaborative) installation The Dinner Party (1979). The work is viewed as the first epic feminist artwork.


The Dinner Party took over five years to complete, beginning in 1974, within an era of many challenges to the white male status quo, including a fervent call for women’s liberation. A consequence of this blossoming movement on culture was a rise in the assertive voices of female artists, parallel to the work of feminist academics rescuing significant women lost to a male-centric recording of history. The Dinner Party, in turn, would become the meeting place of  women’s creativity and the diverse brilliance of female lives, all finally and rightfully honoured.

Creating as a collaborative effort involving many volunteers, the installation comprises of a large triangular shaped table with place settings for thirty nine people. Each section measures nearly fifteen meters long, with thirteen place settings on each side of the work. Each place is dressed uniquely with a hand painted china plate decorated with a vulva motif and individually embroidered runner addressed to a mythical or historically significant woman. All of which was intended to promote not only the importance of female heritage, but also ‘women’s arts’, historically labelled as lesser art-forms worked by anonymous creators.


The installation caused much controversy in the art world not only for its emphasis on women, but also because a female artist had created a work reflecting (shockingly!) positive imagery of their genitalia.


Feminist theorists however highlighted the work for encouraging women artists in utilising their own voice and for the artist’s agency and empowered representation of the female both culturally and sexually. Chicago’s employment of the domestic setting also subverted traditional ideas of the female artist trapped within the private rather than public realm by creating a dinner party intended for the world.

The viewer is also invited to the party.


The work not only highlights ideas of female production but also challenges the very structures of a male-dominated culture. In this way, through the lives of Mary Shelly and Sappho or Sojourner Truth and Hatshepsut, as a few examples of the guests here, The Dinner Party is a statement of reclamation and celebration of ALL females.

Because men have a history, it is difficult for them to imagine what it is like to grow up without one, or the sense of personal expansion that comes from discovering that we women have a worthy heritage Judy Chicago.