Real women are hugely under represented in public art. Using the UK as an example, research stated that out of over 900 public statues in Britain, only 158 are of actual and lone females.
The unveiling of the Emmeline Pankhurst statue, London. 1930
The most common representations of women are allegorical figures, for example representing ‘Justice’, or mythical and religious figures, such as near naked mermaids, goddesses and angels. Womanhood is thus publicly presented as abstract or illusion, objects of fantasy and projection, or vessels for announcement. This, in turn, is reflective of enduring practices to utilise women’s bodies in specific ways, including as objects of male desires and the male gaze.
That women are reflected in this way and not in terms of their lives and achievements is therefore not only indicative of their erasure from public life and societal value, but negates the idea of female humanity.
Conversely, male-centric public representation endorses the idea that men alone have guided both history and culture. In fact such perceptions are so embedded that they have become virtually unquestionable.
For centuries in the West public art has been utilised to communicate certain messages to a vast audience in order to sanction specific values and beliefs. In terms of figurative art, this may be encoded with signs of status, worth and power. A history of mostly male-only representation therefore is itself representative of and endorsing the idea of an acceptable gendered hierarchy. It is actually a form of visual propaganda, supported by ideological censorship.
Campaigners have highlighted such inequality, aiming to raise the public profile of women as integral to a fair and just society. Taxes from women equally fund public art, yet public representation remains inexcusably male.
Artist Gillian Wearing with the model of her statue for Parliament Square
In the light of such public exclusion, women-lead initiatives to improve the representation of fellow females have had some success. The first ever statue of a woman in Parliament Square, for example, depicting suffragist Millicent Fawcett, was unveiled in 2018. It is also the first ever statue in that location to be created by a woman, artist Gillian Wearing.
Unveiling of sculptor Hazel Reeves’ statue of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, 2018 – the first female statue in Manchester, UK, not of Queen Victoria
While such campaigns represent progress, they also highlight an ongoing wider disparity in the representation of women, who are, after all, half the human population. This is indicative of a shameful failure of culture. Womanhood, and indeed society itself, can only benefit from the removal of such censorship.