Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis, Pioneering Sculptor

Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis (1844-1907) was a US sculptor and was the first artist of African-American and Native American heritage to gain international fame in the Western art world.

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Lewis began her art studies at Oberlin College, which was not only one of the first higher educational institutions in the US to admit women, but also to allow entry to people of colour.

In 1864 Lewis moved to Boston to pursue her wish to become a sculptor and it was here she gained a tutor in the genre. In an era of slavery, Lewis was utilised as a symbol by white abolitionists and by the abolitionist press. However, the sculptor began to create works reflecting her own perceptions of the issues surrounding her, depicting abolitionist, African American, Native American and also religious and classical themes.

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Edmonia Lewis: Forever Free, 1867 i. Celebrates the end of the American Civil War and the emancipation of slaves

In the following years Lewis moved to Rome where she worked relentlessly on her sculptures. She lived in a bohemian, expat colony and became involved in the lesbian art circles of the city. Lewis herself is thought to have had same-sex relationships. The sculptor was professionally supported there by lesbian actress Charlotte Cushman and sculptor Harriet Hosmer who were already established on this scene.

Lewis found a greater freedom in Italy than in the US as Rome appeared to offer a more tolerant and less racially divided society. She worked in a Neoclassical style and also in the area of naturalism. The sculptor continued to pursue themes which were integral to her personal and political outlook, concentrating on sculpture that related to African/Native American lives. However much of the work the sculptor created was deliberately appealing to a white European/Western audience as the white economically controlled market dictated certain aesthetics. This has to be viewed within the historical context of an oppressive and limiting culture.

However as Lewis’ work began to sell for large amounts of money, as her reputation and fame grew, she may certainly be viewed as a shrewd and highly influential pioneer within the art world for women of colour.

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Edmonia Lewis: Hiawatha, marble, 1868

Her work ‘Death of Cleopatra’ was perhaps the major turning point in her career. It was exhibited in Philadelphia, at the first official World Fair to celebrate the Declaration of Independence. Few white women had access to exhibit their work on such a large stage in that era, let alone a woman of colour. Critics highlighted Lewis’s original approach and this, in turn, lead to later commissions from the President among others high ranking people in US society.


Edmonia Lewis: The Death of Cleopatra, marble, 1867

It is believed that Lewis spent the last months of her life in Hammersmith, London and that she is buried in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, in the city.

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Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis deserves huge respect for her place in the history of women’s art and significantly in the struggle of women of colour in the arts and wider culture.




See Red Women’s Workshop

The London based See Red Women’s Workshop came to life in 1973 and finally stopped producing artworks / posters in 1990. This women-only printing collective was foundered on the premise of counteracting and challenging the negative imagery focusing on females in the media and the advertising industry, later supporting a wide range of community projects.

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Part of the ethos of the collective was to create a positive environment for women to work within the group, which in turn reflected the feminist politics of the age. Many of those involved had already experienced women’s consciousness raising groups and had also previously worked in radical groups. In turn, the artwork that was produced was not credited to a single artist but regarded as a collective effort. This lack of ego, individualism and hierarchy, with a focus on the collective was certainly viewed as connecting to ideas of sisterhood and indicative of women-only collaboration.

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It is imperative to recognise the primary value of the women-only space that was utilised by the collective. This provided a sense of unity for the women printmakers and artists, enabling an atmosphere of mutual understanding and trust in which the sharing of knowledge and skills was the foundation of the work they created.

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The group aimed to produce posters which would reflect the politics of the women’s liberation movement. Many of the posters produced were based on the personal lives of the women involved, such as issues of oppression regarding childcare, work or domestic situations. This highlighting of the common experiences of women of the era was clearly vital, not only in creating recognisable imagery, but in terms of bringing visual understanding to the feminist politics of women’s liberation.

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Many of the issues the posters raised, in turn, are still very relevant to women/feminism today and the work of See Red Women’s Workshop, therefore, is both timeless and highly valuable.

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for further Information:







Ceija Stojka, Painter of the Roma Holocaust

Ceija Stojka (1933 – 2013) was an Austrian-Romani painter, in addition to being a writer and musician. She was also a survivor of the Holocaust. Ceija spent the later years of her life creating artworks to raise awareness of the more than a million Roma estimated to have been murdered under the rule of the Nazis.


The painter’s haunting and deeply disturbing imagery recalls how Ceija and her family were the target of the Nazis, interned in Dachau, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. In the four years of suffering the artist endured, almost  200 members of her extended family perished.

During this period gypsies were forced to register as members of another “race” and their campgrounds were enclosed by fences and patrolled by police. In 1941, at which time Ceija was 8 years old, her father was deported to the Dachau concentration camp. He was later murdered. In 1943 Ceija and her remaining family were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Nazi death camp for Gypsies. Here Ceija’s mother saved her life by insisting her ten year old child was in fact sixteen and thus able to work. The family literally lived in the shadow of the gas chambers, under constant threat of hunger, torture and death. Ceija was twelve years old by the time the concentration camp was liberated in 1945.


(“Mama in Auschwitz”)

After the war there was little acknowledgement of the suffering the Roma community had endured. In fact Roma persecution continued in the post war period and beyond. Ceija did not begin painting until the age of fifty six, but her intent was to highlight the humanity and plight of her people by focusing on her own experiences. Ceija’s paintings range from a nostalgic view of Romani life before WW2 to the highly disturbing experience of Nazi rule and the death camps. Her work may be described as a hybrid between folk art and German expressionism,  a highly disturbing contrast between the simplistic and childlike and the horror of her subject matter.

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‘Even Death is Afraid of Auschwitz’ is an example of her work,  a series of ink drawings and gouaches that the painter worked on throughout the 1980s, which graphically convey the full horror of Nazi atrocities.

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The artwork and writing of the inspiring Ceija Stojka are not simply the legacy of her own suffering and survival, but, in turn, have brought international attention to the previously largely ignored Roma genocide under Nazi rule.


Ceija Stojka (1933 – 2013)










Camille Claudel, an Unromantic Reality

Until recently the life and work of French sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943) has been largely overshadowed by her much celebrated partner and fellow sculptor Auguste Rodin.  As Rodin’s lover, Claudel has often simply been reduced to an artist’s muse, a beautiful and tragic backdrop to the life of one of the art world’s greatest masters.

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(Camille Claudel c. 1884)

Inscribed into Western art history is the ideal of the artist as the lone male genius. In contrast to the genius of men, the artist’s muse is widely perceived as female. The artist commands the active role in this relationship. The muse is the passive decorative object on to which he may project his deepest desires, fantasies and fears. Picasso’s muse, for example, was famously Dora Maar, an artist in her own right, yet known more for her association with the painter than for her own work.

Camille Claudel, like Dora Maar, is often viewed through the lens of her lover’s perceived genius. Rodin was a much more prolific sculptor than Claudel, but it is believed he was enabled in this task by the help of his younger lover. The role of the muse is often to provide sexual, emotional and practical comfort, it is female sacrifice which in turn enables the work of the male heroic figure.

Many art historians now believe it was Claudel who was the more talented pioneer of the two however.

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(Camille Claudel in the studio, c.1896)

Claudel met Rodin at his workshop at the age of nineteen; he was twenty four years older and also married. Rodin would not leave his wife for Claudel, aiming to keep both women in his life. The male sculptor was a known womanizer, a reputation celebrated in the mythology of the male artist. Such a sexual affair between a much younger female student and an older male tutor is one which has been played out again and again, not only indicative of the art world however, but of the gender roles and negative power relationships of wider society.

Claudel faced many trials as a woman and as a female artist. Her talent was recognised and supported by her father but other members of her family were against Claudel’s involvement in the often scandalous art world.  As a woman in late 19th century French society, the support of her family was crucial to survival. The sculptor was also forced to have an abortion during her relationship to an increasingly unfaithful Rodin. As their relationship deteriorated, significantly Claudel’s work progressively flourished however, as she exhibited her work at the Paris Salon.

After the breakdown of the relationship, which many believed was connected to the rivalry her sculptures posed to that of her ex-lover’s, Claudel became more reclusive and obsessive about her work.  Despite her obvious talent, it was the fact that she was a woman that was a barrier to the support and funding she needed as an artist. After her father died her family also withdrew any financial aid and the artist was forced into extreme poverty. The sculptor accused Rodin of threatening to kill her and her brother is believed to have been extremely jealous of her talents. Sculpting was an expensive business and the hostility and neglect of her ex-lover, family and art world all took its toll on Claudel who was showing signs of great distress.

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(Camille Claudel, Torso of a woman squatting, 1885)

In the early years of the 20th century a form was signed by Claudel’s brother committing her in an asylum , despite the efforts of doctors who tried to tell her family it was inappropriate and that the artist was clear-headed. At this time it was common for women to be placed indefinitely in insane asylums for reasons from ‘hysteria’ to adultery, and often at the hands of male relatives who had authority over their sisters, mothers, nieces and daughters. During her incarceration the letters Claudel wrote to friends clearly showed she was lucid.

Claudel, however, was kept in the asylum for the remaining thirty years of her life. She died in 1943 and it is believed her brother did not attend her funeral.

Camille Claudel’s life was not romantically tragic, but indicative of cultural and societal persecution of women.

In recent years the work of this hugely skilled and pioneering sculptor has been more positively highlighted and the oppressive circumstances of her life dissected to create a more deservedly insightful view of Camille Claudel herself.  Her legacy is not only her work but the recognition of the life she endured as a woman, and a female artist.



Claude Cahun: Lesbian

The BBC recently commissioned an article on Claude Cahun by Aindrea Emelife http://www.bbc.co.uk/culture/story/20160629-claude-cahun-the-trans-artist-years-ahead-of-her-time that suggested she was transgender, and not the lesbian artist, photographer and activist whose work was rediscovered by feminist art historians in the 1980s. On reading the article we are reminded of the importance of context – historical, political, social, cultural – and why neglecting it can have profound ramifications on how we perceive the past and consequently, the present.

The social and political landscape into which Cahun was born is entirely relevant to her subsequent art, political activism, her expressions of sexuality  – Cahun was a lesbian – and her values, all of which must influence and inform how we approach her as an artist and a woman.

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(Claude Cahun and lesbian life-partner Marcel Moore. Both used male pseudonyms as an act of rebellion in a patriarchal society and to significantly mirror each other. Both artists often worked together)

Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in France in 1894, a fin de siècle Jewish child whose early years would be shaped by antisemitism, political and social upheaval, and then by the consequences of a devastating world war.

Three aspects of her existence would have a profound affect on her life and work as an artist; her sexuality, her race and her sex. Her work perpetually explores what it meant to be a lesbian, a Jew and a woman in a profoundly homophobic, antisemitic and misogynist culture.

Cahun began her association with the Surrealist movement in the early 1920s and both her art practice and politics reflected this.  Surrealism was a movement born out of the remains of World War I. The huge death toll, the injuries and trauma inflicted on those who survived, the loss of a generation of young men – all contributed to the sense amongst a disaffected artistic, political and philosophical youth that everything previously regarded as sacrosanct was now corrupted. The war had also done nothing to erase the pernicious anti-semitism in Europe, which had evolved at the turn of the century to consider Jews as a race to be inferior and not only the Jewish religion, a theory that would be expounded as Germany recovered from the humiliation of defeat, leading ultimately to the holocaust.

As the first ‘industrial’ war, World War I signaled to many that the great human experiment of The Enlightment had failed disastrously. Andre Breton, self-styled leader of Surrealism,  wrote that “All the institutions upon which the modern world rested -and which had just shown their worth in the First World War – were considered aberrant and scandalous to us. To begin with, it was the entire defense apparatus of society that we were attacking: the army, ‘justice’, the police, religion, psychiatric and legal medicine, and schooling”.  Added to this was the interest in the work of Sigmund Freud and his theories on the ‘unconscious mind’. Rationalism had failed humanity, now was the time for subversion and a re-imaging of society. It is no surprise that Surrealism also embraced anarchy.

However, despite its links to anarchism and its aims to deconstruct traditional values, at that time Surrealism as a movement was deeply sexually traditional with the main players being heterosexual couples. While lesbianism was tolerated, there is evidence it was (as in the case of Man Ray’s later images) regarded primarily as a performance for the men. Breton was notorious for his homophobic tirades, which sits uneasily with the Surrealist claim to be for the emancipation of human sexuality from state and religious constraints.

In fact, this reflected Parisian society’s attitude to lesbianism; considered an ‘inversion’ and an offshoot of prostitution, at worst it was regarded as a mental illness (even by Freud), yet tolerated provided it was for the pleasure of men or at least hidden from view. However, lesbians developed their own secret codes and created meeting places and it was not uncommon for women to ‘cross-dress’ at these social gatherings. The adoption of overtly masculine dress was a coded expression of lesbianism in a culture that degraded women, rather than a denial of womanhood.

Lesbian couple at Le Monocle, Paris, 1932 (5)

(Lesbian club in Paris , 1932)

In addition, constraints of gender within the art world and Surrealism meant that the female was so maligned, women who displayed less feminine and more masculine traits were more respected as artists. The archetype of mannish female artist and intellectual was alive and well and was adopted by many women seeking approval from the establishment. Indeed, Emelife herself resurrects  this archetype by writing that Cahun ’embodied the tropes of conventional masculinity’. In doing so she is in danger of suggesting that an artistic, intellectual, politically active lesbian must in reality have been more man than woman.

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(Examples of Cahun’s performances within her photographic work)

Within such a complex web of expectations and value judgements Cahun attempted to play out her anxieties and frustrations through her art, in particular, through her self-portraits. As readers of those images now we must, however,  remember three important things;

  1. Cahun made her images, not as modern ‘selfies’, but as carefully constructed and staged performance pieces. Her photography was not a casual snap-shot of her everyday life but an artistic creation informed by her cultural and historical place in the world.
  2. Cahun constructed fantastical tableaux of all manner of identities – fairies, men, women, Buddhas, weightlifters – she was not fixated on presenting herself as a man. Indeed, she reveals her naked female body without any sign of distress or self-loathing. Selecting only her ‘cross-dressing’ images is neglecting the entirety of her body of work and its complexity.
  3. Cahun’s images are accessible to anyone who has access to the internet or to a good bookshop. They have been viewed by many people, often with no understanding of the historical and artistic genealogy of the images. When they were produced by Cahun, they would have been shared with a very small group of close friends and Surrealist acquaintances. Within that closed world, Cahun would have felt safe to express aspects of her art and personality that may have remained hidden had it been known the whold world would be a potential audience.

Aindrea Emelife illustrates her article with various of Cahun’s self portraits, each of them showing a very obvious intention to ‘mask’ her true self through theatrical costume, makeup, role play and elaborate staging.


In one we see  Cahun with cropped hair, her face darkened by stage make-up and wearing a harlequin check jacket (above). She stands in front of a mirror while turning towards the lens. While  Emilife  chooses to read this as an image of ‘near death’ suffering, another reading could see this as an encaspsulation of Cahun’s whole art practice, her search for the real Claude Cahun whilst at the same time presenting herself in theatrical disguise. Ever conscious of antisemitism (which in the 1920s was gathering momentum in Europe and was hurtling toward its horrific conclusion), Cahun darkens her pale skin in a bravado acknowledgement of her ‘otherness’ as a Jewess.  Her ‘masculine’ appearance, rather than suggest transgenderism, challenges the stringent gender roles imposed on women even within the Surrealist movement. Finally, the harlequin coat is a further visual clue, pointing us to the theatricality of her performance, the stage-play at work.


(Cahun and partner Moore in intentionally ‘mirroring’ photographs, taken at the same time, as part of their artistic collaboration)

One of the dangers of ignoring context and imposing one’s contemporary vision onto the past is that it is often at the cost of historical accuracy. Historical rigour is the basis from which historians then apply interpretation and analysis. Neglecting, misrepresenting or reinventing facts not only conceals the truth but turns the historical project from one of unearthing facts to reveal the narrative to one of bending facts to fit into a desired narrative.

That desired narrative is to claim a lesbian artist as a transgender artist. Not only is this factually innaccurate, it insults the memory of a woman who took considerable risk in her life to live and love and practice her art as a lesbian. A woman who loved women and who wrote a series of monologues in 1925, Heroines, in which she pays tribute to inspirational women of art and literature.

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Claude Cahun was extraordinary, unexpected, risk-taking and original. She was not transgender. She navigated a world in which every aspect of her being – as a female artist, as a lesbian, as a Jew – was held up for scrutiny and found to be not good enough. Is it any wonder she tried on different masks and identities?






Social Realist photographers of N.E England

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen and  Tish Murtha are both celebrated photographers known for (separately) documenting the lives of communities within the North East of England.

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 (Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker, Girl on a Space Hopper, 1971)

Both photographers highlight the realities of Northern working class English lives in ways which range from humorous to disturbing. By recording the everyday lives of economically deprived communities, Konttinen and Murtha follow in the footsteps of such great photographers as Dorothea Lange and her documentation of poor migrants during the American Depression.

The documentary photography of Lange, Konttinen and Murtha aims to draw attention and give insights into the everyday. However, the social realism genre is also associated with social comment on the prevailing economic and political conditions. The work therefore often enables  a critical platform to view inequality within the structures of society, often focusing on the marginalised.

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(Tish Murtha, Youth Unemployment series 1981)

Konttinen, who originated from Finland, studied photography in London in the 1960s,  moving to Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1969.  There she co-founded Amber Films, a film and photography collective which aimed to document and reflect working-class life in the area. Konttinen spent seven years documenting her neighbours in the working class east end of the city in which she lived, which culminated in her book Byker. The series captured a community on the brink of dispersal and drastic change, as many of the areas houses were about to be demolished making way for new housing developments. It is a view of 1970’s life which was being experienced by many working class communities across the land. 

Young woman in Mason Street, 1971.

(Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker, Young woman in Mason Street, 1971)

In contrast, Murtha was born and bred in a Newcastle council house, therefore she aimed to reflect maginalised communities as an ‘insider’. Born into a family of Irish descent with nine siblings, Murtha documented life on her own doorstep and the experiences she was part of, in the impoverished west end of the city. The photographer’s work captured an era incorporating the bleak affects of Thatcher’s Britain on Northern communities. One of the photographer’s first exhibitions was called Youth Unemployment (1981), a series which was even used as a source of debate in the House of Commons. In turn, Murtha continued to use her photography to raise many social and political concerns for her home town, as well as for the country as a whole.

Youth Unemployment, Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1981

(Tish Murtha, Youth Unemployment series 1981)

Both photographers highlighted a world perhaps unknown to many gallery spectators. While Konttinen affectionately focuses on an early 1970’s working class community before it was dismantled, Murtha’s work, photographed ten years later, however reflects a 1980’s community being socially and politically destroyed.

In doing so, Konttinen and Murtha have created a series of work that reflects a Northern working class social history which may be viewed with both nostalgic amusement and political concern.








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 female-only space is one associated with domination and control.

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(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.
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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.
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(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.

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(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.















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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.









Women artists of the Canadian Inuits

In sharp contrast to the Western art world where women have been largely sidelined or excluded, in the Canadian Inuit society of Cape Dorset, it is the women who are recognised as the leaders of the contemporary Inuit art movement.


(Pitaloosie Saila, Dorset Woman (1972))

It is women artists who have won the most awards and accolades, who 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.

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(Kenojuak Ashevak, Spirit of the Raven, 1979)

In the mid 20th century, printing techniques were introduced to the community, such as stenciling 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))

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(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.

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 skillful 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 landscape. 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

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  (Helen Kalvak, Adopted Sons (1966))









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.

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(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.

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(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.