Friday, 8 March 2013

A Homage to (Censored) Women Artists on International Women's Day

By Ruth Skilbeck

Today we can take a moment to reflect on the ongoing struggle of women and girls for the rights of women to equality of cultural participation and dignity of being, in all aspects of social life. The struggle to value domestic and carer’s labour the “traditional unpaid realm of women’s work”. The struggle to value the worth and being, of mothers, even –and especially- if they are not in traditional marriages. The struggle against violence against women on all levels. This begins in the home-every home. 

Happy International Women’s Day to all who support women’s and girl’s struggle against oppression around the world- and who appreciate what women give the world.

In appreciation of the great struggle over the past fifty years for women to participate fully in the public cultural realm as artists, and make art from their own personal experiences and perceptions of the world.

Ruth Skilbeck, Matrix of Creation, 2013

Women artists, of all women, are those who most visibly represent, express, and champion the rights of women to participate as equals in what, until the 1970s, was still a male dominated public realm of visual and intellectual culture.

Through the history of modernity, women have struggled against oppression to enter the cultural realm as artists- instead of in the roles allotted them in the history of male-dominated western art- as models, muses, wives, mistresses, mothers, and all-round life support systems.

Since the 1970s, in increasing numbers, women have asserted that right and entered the public realm of arts and culture as artists in their own right. Women’s representations of women, of themselves, and of their subjects, are made through women’s subjectivity, and there is naturally – and culturally- a very large qualitative difference. That is seen in the images that are made of women- by women artists. Rather than being represented as  object of desire, women artists are subjects of their own desiring gaze.  Looking at an image of a woman by a woman, a self portrait, - or a non-representational conceptual work- gives a real insight not only into what it looks like,  appearance, but  beyond appearance and representation – into female subjectivity and nowhere perhaps is this shown more intensively than in women’s self portraits of their bodies, and of maternal subjectivities.  The Madonna and child is an image that has appeared like a recurring motif throughout art history, from biblical times, through the renaissance to now. In the hands of women artists, and mother artists this takes on a power of self-expression that matches the most esteemed works of the expressionists and old masters.

However, at around the same time that women started to enter the art schools in equal numbers, it seems that a new taboo and wave of censorship sprang up- a censoring aimed at the body. Life drawing has suffered and what has been the target in Australia: mother artists’ representations of their bodies, and of children. Although male artists have represented women, girls, mothers and children and naked frolicking cherubs for centuries, with imaginative and often licentious abandon, no sooner did women start to seriously paint and display images of children and themselves, than the "art police" started stepping in and closing down shows. And I do not mean this metaphorically. Several exhibitions of women artists’ works showing female subjects- of subjectivity, artists self-portraits, in pregnancy, and of their own children – have been visited and closed down by the police, in recent years in Australia. In other cases, individual art works have been censored. 

This has happened recently, and over the past ten years, to numerous prominent and award winning Australian contemporary women artists, Cherry Hood (winner of the Archibald Prize, 2002) – for portraits of children. Del Kathryn Barton (winner of the Archibald Prize 2008), for a portrait of her own son, and separately for Ella Dreyfuss for sensitive photography of pregnant women. Diane Mantzaris for self- portraiture… to name a few recent cases. All these artists continue to work, and exhibit their works, and without them, it hardly needs to be said, Australian culture would be a lot less vital and interesting. 

It is shameful that it is women artists, and specifically it seems mother artists who should be covertly targeted and intimidated in this way. It is like a kind of secret bullying. But it does not stop them making their work. This is an occupational hazard of being a mother artist, and a woman artist, in Australia today making figurative work. However, despite the preoccupation with “OH and S” (Occupational Health and Safety) in the Australian workplace, it seems that so far this hazard has gone unacknowledged- at least officially.  There should be public warnings in art schools, and advice for female students on how to deal with the harassment they may encounter if they pursue a career as a figurative artist. Instead it is still little talked about.

So let us start to talk about it and appreciate our women artists!

Today let us celebrate International Women’s Day by paying homage to all the brave and expressive women artists around the world, who illuminate how it feels to be a woman, expressing the inner world and outer reality of women as subjects not objects of the male gaze.  They give women and girls’ strength and confidence in being female, and able to follow their creative paths as artists.  They give men a chance of empathizing, knowing and understanding how women feel, and see the world as artists; as women have done for men for centuries. They make our world a better place to live in.

Jenny Saville, The Mothers, 2011
 Oil on canvas
106 5/16 x 86 5/8 inches  (270 x 220 cm)


  Del Kathryn Barton, You are what is most beautiful about me, 2008


No comments: