Much of the Western art historical canon has been-male dominated. Women have been systematically underrepresented in art markets and institutions, a problem which subsists to the present-day. However, despite facing discrimination, exclusion, or erasure, women artists have made significant contributions to art history, and will continue shaping the future of art.
Awareness and new platforms have brought more visibility to a greater number of women artists, but there is still work to be done. These women prove the capability of female artists to create innovative, influential works—which highlights the urgency for diversity and inclusion. Here are some leading women of the contemporary art scene:
Born in Verdun, France, Nicole Eisenman is an American multimedia artist who challenges traditional Western art history and inquires queer and feminist approaches. She is known primarily for painting, but has recently forayed into sculpture. Her paintings are often humorous, taking visual cues and techniques from art historical movements (Baroque art, German expressionism) as well as pop culture (comic strips, advertisements) to reflect on our present-day society.
With what can be labeled as a satirical realism, humour used as a tool to critique capitalism and the art world is a recurring theme within her work. She also often depicts herself and her friends in exaggerated, cartoon-like portraits that provide commentary on contemporary living and social habits. Sometimes her subjects appear isolated, sometimes in the midst of crisis, and others in intimate social moments. Her depictions of raw emotion and unapologetic queer sexuality make her work visceral and indelible. She appropriates visual tropes, injecting dark humor as a way to re-contextualize historic and cultural notions. Her sculptures also work as allegories, multiple figures often presented together as a metaphorical narrative to explore similar themes present in her painting.
Eisenman’s creative mission applies beyond her work in the studio. She is the founder and member of Ridykelous, a curatorial group encouraging the exhibition of queer and feminist art. This initiative has created a platform for underrepresented artists and activists to organize and present artwork on their own terms.
Simone Leigh is an American artist, most renowned for her large-scale sculptures. Interested in history and ethnography, her work centers particularly on black women. Take her work at the 2019 Whitney Biennale or her solo exhibition at the Guggenheim, both presenting a collection of sculptures displaying a range of technique and material exploring African architecture, industrialization, and exploration of beauty standards.
Her work Sentinel (2019), is a sculpture that incorporates raffia, a traditional material used for western African domestic spaces. The base shape resembles an industrial material, a reference to forms of modern production. The sculpture is topped with a female head sporting a perfectly-cylindrical afro, a hairstyle with heavy historical and political significance to Black women. This exploration of Black female subjectivity highlights the different social and cultural intersections Black women navigate in the modern era while acknowledging their rich historical origins.
Her sculpture Stick (2019), features another female head with an afro, this time with a voluminous base resembling a Victorian-era dress. The sticks poking out of the skirt-like shape are once again a nod to West African architecture, but also an inquiry into construction of the female form. The exaggerated feminine silhouette is also meant to confront racist forms from the Jim Crow era. These contradictory influences are meant for us to refuse binaries and avoid viewing women as a sum of their parts.
Shirin Neshat is an Iranian visual artist, known primarily for her video and photography works. She is specifically interested in notions of femininity and masculinity and contrasts between Islamic and Western cultures.
Raised in pre-revolution Iran, she came to the United States to study, and returned in the 1990s to her home country completely changed. As a way to understand and contemplate these changes, she began creating portraits of women overlaid with Persian calligraphy. Juxtapositions of antiquity and modernity have remained a motif of her work. Her oeuvre covers a vast range of domains including religion, politics, and poetry.
Self-portraiture is a technique she utilizes to depict concepts of identity on both a personal and cultural scale. Rebellious Silence (1994) examines definitions of selfhood. Its black- and-white scheme and split composition evoke tensions created by binaries while her unflinching gaze displays resilience and auto-determination in face of internal and external struggles. In her 2016 series Roja, she explores these concepts as well as the search for a motherland through conceptualized films that explore dreams and the subconscious.
She does not intend to make work that is solely or inherently political, rather she considers her work to be an expression of human emotion. She has said of her work: “I have gravitated toward making art that is concerned with tyranny, dictatorship, oppression and political injustice. Although I don’t consider myself an activist, I believe my art—regardless of its nature—is an expression of protest, a cry for humanity.”
Mika Rottenberg is a New York-based Argentinian artist. Her work has often been described as social surrealism, for its amalgamation of cultural inquiry and whimsical satire. Her oeuvre consists primarily of video and installation—sometimes combining the two—enveloping viewers into illusory uncanny territories. In her solo exhibition Easypieces, she explores the female body and its role in modern labor and global modes of manufacture. Her video works are movie-quality productions preoccupied with the exploitation of workers and the absurdity of excess. She shows a strong interest in depictions of the body, creating automated versions of female physical traits (ponytails, lips, long fingernails), displaying the interrelatedness of the mechanic and the corporeal, a consequence of our modern world.
NoNoseKnows (2015), her video installation featured at the 2015 Venice Biennale, features an overseer character with an absurdly exaggerated nose who sneezes plates of decadent food. Her office (piled with plates of unfinished food and languishing flowers) sits directly above an underground factory of women hunched over scraping mussel shells to extract pearls for jewelry.
While the video features bizarre characters and almost-ridiculous effects, the industry it depicts is a real one—one that leaves disenfranchised women overworked and underpaid. Part of the installation consists of a room fabricated as pearl reserve, with thousands of lustrous pearls on tables and in baskets, imitating the exact setting seen in the video. This makes viewers active participants in the piece, as they are standing among the commodities of hours of intense labor. This forces the question: are we as viewers therefore complicit in the absurd assembly line of exploited pearl factory workers?
Rottenberg’s installations challenge our complacency and expose us to the realities behind our unconscious consumption. There is a clear humor in Rottenberg’s work. The humor is dark, satirical, and sometimes unsettling. But her works very much force the viewer to confront truths about consumerism, globalism, labor, and technology.
Kiki Smith is a German-born, American figurative artist interested in depictions of the female body and themes including sex, birth, and regeneration. After her father died during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Smith became preoccupied with mortality and the corporeal. Both her print work and sculptural pieces display interest in the human form as well as the spiritual aspects of the body.
A solo exhibition of her work, presented earlier this year at the Monnaie de Paris, explores childhood memories, representations of the body, and societal gender roles. Her piece Rapture (2001) prospects the relationship between humans and animals. A life-size bronze sculpture, the work features a nude woman emerging from the underbelly of a wolf lying on the floor. The woman seems to be frozen in action, stepping towards the viewer, one foot remaining in the wolf. She is poised and self-assured.
Smith makes references to biblical origin stories and traditional fairy tales to project a resurrection, a renewal from a former self. Even further, she makes a statement about the powerful nature of womanhood. The female figure’s symbiotic relationship with nature has become a staple of Smith’s oeuvre, in which it serves as a vessel for harmony and cosmic unity. Her pieces are thus equally a reminder of existing precarious environmental circumstances, as they imply the metaphysical interconnectedness of humans with their surroundings.
The Guerrilla Girls are a staple of the Western feminist art canon. A group of anonymous female artists, this collective has been in action since the 1980s. Sporting costume gorilla masks to hide their identities, these women began their art world activism by printing and distributing flyers exposing the lack of diversity within New York museums and galleries. The membership has changed and grown over the years, but the group maintains a tradition where each member is named after a legendary female artist (i.e. Frida Kahlo, Kathe Kollwitz, Alice Neel). Many of their works have become iconic, even added to collections of major museums worldwide; including The Advantages of Being a Women Artist (1988) and Do Women have to be Naked to get into the Met Museum? (1989) where they call out sexism and the end to gender discrimination in the arts industry.
As the decades have passed, the Guerrilla Girls have expanded in medium and message. They have created performance pieces, video works, and have even spoken at public conferences—masks on, of course. An unsettling amount of the statistics that they have presented exposing inequality have remained only minimally improved, and the Guerrilla Girls are working to this day to fight for just representation while denouncing tokenism. Their mission statement is as follows: “We undermine the idea of a mainstream narrative by revealing the understory, the subtext, the overlooked, and the downright unfair.”
Article written by Natasha Ntone