There ought to be no need to explain to anyone in the art world (or indeed any sector) why the championing and encouragement of women is important, but here are some stats regardless: Women make up 52% of the global population and yet have the economic, social, and creative privileges of an oppressed minority to varying degrees across the world. This is no different in the specific realm of art galleries. In a 2017 article by ArtNet News titled “The 4 glass ceilings: how women artists get stifled at every stage of their career”, it was quoted that “Only 13.7% of living artists represented by galleries in Europe and North America are women.”
Five years later, and Forbes recently wrote that despite a noticeable increase in interest in art by female artists, there is still a $192B gap in the amount spent on male vs female artists at auction. The Global Art Market Report of 2019 (Art Basel/ UBS) wrote that almost half of the 3,050 galleries on Artsy represent 25% or fewer women, and this is all despite women making up the majority of art school graduates (women are 64% of art school undergraduates in the UK but are only 32% of the artists with top commercial gallery representation in London.)
There is not a lack of female artists, nor is the standard of work being created by female artists any less worthy than that of a man. I could, and some galleries that work solely with female artists have, fill decades worth of exhibitions with artwork by women only.
In curating ‘Women to watch’ at Reem Gallery Soho, I had a surplus of exceptional and interesting female artists. This group exhibition brings together some of the most exciting artists working in and around London, across a range of mediums, and it is a glimpse into the untapped glory of what’s being made by young female artists today. We are putting it on the walls that we have, and we look forward to continuing to do so.
A few highlights include ‘Heart to Heart’ by Laxmi Hussain, a large monotone canvas (using only the blue which ties all of Hussain’s work together – an Yves Klein blue – and a pale beige, perhaps alluding to traditional linen canvas). The viewer’s eyes are immediately drawn to the simple lines that melt into tiny baby feet and one curled fist. The baby’s body is shielded and enveloped by the gentle folds in the mother’s flesh as her body is contorted to breastfeed the child. An intimate moment painted with great precision and warmth.
This is a self-portrait of Hussain and one of her, now older, children. The duality of the certainty and strength of a mother sustaining and nourishing her child are here coupled with the uncertainty, the nervousness, and the desire for privacy. The specific shade of blue used throughout Hussain’s is an ode to her own mother, whom she remembers as often wearing blue – but not quite this specific blue. By consistently bringing this pigmented, over-saturated, bold colour into her work she is making space for her late mother, and inviting her to experience this chapter in Hussain’s life, one which she is not physically present for.
This theme of motherhood is continued in the work of South Korean born artist MinJoo Kim. Kim’s work focuses on the formation and re-negotiation of cultural identities, and more recently she has begun using her experience of motherhood to articulate the specific discomfort felt by women who must take on pre-ascribed identities once pregnant. Since moving in 2016 from Seoul in South Korea, where she studied Visual Design at Ewha Women’s University, to London to study MA Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art, she has created work which engages with the social and political issues surrounding her identity as a South Asian woman in a radically different cultural environment.
Women have often been, and still often are, isolated by motherhood – their role and function as a woman and mother are intertwined and reduced by society.. ‘An Internal Issue’ highlights this struggle, as a young mother kneels in a surrealist bedroom watching both the sunrise and the night sky through windows which are her only connection to life outside of her caring duties, her face obscured by a tangled mass of ribbons.
The youngest artists in the exhibition are The Cameron Twins and Tia O’Donnell, who all studied art during the pandemic and their work incorporates their reflections on living their formative years in a lockdown. As art students who had the beginnings of their professional practice dictated by the constraints of a global pandemic, their works are inventive, problem-solving, and outwardly focused.
The Cameron Twins challenge the gender and age stereotypes attached to toys, collectibles, colour, and play, and explore their role as ‘the artists’ in an age of social media and self-branding. O’Donnell works somewhere on a parallel line, with a heavy focus on the unfair disparity between the value of artworks of men versus women. Her male alter ego creates works which are ‘better’, despite being created with her non-dominant hand in an exposing of the inequality when it comes to the standards expected to be met in the art world of both art and artist.
The painter Phoebe Boddy pays homage to late great feminist painters who questioned the historical erotic association between the female nude and food, a la the women laid out for consumption shining like polished apples. Boddy has reimagined, in her energetic and pastel coloured style, the 1972 photograph by Linda Nochlin ‘Buy my Bananas’ which mimics and subverts an anonymous nineteenth century photograph of a nude woman with a tray of apples under her breasts (her breasts falling into place with the apples). ‘Buy my Bananas’ is the male version: a nude man with a tray of bananas below his genitals, a stark observation being made in both Nochlin’s work and Boddy’s reimagining that there is a comparative lack of objectification when it comes to male nakedness.
Opposite Boddy’s nude male, sits the nude torso of a woman with the words “When the f*** am I supposed to feel liberated” scrawled across the breasts and stomach. This is the street artist Dirtee Murfee’s deflated response to a male physician explaining patronisingly (after a traumatic and life-threatening abortion) that ‘abortions are supposed to make women feel liberated’. Murfee asks a question which is so depressingly relevant, in a way that is not defeatist but defiant. ‘Tits out torso’ sits underneath ‘Godless Jezebel’, a text based piece which takes this inflammatory statement, one which has been used to belittle, oppress, and humiliate women and girls, and claims it as the focal point of an artwork.
The term jezebel has long been used to degrade and insult women who were not playing the expected, or accepted, role of a woman. This term, hailing from the Bible, is commonly used to mean a licentious, shameless woman and might be dished out in response to the minor act of wearing lipstick, or a short skirt, or to much more complicated and private matters of a woman’s sexuality and her personal relationships.
In confronting the viewer with this phrase, she also poses questions about the links between religion and the oppression of women. This thread is woven through her larger body of work, as the daughter of Irish Catholics and having been educated in Catholic schools, her questioning of religious attitudes towards women is a constant. Her work is influenced by her personal journey facing struggles known only by those living in a female body, her experiences of women’s health, and the perceived ‘failure’ of her to manage and govern her body in a way that would be deemed ‘right’.
These dynamic, intelligent, exceptionally talented artists and more, are all women to watch, but not passively or from afar- I encourage active watching: staying alert to the creative journey of the artists, encouraging and supporting them. Actively engage with their social media profiles, their exhibitions, and watch with wonder and excitement, as I will be doing, as they dive into a new year of communicating messages, insights, and stories.
by Phoebe Minson
Women to Watch, Reem Gallery Soho at the Ham Yard Village until the 7th January 2023.