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Art

How Female Artists Are Subverting Mainstream Portrayals of Women

Salomé Gómez-Upegui
Jan 18, 2021 7:00PM

Patty Chang, still from Untitled (Eels), 2001. © Patty Chang. Courtesy of the artist and Pérez Art Museum Miami.

The late 1960s and 1970s saw the birth of the feminist art movement, and with it a plethora of female artists who were unafraid to question expectations around femininity, womanhood, and the female body. Proponents such as Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, and Yayoi Kusama sought to transform stereotypes by creating space for conversations around women’s liberation within the art world and beyond it. Yet to think that the feminist pushback steadily going on for the past 50 years or so has been enough to eliminate the absurd norms that oppress the female body is merely wishful thinking. Still today, women are often expected to be thin, hairless, smooth, soft, beauty queen–like pieces of perfect flesh. Still today, women are often expected to embody ideals in favor of the male gaze. Thus, the work of artists who rebel against these stringent standards is as relevant as ever.

This subject is at the foreground of the current exhibition “My Body, My Rules” at the Peréz Art Museum Miami (PAMM), open to the public until September 2021. This group show, organized by Brazilian curator Jennifer Inacio, features over 20 female artists from around the world and aims to examine “the mainstream portrayal of women, confronting the stereotypes, violence, limitations, and ideals imposed on the disputed image of the female body.” According to Inacio, the title of the exhibition is envisioned as a chant of empowerment, echoing the famous feminist slogan “my body, my choice.”

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In line with the feminist consciousness-raising groups of the ’60s that illuminated intimate matters through collective conversation, “the personal is political” is another slogan of the women’s movement that is greatly amplified within the curation and creation of art that defies patriarchal stereotypes.

Spit/Swallow (2013), a piece by Johannesburg-based artist Frances Goodman, is a striking neon light work depicting a liquid form alternatively flashing inside a woman’s mouth and then being ejected from it. The artwork, featured at the PAMM exhibition, is in fact a self-portrait of Goodman. The piece is meant to be a metaphoric play on sexual innuendo, nodding to women who accept societal norms and swallow their words and those who reject societal expectations and spit out their thoughts.

Contemporary artists working within this remit aren’t necessarily limited to the subject of gender. Many, particularly those who are gleaning inspiration from personal experiences, aim to consider a multitude of identities overlapping. This intersectional approach is especially possible thanks to the—often underrecognized—contributions of Black feminist artists who, during the height of second-wave feminism, sought to defy the male gaze and raise consciousness about issues of race and gender within the art world, through the work of groundbreaking artist-run organizations such as Where We At, Spiral, and the Combahee River Collective.

Hayv Kahraman, 6 Bends, 2020. © Hayv Kahraman. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio. Courtesy of the artist; Pilar Corrias, London; and Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Kurdish-American artist Hayv Kahraman continuously thinks about the inextricable relationship between her art and her identity as a woman and an immigrant. “I can’t help but make work about this state of being marginalized. Whether it’s talking about migration or gender, these are issues that I’ve lived. That my body has lived,” she wrote to me via email. Kahraman’s artwork included in the show, 6 Bends (2020), is an oil-on-panel painting depicting six female figures contorting their bodies towards the viewer. The work is part of a larger series titled “Not Quite Human,” which, in the artist’s words, intends to “think about the various ways in which women/minorities and immigrants conform to normative ways of living.”

To translate intimate experiences into unruly art, many creators turn to their own bodies. As a result, performance art has become the medium of choice for those looking to use their voice in a male-dominated art world. Indeed, performance was a key component of Womanhouse, the pioneering feminist art program in the United States, created at CalArts by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro in 1971–72. This was also the favored medium of trailblazing Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, best known for her “earth-body” performances in which she explored subjects like displacement, spirituality, the female body, and transformation by impressing herself against natural landscapes or ancient sites and recording her imprint in photographs and video. For “My Body, My Rules,” Inacio chose to showcase Mendieta’s stunning series of chromogenic prints “Silueta Works in Mexico”(1973–77),which depict silhouettes of the artist’s body at numerous sites in Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley.

Lee Materazzi, Clothes on Head from “Head in Series,” 2008. © Lee Materazzi. Courtesy of the artist and Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Needless to say, photography has been a powerful tool to emphasize the female gaze and showcase liberating visions. The medium has proven particularly instrumental for creators who seek to self-represent and denounce oppressive norms. As artist Naomi Fisher explained to me in a recent phone interview, she purposefully never altered any of the images in her series “Backyard” (2001), in which she sought to depict “what a woman’s body is if you don’t turn it into what society genders as a woman’s body.” Her piece Untitled (Pink Lilies, Ferns) (2001) is one among a wide array of photographs selected for the show along with work by Lorna Simpson, Anna Gaskell, and Ruth Bernhard.

A necessary reflection in the conversation about women, feminism, and art is that an artist’s gender doesn’t necessarily strip away patriarchal beliefs. This was something Inacio was keenly aware of, especially when curating photographic works into the exhibition: “I wanted to show bodies portrayed by female artists, but when I started to look more closely, I realized the male gaze can also be within a female artist, internalized, so I had to really think about it and explore these photographs, think about their process, question them and myself,” she said. “I even had to ask myself, am I internalizing the male gaze?”

Zilia Sánchez, Sin título (Untitled), 1971. © Zilia Sánchez. Courtesy of the artist and Pérez Art Museum Miami.

As artists, Kahraman wrote, “women are under constant scrutiny. Judgments are being passed left and right and it doesn’t only come from the white heterosexual male. It’s so ingrained in us that we contribute to it.…It’s what we’ve been taught, to think and feel as lesser than.…How do we then break free from these chains?”

Art as a platform for resistance, a tool for liberation, and a window into an alternate reality, is certainly part of the answer. This will only be achieved with the continuous existence of subversive creations, exhibitions like “My Body, My Rules,” and individuals within the art world who are willing to question their personal experience and break free of the boxes we continue to be placed in.

Salomé Gómez-Upegui
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019