Inside the Effort to Write Women into Art History

Vanessa Thill
Dec 16, 2018 1:00PM

Look into her eyes. Can you feel her steady gaze toward the distance, wide and encompassing? Do you see the bitterness, the slight turn of mischievous glee at the edges of her lips? Looking out from the screen, “she” is Nil Yalter, Agnes Arellano, Myriam Mihindou, Annemarie Heinrich, Antoinette Lubaki, Novera Ahmed, Augusta Savage, Toyen, ORLAN, Chryssa, and over 400 other female artists, with three more joining their ranks in the Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions (AWARE) each week. If you don’t yet know their names, this new online database is here to help. AWARE profiles each artist with narrative biographies accompanied by scores of stunning images.

The French nonprofit responsible for this matriarchal treasure trove was founded with the goal of rewriting art history from a more gender-equal perspective, focusing on self-identified women artists born between 1860 and 1972. Its chairwoman, curator Camille Morineau, is currently the director of exhibitions and collections at the Monnaie de Paris and is known for organizing groundbreaking feminist exhibitions, such as the 2009 survey “elles@centrepompidou,” which filled Paris’s Centre Pompidou from top to bottom with about 500 works by more than 200 women artists in the museum’s collection.

In 2014, Morineau founded AWARE in collaboration with six other women from various fields: three lawyers, Margot Mérimée Dufourcq, Daphné Moreau, and Nathalie Rigal; a violinist, Elisabeth Pallas; an accountant, Alexandra Vernier-Bogaert; and a writer, Julie Wolkenstein. Today, the organization has a team of advisors, researchers, and volunteers who promote women of the 20th century in several ways, primarily via the database, which also exists as a physical library in Paris. Re-launched in June 2017, the website now provides current listings and reviews of exhibitions featuring important female artists. In partnership with universities and museums, AWARE holds talks and symposium events, produces print publications, and leads museum tours. And last but not least, the Prix AWARE annually awards €10,000 (about $11,300)to one emerging and one established artist.


Celebrating the creative accomplishments of people who are routinely devalued in our cultural consciousness turns on a light in my soul for two reasons. Bearing witness to those who overcame the odds to express their unique sensitivity is both humbling and inspiring, and making the space for the scholarship and dissemination of this work is part of a structural shift toward repairing our whole value system.

Still, the leaders of the project understand the potentially problematic risks of projects with encyclopedic aims—in this case, the blurry boundaries of womanhood—and art history’s tendencies to prioritize white, Eurocentric narratives. “While we are ‘aware’ that we can’t make an exhaustive inventory of all women artists in the world,” Morineau told me, the benefits outweigh the risks. “We believe in the revolutionary power of data and how information published on the web can change mentalities, representations, and finally, history’s narrative,” she continued. “There is a huge lack of visibility on women artists in art history, so the current ‘canon’ is not right.”

As we contemplate what we can do to stymy strategies of exclusion moving forward, we must first look at how inequalities have been perpetuated by pervasive ideas about who is allowed to move freely, who is presumed to be capable and gifted, and who we hold up as role models. Although her “deepest dream” for the future is that singling out women artists to remedy the imbalance of support for their work will no longer be necessary, Morineau won’t rest until people stop saying that “they don’t know any women artists of the 20th century.”

That there aren’t as many famous women as men recognized in art history is no accident. Just take a look at the timeline of women’s legal rights. Until the early 20th century—but continuing in many forms in the present day—women’s ability to gain access to education and to represent themselves in professional, financial, and legal settings has been severely curtailed in countries around the world. One such doctrine, known in England and its colonies—including the United States—as “coverture” (literally meaning “covering”), removed a woman’s rights entirely upon marriage. This was common law from the 11th century to the late 19th century, and it wasn’t until 1966 that coverture was declared obsolete by the U.S. Supreme Court. Professional acclaim as an artist requires the ability to own property, enter into contracts, and receive payments. Professional training, such as life-drawing classes, were routinely unavailable to a woman artist due to its perceived impropriety. She was blocked from most opportunities to study, exhibit, or earn patronage—in short, to do the things that artists do.

Points cousus (No.inv.55), 1973-1976
Kamala Ishaq
The Seat - Zar Ceremony, 2016
The Foundation Gallery

AWARE highlights those fierce individuals around the world who were determined to be artists anyway, with many of those biased frameworks still very much in effect. Some, like Lynda Benglis, Hannah Höch, Etel Adnan, Yayoi Kusama, Barbara Hepworth, Andrea Fraser, and Hilma af Klint, have now become household names. Others soon will be, but there is no style or common theme to take away from this backlogged outpouring of creation. Their lives and works range widely.

Notable examples from the database include figures like Hessie, a Cuban-French artist who prolifically embroidered subtle abstractions on raw fabrics, but mostly avoided the public eye. Tunisian painter Safia Farhat founded the country’s first magazine addressed to women, championed women’s rights, and was the only woman in the post-war École de Tunis art movement. The elaborate drawings of Swiss artist Aloïse Corbaz, institutionalized for schizophrenia for most of her life, were mostly made from cast-off materials in secret until the end of her life, when Jean Dubuffet exhibited her work in the 1940s. Kamala Ibrahim Ishaq painted surreal figures melting between spiritual realms; this work was part of her manifesto for the Crystalist Group, a movement she founded in Sudan to challenge rigid, patriarchal philosophies of art.

Some of these artists were public advocates for women’s rights, while others were driven to create their work in secret—but all point to the fact that the work and information widely available to us through mainstream art-world narratives represents only a fraction of the creative production we have previously failed to take into account.

As we feast our eyes on the works these women made and their life stories, a larger idea looms. Can we recognize how these oversights occur in real time? Will disadvantaged artists working today face the same fate if they are blocked from systems of support? The priorities of our culture today become the legacy of a later age. If we can agree that art history ascribes value to certain artists over others, then we must examine how bias serves to compound inequality through the activity of many players. To that end, “our goal is not only to give visibility to women artists,” Morineau said,“but also to the research being made by scholars and curators on women artists.”

Le Chevalier d'Eon, 1978

Sexism in academia, publishing, conservation, curation, and all other institutional levels can greatly exacerbate gender inequity. Morineau referred to a stumbling block that the Art+Feminism Wikipedia editing project often experiences when trying to expand wiki entries on women artists. If information about them has not been previously published, it cannot be reliably cited, compounding the artist’s lack of legitimacy. AWARE works with specialists to write the biographical texts on the site “because very often, they gather information from unpublished sources, which is contrary to Wikipedia rules of publication,” Morineau explained. “As art historians, they can indeed propose new interpretations based on recent research. We also pay permission fees to have images on our website, which can’t be added to Wikipedia unless they are copyright-free.”

Even the physical upkeep of artworks by women in museum collections has been impacted by prejudice. In Florence, Italy, the nonprofit group Advancing Women Artists is tackling the restoration of paintings and sculptures by women famous in their time, but whose works have been neglected and left in disrepair in museum storage spaces away from public view. They, too, will soon launch an illustrated online database called A Space of Their Own, focusing on American and European artists active between the 15th and 19th centuries.

The ability to actively synthesize research beyond the archive and broadcast it into the public sphere is what makes AWARE somewhat unique compared to similar database projects, such as Clara, from the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative, run by Concordia University in Montreal. All of these projects require significant financial resources, and with a recent university analysis finding that works by female artists typically sell for 47.6 percent of the prices male artists earn at auction, we need all the support we can get. There’s no time to lament the fact that so many talents have been ignored. With more records now easily available, we can learn in earnest about the figures—and the work—that can no longer be overlooked.

Our culture still evaluates women disproportionately as lacking talent, fortitude, and expertise, and in some cases, the results are tragically self-fulfilling. If we are stuck debating whether or not women deserve to live, we hardly get to broach the awesomeness of their creations. Imagine if you were raised looking up to an equal distribution of male and female creative icons. We’re closer than we’ve ever been. AWARE shows us that we can trace a new trajectory through art history by consolidating new research and mobilizing it to teach the next generation.

Looking again into those eyes, I see her tenderness, her hardness, her suffering, and a hint of the ecstatic love for what she has made of her life. The trust she endowed to herself alone is written in a knowing smile that says: They sure didn’t like it, but I did it anyway! And now I’m smiling with her.

Vanessa Thill