While gender plays no role in the ability to create great art, galleries and exhibition spaces across the world have been dominated for centuries by the works of male painters who amass the Western artistic canon. And though women have played a pivotal role in the creative construction of some of the most renowned paintings in history, that role is figurative, passive and most often, naked.
But in recent years, Britain in particular has garnered a critical mass of female artists who are diversifying, co-opting and changing the conversation around the female body and the female experience in response to the most prominent social and political issues of the 21st century. From race to gender, to social media to war, perhaps we might consider the rising importance of the ‘female gaze’ in contemporary art and its significance in forging debate and breaking barriers about what it means to be a woman, through the eyes of female artists themselves.
Scarred, blind, burned, obese; Saville subverts the classical idealised vision of beauty in large scale oil paintings thick with expressive brush strokes that make up the flesh of real, modern bodies – mostly women. From the piercing gaze of a burn victim to a blind eye rolled back in a milky blue haze, Saville doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable or the flawed; she relishes in it. Known for painting obese bodies followed by those undergoing plastic surgery, her work is not by any means a political commentary on the thin ideal nor a judgement on beauty via surgical means, but an expression of the evolution of the body as a flowing entity which can be moulded, broken and irrevocably altered. Her work is disconcerting and her subjects startling, but purposely so. She challenges us to confront the realities of the kind of female body which sits at the periphery of our idealised vision of beauty – a stark reminder of real flesh and blood and suffering, exploring the female experience stripped from the romanticised and often fetishised male gaze.
While studying at Norwich University of the Arts, London-based illustrator Erin Aniker channeled her interest in feminist artwork and literature to develop her own digitally-led style. Steeped in her own social and political experiences, Aniker’s English and Turkish heritage shines through her work. She explores the representation of women of colour through a modern creative medium which both challenges the dark intricacies of the online world and works to harness the power of protest. Empowering and colourful, her illustrations often compliment editorial articles discussing women’s issues including contraception, mental health and women in the workplace. It’s not just about shining a blue iPhone light on real female experiences, though. Aniker hopes to encourage viewers to question patriarchal practices by stepping out from behind the screen to take part in conscious raising activities which stimulate real conversation. The digital world may be a catalyst for change, but the importance lies in how the power of the image can unearth the failings of modern society and motivate us to act.
From “Chicken Knickers” to “Human Toilet Revisited”, Sarah Lucas’ confrontation and co-option of traditional gender roles is stark. Much of her work is themed upon the use of food items to represent sexual body parts – bananas, raw chicken and fried eggs…you name it! Through the mediums of photography and sculpture, Lucas subverts feminine norms – she transforms the body from something traditionally seen as alluring and desirable into a glaring showcase of sexual objectification. Since the early 90s, her work has explored female genitalia in a blunt attempt to portray the realities of female-as-sex-object within both pornography and mainstream advertising. By partnering household furniture with sculptured female body parts, woman and object become interchangeable – reminiscent of everyday items used and discarded. Lucas’ own boyish appearance is explored within a series of photography self-portraits. Using phallic objects to emphasise the presence of masculinity, Lucas enters an empowering framework that showcases a defiant form of femininity which champions the ‘macho’ and challenges stereotypical sexual and gender representations.
In a series of controversial yet poignant artworks, Sarah Maple challenges identity, religion and patriarchy in a tongue-in-cheek style which draws heavily on her own experience of being brought up as a Muslim by parents of mixed cultural and religious backgrounds. From questioning accepted notions of gender to challenging outdated religious and cultural practices and situating them firmly in modern society, her staunch feminism shines through unapologetically. Whether it’s showcasing hairy armpits with pride, smoking in a hijab or free-bleeding – her work is about confronting what’s considered as ‘taboo’ and asking nonchalantly, why does this repulse you? Maple’s ‘Anti rape Cloak’ series explores the cultural issues around sexual harassment in the context of victim blaming and accusing women of ‘asking for it’. As a global issue which defies borders, culture and religion, the symbolism here is confronting and disconcerting. The garment, though ironic, sends a strong message – let’s not tell women what not to wear but educate boys about respect and consent.
Inspired by fly-on-the-wall style documentaries and reality TV to role-play steeped in personal fantasy, Turner prize winner Gillian Wearing explores the identities of marginalised people through the mediums of film, photography and sculpture. The homeless people, drunks, transsexuals and convicts who exist on the fringes of mainstream society are the main subjects in her work – focusing on the personal histories and traumas that make us who we are. Through various photography exhibitions including a series of around 600 photographs called Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say, Wearing captures those moments when individuals are caught off guard and filled with a vulnerability which juxtaposes the mask we present to the world. This week, Wearing became the first woman to design a statue for London’s Parliament Square which currently houses 11 statues – all of men. The bronze of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett will stand alongside the likes of Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and Benjamin Disraeli. It also happens to be the first statue in the square to have been designed by a woman.
The notorious Guerrilla Girls poster in 1989 asked, Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? Though this still rings true to an extent, the tides are turning. Raw chickens, fried eggs and rape capes are infiltrating the British artistic canon and the nude is being co-opted into a social and political statement. In the year of #MeToo and #IBelieveHer – empowering female artists who explore the lived experiences of women have never been so important.