Feminism in Contemporary Art


Warning: This post may be controversial.

A few months ago I was invited to a one-day exhibition of contemporary feminist art consisting of paintings, installations and performances. To be honest I have never quite completely understood the usual approach to feminism in contemporary art. Yes, I am for feminism, however, personally, I do not see how depicting bloodied vaginas and women in uncompromising positions is of any benefit to women. Despite this, I decided to attend the show to see if I would change my mind. I didn’t.

The walls of this particular exhibition were mainly covered with images of breasts and vaginas on the bodies of unidealised and unairbrushed women, often at crude angles with either no face or obscuring the woman’s facial features so as not to be identifiable. This is my main issue with a lot of contemporary feminist art. Why do we need to have women publicly celebrating their genitalia? Furthermore, by obscuring their faces, doesn’t this objectify women even more?

Yes these women are not perfect. Yes society puts pressure on us to look a certain way. And yes it is great that these women have real bodies and real body parts, complete with hair and individuality. However, men are also put under the same scrutiny in our current social climate, but we don’t see male artists reacting in the same way. If a male artist painted a series of images of his penis, I’m almost certain that it would receive a negative reaction. So, why do females feel the need to do so? I do understand that these unshaven bodies may be a reaction to the way the female body has historically been presented in art, as idealised, hairless, mythological nudes. It may even be a reaction to the portrayal of women in modern day porn, but as I said before, men are also presented in an idealised way; they too suffer from pressure to look the same way. It is not just a female problem, so why is it presented as such.

i understand campaigning for women’s rights. I understand empowering women. However walls of vaginas I do not. The suffragettes actually wanted to present themselves as feminine and elegant to oppose the opinion that they were ‘mannish.’ These pioneers of women’s rights would not have dreamed of exposing themselves. Some of my readers may be able to recall Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party of 1979. This work was a made collaboratively by a group of women, celebrating women. As a group, they found and celebrated great women throughout history. This is similar to the work of feminist art historians like Linda Nochlin who actively search for great women artists to add to the canon.

It seems therefore that there is a divide in the way feminists want to approach art. Some, choose to ‘liberate’ women from the generally accepted rules of society by depicting female genitalia, menstruation blood and body hair. This can be said of such artists as Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin. There are others however, who have a different approach. Even as recently as Jess de Wahls Big Swining Ovaries which empowered women through history through her crafted portraits.

Recently, the internet has concerned itself with what it means to be a feminist. I personally have struggled with this in the past, wrongly believing that it was all about burning bras, not shaving, and acting in a masculine fashion. Hopefully this article proves that just as in society there are multiple ways in which we can empower women, so too are there more than one way in art. I am not saying that one approach is ‘more correct’ than the other. While the art in the exhibition was not for me, other feminist art is. For example, I am a huge fan of Shadi Ghadirian and Shirin Neshat. Just as different peoples have different styles when it comes to clothes of music, so too will they in art and in this case, feminism.

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer with a special interest in contemporary Middle Eastern Art. She has a BA in Art History and an MA in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, ReOrient and Suitcase Magazine. Lizzy is also curator of Arab Women Artists Now - AWAN 2018 (London).

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