By Dominique Hunter
Continuing along last week’s train of thought regarding the disproportionate male to female ratio of exhibiting artists (and just in time for International Women’s Day on March 8), I felt compelled to share with my readers a general overview of the historical context that has shaped women’s position (or lack thereof) in the field of visual art.There is a rather long and unfortunate tradition of art history that has, through a number of intersecting systems of oppression, methodically denied women artists of equal representation in exhibitions. Traditional art history successfully relegated women into obscurity by rendering their contributions as non-existent or “less than” those of men. And since this was an era where the white Western male perspective was largely accepted as the only perspective, it was almost impossible for women to be recognized as worthy counterparts. Indeed, you would be at a severe disadvantage by simply not having the privilege of being born white, middle/upper class and, most importantly, male.
Before we go any further, I think it’s important to understand how women’s art came to be regarded as inferior and how that translated into every endeavor they undertook thereafter. During the Renaissance period (14th century) female art students were barred from studying the nude model (an essential component to every young artist’s training) on the basis that it was inappropriate. Nude model studies of the time were unique to History Paintings and this particular art genre was reserved for the best students who would no doubt go on to achieve great success.
So by forcing women to forego those critical studies, the “academy” effectively redirected women’s trajectories towards “less threatening” areas of portraiture, landscape and still-life. Things begin to get a little more interesting when you realize that although it was highly inappropriate for women to be exposed to male or female nudity for the purpose of study, it was acceptable for women themselves to pose nude to aid the studies of men (quite an interesting stance on propriety at the time).
Fast-forward a few centuries and yet again women can’t seem to catch a break. Early fundamentalist Christian teaching of the late 19th century portrayed all women as evil, sexual temptresses who were responsible for leading men into sin. Now, although all women were portrayed negatively during this period, black women were seen as especially evil and further removed from “womanhood” based on stereotypes perpetuated by white slave owners that they were inherently promiscuous. This was the result of the initial encounter white males would’ve had with black women before enslaving and dehumanizing them in an effort to justify their exploitation and remove any resulting guilt.
Shortly after this anti-woman campaign there was a tremendous shift in consciousness. But before you breathe a sigh of relief, this wasn’t exactly the shift everyone was hoping for. A new era heralded the glorification of fully clothed women as “goddesses”, specifically, white women. In an excerpt from her book titled The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860 Barbara Welter writes, “If anyone, male or female, dared to tamper with the complex virtues which made up True Womanhood, he was damned immediately as an enemy of God, of civilization and of the Republic. It was a fearful obligation, a solemn responsibility, which the nineteenth century American woman had – to uphold the pillars of the temple with her frail white hand.”
Welter describes the graveness of the responsibilities held by white women who were elevated as custodians of femininity and the tenderness that became synonymous with it. These virtues included piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. When combined, these qualities became the yardstick which husbands, neighbours, and society measured white women. Although the status of white women was elevated (but still not equal to men), the same couldn’t be said for women of colour. Notice that there was absolutely no mention of black women or how they factored into this new era. Again this is where stereotypes have altered trajectories. All of the virtues that defined “true womanhood” were largely thought to be absent in black women. So they were forced into the background, first by their gender, then race and finally slavery.
In the middle of the “true womanhood” craze there was also the Abolition Movement and later the Women’s Suffrage Movement. And although the latter had roots in the former, there was an incredible divide regarding the focus (gender vs. race) of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that Feminism forced everyone to start having long overdue conversations about inequality and exclusion from art exhibitions based on all systems of oppression. The Guerrilla Girls is perhaps the most popular feminist group that has been actively fighting discrimination against women for thirty odd years. It was through a number of their graphic posters that museum and gallery statistics were revealed highlighting huge discrepancies in the ratio of male vs. female exhibitors.
Now although our current situation isn’t as dire as it once was, there is still a lot of work to be done. We are moving ever closer to dismantling long established hetero-normative roles and one can’t help but feel hopeful that a larger number of women artists around the world will be given the recognition they deserve.
Dominique Hunter is an independent visual artist who recently graduated from the Barbados Community College with a Bachelor of Fine Art (First Class Honours).