Why have there been no great women artists?

By Akima McPherson

Stemming from Nochlin’s article, themed exhibitions showing work of previously neg-lected groups within the art community became staple: Black American artists, His-panic American artists, Native American artists, etc, and numerous books were written dedicated to the re-inclusion of women in the Western art narrative. 
For instance, in 1977, Nochlin teamed up with Ann Sutherland-Harris, to curate the exhibition Women Artists, 1550-1950 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  It was a landmark exhibition; it was the first of its kind.  According to an online article by Jessica Cresseveur, Time magazine’s Robert Hughes referred to it as “one of the most significant theme shows to come along in years.  [It] re-introduced into the canon the works of many ‘lost’ women artists […]”

A significant outcrop of the discussion was also the emergence in 1985 of the Guerrilla Girls – a group of feminist artists using pseudonyms of past women artists and poster art, advocating gender and racial balance within the art world.  What follows are summary descriptions of just four of their provocative posters
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In their inaugural year, through their posters they brought to public attention the inequitable distribution of both access to gallery space and financial remuneration for artwork. At a time when women were earning on average ⅔ of what men earned, in the art world they were earning just ⅓.  The poster did not attempt to suggest why this might be. 

Also in their inaugural year in the poster How many women had one-person exhibitions at NYC museums last year? they revealed that of four major New York City museums, only one – Museum of Modern Art – had hosted a woman artist’s one-person show in the previous year.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art did not.  Neither did the Whitney Museum nor the Guggenheim.

The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist, done in1988 used irony to bring to public attention 13 realities of being a woman artist.  Amongst the list of advantages the Guerrilla Girls noted the following:  “Not having to be in shows with men, Being assured that whatever kind of art you make it will be labeled feminine, Being included in revised versions of art history, and Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius.”

A very revealing poster by the Guerrilla Girls is the 1989, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? established the percentage of women artists in the modern arts section – 5% against the number of female nudes – 85%.  Sadly, in 2005 they found the situation at 3% against 83%. 
The Guerilla Girls have also written several texts.  Included amongst these is Guerilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. 

Several other significant texts (ie, Whitney Chadwick’s Women, Art and Society) and exhibitions have emerged from the discourse.  Perhaps a most significant outcrop is the establishment of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA).  In 1987, it opened at its permanent location in Washington, DC with the inaugural exhibition American Women Artists, 1830-1930. For about 6 years prior tours were offered of the Museum’s permanent collection at the Holladay residence while the building acquired to host the collection was being refurbished.

The Museum’s collection began to be formed in the 1960s by Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and her husband.  Their effort was stimulated by the emerging discussions on the under-representation of women in visual arts.

Therefore, in the 1960s discussion was have there been no great women Artists? and pioneered the field of feminist art theory.  In 1977, Nochlin and Sutherland-Harris curated the exhibition Women Artists, 1550-1950 – the first such exhibition.  In 1987 the NMWA was opened.  In 1987, Nesha Haniff visited Guyana and asked her question and in 1987 also the GWAA was formed.  In 1988, the GWAA hosted its first annual exhibition.

It is hoped that it has been established that the essay by Linda Nochlin added to the ongoing discussion on re-evaluating and re-positioning women’s art in the art history texts and in exhibitions.  I hope too that with the sequence of events outlined, one can see that an intellectual environment had been created that stimulated a question which in turn led to the formation of one of Guyana’s venerable art institutions – the Guyana Women Artists’ Association. 
Since its formation the association has hosted exhibitions in Barbados, Canada and the United Kingdom.  On two occasions the body has exhibited work within the context of Carifestas – in Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana.  Individually its members have exhibited at the festival and further afield and have won local and international awards.

A fair assessment of the association’s activities against its mandate will reveal it has been successful: to stimulate interest and encourage the creative effort of women artists whose activities are focused on different areas of the visual arts as displayed in individual and collective ventures and to support those members whose goals are directed towards personal gratifications, careers or self-employment. 

An unfair assessment, which is often echoed, is dismissal of its member artists’ work as hobbyists.  Unfortunately, within the context of the poor support of visual artists in Guyana many are forced to pursue art as an adjunct career.  What ought to be recognised is that the association over the years has brought work which, whether based in formal or auto-didactic situations, has instructed and offered new technical approaches to exploring themes. 
GWAA has the distinct honour of being the oldest institution promoting the art of artists in Guyana.  For this it ought to be commended and supported in its efforts to support its members and a wider community’s interest in art.
The Guyana Women Artists’ Associations’ 22nd Annual Exhibition will be held from November 7-16 at the National Library, Church Street, Georgetown.

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