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Women art and activism: a short history of women in art.

Over the years, women artists have faced special challenges due to gender biases in the mainstream world of fine art. They have encountered difficulties in training, travelling and trading their work, and gaining recognition.

Early records of women artists

There are no records of artists of prehistoric eras. However, ethnographers and cultural anthropologists indicate that women often were the principal artisans in the cultures considered as Neolithic, creating pottery, textiles, baskets, and jewelry.

For about three thousand years, the women - and only the women - of Mithila in India have been making devotional paintings of the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. It is no exaggeration to say that this art is an expression of the most genuine aspect of Indian civilization.

In the earliest records of art in western cultures, few individuals are mentioned, although women are depicted in all of the art, some showing their labours as artists. Helena of Egypt was one of the few named women painters who might have worked in Ancient Greece. She was reputed to have produced a painting of the Battle of Issus which hung in the Temple of Peace during the time of Vespasian. In the early medieval period, women often worked alongside men. Manuscript illuminations, embroideries, and carved capitals from the period clearly demonstrate examples of women at work in these arts. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a German religious teacher, healer and abbess, who, at a time when women were often not recognized in the public and religious sphere, was also an artist, philosopher, poet, and composer of music.

Women gaining access into Academies

The Renaissance is the first period in Western history in which a number of secular female artists gained international reputation, and women artists in this period began to change the way women were depicted in art. They were not able to use nude models for their art, as the models at that time were always male, but of course they were familiar with the female body. Women such as Elisabetta Serani, created images of women as conscious beings rather than detached muses. In many countries of Europe, Art Academies were responsible for training artists, exhibiting artwork, and, inadvertently or not, promoting the sale of art. Most Academies were not open to women. This changed slightly during the 19th century, when some academies and formal art training provided access to women such as the British Government School of Design, which later became the Royal College of Art. It admitted women from its founding in 1837, albeit only into a 'Female School' which was treated somewhat differently, with 'life' - classes consisting for several years of drawing a man wearing a suit of armour.

Women artists coming to full right

During the 20th century the art world experienced the development of new styles and explorations such as Expressionism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. The modern art movement revolutionised art and culture and set the stage for Modernism and its counterpart Post Modernism, as well as other contemporary art practices. Women artists came to their full right as artists in this century.

Beginning in the late 1960s, feminist artists and art historians created a feminist art movement that overtly addressed the role of women in the art world and explored women in art history. Feminist artists produced art that reflected women's lives and experiences, and the movement related to efforts to change the foundation for the production and reception of contemporary art. It also sought to make women more visible in art history and art practice. Corresponding with general developments within feminism, the movement flourished throughout the 1970s. It has been called "the most influential international movement of any during the postwar period" and its effects continue to the present.

In 1984, the so called Guerrilla Girls came together to form what they call the "conscience of the art world". They posted flyers and posters in public spaces displaying their thoughts on issues of gender and racial inequality. The poster below embodies the obstacles women have encountered by being female artists in a patriarchal society.

My Bed is a work by the British artist Tracy Emin, first created in 1998. The installation consisted of her bed with bedroom objects in an abject state, and gained much media attention. Although it did not win a prize, the artwork generated considerable media furore particularly over the fact that the bed sheets were stained with bodily secretions and the floor had items from the artist's room, such as condoms, a pair of panties with menstrual period stains, other detritus, and functional everyday objects, including a pair of slippers.

African women artists

In Africa, being a woman artist was expected to be a part-time diversion until the late 1980s. Women were involved in craft making, home decor, fashion, and hairstyle. When they did paint, the paintings were supposed to be pretty and of pleasant vagaries. The expectation that women's art is merely decorative has persisted to some extent until today. African women artists who rose to prominence included Mary Sibande, Sokari Douglas, Marlene Dumas, Sue Williamson and Ghada Amer.

Fortunately, the new generation of African woman artists has been changing the art landscape radically. Increasingly, they are exploring issues of race, gender, domestic or psychological violence, power, territory, post-colonialism, and democracy. This committed generation of artist is raising questions about male versus female, submission versus control, tradition versus modernity, and the local versus the global. They took on the challenge of questioning their society - how they fit into it as women, and how they relate to the world as Africans.

Sources: Wikipedia (,

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Author:Sasman, Laura
Publication:Sister Namibia
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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