Women in Art Today
Introduction: Everyday Resistance in the Art Space
by Jeffreen M. Hayes
Art is one of the few spaces where the silenced, the invisible and the othered can turn their experiences into radical acts that challenge projected racial, sexual and gendered stereotypes. Contemporary art for women, femme-identified people and women artists of color is a powerful mode of resistance in our current socio-political times.
While some are currently looking to these artists for their responses, their work, for the most part, has always engaged in the socio-political issues, as these issues have been present for them long before the current political climate. Artists like Andrea Chung, Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Kirsten Leenaars, and Deborah Roberts use their artistic voices to call attention to the very issues that woke up America during and immediately after the election of Donald Trump—immigration, racism, sexism and violence, among many others.
The artists listed above are a small sampling of the many women artists and women artists of color doing the work of truth-telling. They define their work for themselves as a radical act of self-definition, an important practice taken from Black feminist practices. In this moment, those in and outside of the art world look to artists, and specifically women-identifying artists, to make sense of the unraveling of our values and humanity.
Since the election of Trump to the presidency, women, femme-identified people and people of color have employed myriad ways to organize, protest and resist. Some participated in marches and organizations such as the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and May Day Action. Some used their social media platforms to highlight the value of communities vulnerable to America’s current policies.
Just to be clear, many of these policies have been bubbling to the surface for a long time, and many of these individuals have been using their platforms to create this space since long before the 2016 election night. Then, of course, there are artists, curators, art museums, art spaces and philanthropic foundations that are stepping up to this moment of urgency, one key aspect of which is to reconnect with each other and with our humanity.
How are these intertwined entities responding or stepping up?
By actively challenging the status quo of the white, heterosexual, male-dominated and male-centric art world and practicing inclusion and equity. Women artists and women artists of color can only be supported when those of us with access to the halls of power, myself included, intentionally create opportunities and access for those living in the margins. What this means is that curators, art museums, art spaces and the foundations are removing the barriers to financial support, exhibitions and studio support.
We are responding by inviting artists in to do exhibitions, residencies, and programming and connecting them to our colleagues in positions to help them evolve. Philanthropic foundations are partnering with women-led and African, Latino(a), Asian, Arab, and Native American- (ALAANA)-led arts non-profits to support their efforts by granting funds in an equitable manner. The latter is important work for the resistance and how artists and arts organizations can thrive not only in the moment but also when the fervor dies down because the fervor always dies down when it comes to women and people of color.
When the fervor dies down, the challenges that these artists—women and people of color—face continue: lack of critical reviews, media profiles and attention, equitable access to residency programs that provide financial support for the duration of the program, support for artist mothers, access to grants and artist fellowships, sales of work in the gallery and secondary market and, perhaps most important, being seen as artists contributing to our culture and society.
There is a bit of a double-edged sword in that identifying as a woman, femme or woman artist of color can be limiting for some while it is something to embrace without apology for others. However an artist identifies, today is a time of empowerment through the arts and the artistic voice.
The artistic voice is a safe space.
Some of the most powerful and impactful works in contemporary art are the works that connect lived experiences with an awareness of how beautiful difference is and can be in a moment where difference is the primary reason for hate and division. More and more women and women artists of color are gaining access to share their experiences in their artistic voice.
Let’s work together to support and uplift their voices and the safe spaces in which they must live today and for generations to come.
Jeffreen M. Hayes, Ph.D., is a curator and executive director of Threewalls, a Chicago non-profit organization dedicated to contemporary art practice and discussion.