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In 1985, the anonymous group of art activists known as Guerrilla Girls posed a striking question in their work “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?” This screen print on paper featured a woman reclining nude while wearing a gorilla mask and was accompanied by a sobering statistic: "Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female."
Since then, women artists have challenged the status quo of a male-dominated art world and redefined our expectations of the female form through their work. Today, as a new generation of artists takes the helm, ideas of femininity, sexuality, and gender continue to be explored through new approaches and technologies. Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze, written by arts and culture journalist Charlotte Jansen, highlights some of the incredible artists from this new generation who are producing meaningful works from their unique perspectives.
Here, Jansen speaks with BuzzFeed News on the history of women in art and what this new generation of artists are doing to challenge the patriarchy.
How have women been traditionally portrayed in art throughout history?
Charlotte Jansen: Art history has been dominated by what we know as the “male gaze," which offers a very narrow idea of what a female body is, what it does, and what it’s capable of. Throughout art history, the female body has always served some kind of sexual objectification or is heavily politicized in a sense that if doesn’t conform with the conventional idea of sexual gratification, then it must mean that it’s a feminist or political statement.
We're also exposed so frequently to women’s bodies every day that it’s impossible to not see just one semi-clad woman you’re walking around, not even talking about being on a screen. So I really wanted to analyze what that means and how these photographers are responding and perhaps even overturning that.
How does Girl on Girl approach how women are depicted in art?
CJ: For the book, I interviewed 40 female artists and had an honest conversation with them about their work, without trying to make presumptions or pigeonhole them because of their gender. I asked them why they photograph women, what they're trying to do, and what the response to their work has been like.
I found that there were some commonalities between these artists as well. While their work, backgrounds, and cultures are very different, they also had some very strong shared experiences. One such experience is that they all talked about the fact that they didn’t feel comfortable photographing strangers, which I found very interesting. All of them photographed women in their community because they didn’t feel comfortable owning somebody else’s image.
A lot of the photographers I interviewed also had bad experiences in art school and were told by people that they’re just doing what Cindy Sherman did. To me, it's shocking to think that nobody can work with costume and self-portraiture just because Sherman did it too. Is there only space for one female photographer to do this type of work? I’m not trying to say that all women see the world in the same way, but there are shared experiences that we do share as women and that does affect the way we approach the world and see it.
I’m not trying to say that all women see the world in the same way, but there are shared experiences that we do share as women and that does affect the way we approach the world and see it.
Who are some of these artists you interviewed?
CJ: There’s several sorts of strands through this book, one of which are a group of very young, hyper-feminine Instagram artists who were exploding onto the scene in the mid-2010s — artists like Petra Collins, Mayan Toledano, Maya Fuhr. These artists are very interesting in the way that they circumvent the usual way of showing art and getting your message out there. They’re making work for their community, for young teenage girls and young women, and have been very effective in building a community around their aesthetic.
Zanele Muholi is another artist who is such an example of someone who is using photography to actually change people’s ideas and to tell stories that have been invisible. She photographed her community in South Africa and the diaspora. A lot of these women have been raped or have suffered some kind of sexual abuse or hate crime; some have died since she photographed them. These are stories that have been absent from the media and she approaches in a very direct yet intimate manner.
What's something unexpected you've come away with while working on this book?
CJ: I think I’ve learned that I had a lot of prejudices about art. For example, before when I looked at sexy images of women or selfies, I would preemptively have certain reactions and begin formulating opinions about the artists as narcissistic. I would often find myself holding an opinion that this can’t be a true form of self-empowerment. I think I’ve changed my mind about this sentiment over the course of doing this book, and I've realized just how entrenched some of these ideas around femininity in art are in our reactions to images.
What do you hope that the next generation of women artists get from your book?
CJ: I always hope that the book inspires them to create. I hope that they know that just because you’re a woman, or just because you look a certain way or have a certain body, that it shouldn’t limit you in terms of your creativity and what you can do with a camera.
I want them to not be afraid either. I think putting your body out there is one of the bravest things you can do as a female artist. If you have a strong conviction or idea, you don’t need to be held back by your gender anymore. Just go for it.