The Feminist movement has been a pillar in the fight for women’s rights over the past half-century, proving resistance can lead to change. As seen throughout history, no resistance exists without the emergence of art, representing the collective and essence of a movement.
The first wave of the feminist movement emerged from the suffrage and the women’s right to vote during the mid-nineteenth century. Photography became the sole art form to represent this time, with black and white photos of women’s rights activists becoming the iconic imagery of the times.
Advocacy and involvement in the movement took a back seat between the 1920’s and 1960’s, as advertising continued to shape the women’s role as housewife and caregiver. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the second wave of the feminist movement emerged alongside LGBTQ rights, civil rights and anti-war protests, following decades of repression and inequality. Various mediums were taken on by the feminist art movement including conceptual art, performance art and alternative media as a rebellion against the historically male dominated art forms of portraiture and landscape painting. Artist Suzanne Lacy famously coined the reasoning behind art existing in the feminist movement as a way to “influence cultural attitudes and transform stereotypes”.
By the early 21st century, momentum and support for the movement had declined, with second and third-wave artists arguing that women were once more being positioned in the mass media as sexual objects.
Women’s rights have since returned to the forefront of societal issues over the last five years, seeing a revival of the feminist art movement, with artists fighting inequality with bold, unapologetic works.
These are just a handful of the iconic artists that have shaped the feminist art movement throughout history.
1960’s – Valie Export
Born from the negativity towards women based on Nazi ideology, Valie Export has created some of the most iconic performance art in history. It was her fearless and unapologetic performances, using the body to defy social norms, that gave women the confidence to have their own voice and to question perceptions around the female body and their role in society.
1970’s – See Red Women’s Workshop
A collaboration between a group of women from various backgrounds, the See Red Women’s Workshop was founded in 1974 to address the constant sexualisation of women in images, and to create positive and challenging alternatives. The group commissioned posters for radical groups and campaigns, as well as producing their own screen-prints which exude power and energy. Their work remains extremely relevant today, and the approach the women took to give legs to their art is inspiring for any feminist. Gutsy, powerful and confrontational, it is hard to deny the effect these pieces have on a viewer.
1980’s – Guerrilla Girls
The Guerrilla Girls are just that. Founded in New York in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls launched out of a desire to fight sexism and racism within the art world consisting of seven anonymous, radical feminists donning guerrilla masks. The group was founded following the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture” of which 13 women of 165 artists were listed. The Guerrilla Girls devised a new strategy to bring change following what they believed were unsuccessful protests and marches of the 1970’s, by masking their identities. They felt this necessary so that neither their personalities nor personal work would draw focus from their mission. The group took a bold approach to their art, producing protest posters that combined facts and statistics with humorous and often embarrassing imagery. The crude works gained worldwide attention for slogans such as “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”. They also showed no tolerance to artists supporting inequality, outing famous sculptors Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra in a poster asking “What do these artists have in common? They allow their work to be shown in galleries that show no more than 10% of women or none at all”. The Guerrilla Girls continue their mission today through the motto “Reinventing the ‘F’ word: Feminism!” producing events, billboards and protest art.
1990’s – Sarah Lucas
Sarah Lucas is an English artist who emerged during the 1990’s. Her work is humorous and highlights the absurdity of everyday life, through the female body and voyeurism. Lucas’ most famous work ‘Two Fried Eggs and Kebab’ draws similarities between itself and The Dinner Party, an installation by feminist artist Judy Chicago comprising of ‘39 elaborate place settings arranged along a triangular table for 39 mythical and historical famous women’. While Lucas doesn’t explicitly portray sexuality within her work, she explores the constructions of gender roles through humour and fantasy.
The Women’s March on Washington in January 2017 was the largest single-day protest in US history, and has spurred a revival in advocacy of women’s rights issues, seeing an emergence of new artists celebrating diversity, equality and freedom of religion. Partnering with the Amplifier Foundation, the march organisers invited artists to submit posters to be the official imagery of the protest. What was produced was a series of powerful art representing the fourth wave of the feminist movement including my favourite Hear our Voice by Liza Donovan showing strength and unity prevailing.