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“We knew we were making history" -Alexis Hunter

How has self-representation changed in art over time?

Aviva Baig

'Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird' was painted by Frida Kahlo in 1940. In this portrait, Frida Kahlo showcases a background with pale green and yellow leaves. There are several symbolic creatures in this painting. Thorns wrap around her neck like a necklace; she bleeds. A hummingbird hangs from the thorns. A black monkey and black cat present over her shoulders, but Frida Kahlo is seen standing calm and firm.

"My paintings carry with them the message of pain," said Kahlo. That is the magic of surrealist feminist art. The hummingbird usually symbolizes freedom and life, but the hummingbird is black and lifeless in this painting. Kahlo spent most of her life in physical pain after a bus accident when she was eighteen. This painting is about her suffering.

Kahlo added layers of her identity in her portraits, which pushed past existing boundaries and acknowledged the cruel, unjust world towards women. The iconic unibrow, hair dressed in flowers, and the visible moustache are the features that Frida Kahlo is instantly recognised by.

Refusing to be tied down, she set her own standards. She celebrated characteristics that patriarchal societies had labeled unfeminine and ugly. She painted women with real experiences, and most importantly, she challenged her fate as a victim.

In all its phases, the Feminist movement has specifically impacted the art world and the real world. Throughout feminist art exploration, social issues such as sexism, materialism, classism, and other historic specifications have come to light.

Counterculture movements, like the Feminist movement, inspired several artists to immortalize the struggles that they were facing. Works created from the late 1960s through the early '70s focused on women's lives and experiences — primarily in domestic contexts — which built on the so-called second wave of feminism.

The 1960s and 1970s showcased significant changes in the United States of America from family life to the workplace which promoted equal rights and opportunities; however, it was also dangerous for women at that time to promote or express their content as it 'corrupted' their reputation in this misogynistic environment. It happened because of the stereotype of 'you cannot be a woman, and an artist' or 'women cannot have their point of view.'

Feminist art emerged when female artists wanted to break through these very misconceptions without sacrificing the artwork's objective.

Art had always been gendered. According to Laura Mulvey, a British feminist and film theorist, the male gaze sexualizes women to create them as a spectacle for the male viewer. Further, women are not possessors of the gaze and, instead, are 'objects.' This adds to the gender power imbalance to "satisfy" the male gaze. This has reinforced all the stereotypes that reduce women to what they looked like and their purpose. This is also why feminist art is crucial to look at – the type of art female artists were creating added to the movement's larger historical legacy.

Susan Sontag, an American philosopher, filmmaker, and activist, in her essay 'Against Interpretation', said, "In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art can make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable." So, what happens when we re-interpret art today?

When we re-look at the art produced during the second wave of feminism, we understand that there was a significant reversal. Women did not want to continue seeing men draw women. They wanted to change the narrative. These women were now making art about their own bodies and were talking about sexual hypocrisy and misogyny. They took ownership of their power. And, it was only the beginning.

According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 51 percent of visual artists today are women. However, when it comes to exhibitions and gallery representation, the numbers tell a less optimistic story. In London, for example, 78 percent of the galleries represent more men than women, while only 5 percent represents an equal number of male and female artists.

Both feminism and feminist art continue to evolve. Whether we as a society chose to ignore it or accept it, women have always been making art. Women were always sewing clothes for their children and grandchildren and have heavily contributed to design, fine art and performance art. These movements and the art, sought to question and redefine the ideas and words that have been transmitted about womanhood, gender, beauty, sexuality, femininity, and masculinity. Moreover, now that it is visible, going back is no longer acceptable.

Edited by Shaardhool Shreenath, Pujit Tandon