Where are the female artists?

by Julia Lima

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

ARTEQUEACONTECE interviewed curators Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta about the exhibition “Radical Women“, on display at the Pinacoteca, and also about feminist movements, violence, contemporary art, the spaces occupied by women artists and perspectives for revising female representation in art history.

The exhibition is a version of the original show, presented at the Hammer Museum in 2017, in Los Angeles, and later at the Brooklyn Museum, in New York. But, despite being reduced, this Pinacoteca assembly brings news: artists and works that did not appear in the itinerances are now part of the exhibition body brought to São Paulo, such as Wilma Martins with the series “Cotidiano” and Maria do Carmo Secco, whose work is part of from the institution's collection.

According to Fajardo-Hill, bringing the exhibition to a Latin country, especially Brazil, was essential to the project: the exhibition features 25 Brazilian artists, which reinforces the country's role in this reinterpretation of the history of contemporary art. Learn more in the interview below.


Julia Lima: Andrea, why do you claim that we cannot say that all the artists in the exhibition are feminists in one way or another?

Andrea Giunta: I can say that many of these artists were working at a time when women's rights were at the forefront, they were working in the cultural horizon of the time. But many of them say they don't want to be recognized as a “female artist”, they want to be recognized as artists. But in fact the concept of an artist is a concept created from a patriarchal perspective, Cecilia and I said that it was necessary to create a new concept of an artist, because this idea of an artist is someone dedicated exclusively to production, he studies and works. But the woman artist has to find time because she has children, she has a house, she has a husband. She has to take care of sick family members, the elderly – the woman is always responsible. That's why we have to change the concept of an artist. That's why we focus on the works, they created it, and nobody can erase it. Sometimes the artist went into exile, or even died, but with these works it is impossible to ignore that they existed. She may have even done an amazing job, but when they go to write the story, they eliminate her. So for us the problem is very complex. I work a lot with statistics to prove that the representation of women in contemporary art is much smaller than that of men. In the best case, it is 30%, and in the worst case, zero. Recently someone told me that in Brazil we don't have this problem, but I always say that we have to do the math.

JL: Having already done this research, these accounts, I can tell you that this is not true. Galleries in Brazil have from 5 to 10% of female artists in their paintings.

AG: Well, when we point out 3 women, people talk as if there were already many, as if it were enough. This is a permanent deletion. And it's very difficult because there are still very patriarchal women. But we say that this current feminism, this new feminism, is based on an important change of posture: for us, the important thing is transformation, not confrontation; because there is no point in confronting and saying “you are sexist”. I used to be sexist too. Especially within the art circuit, which is especially sexist, and more, racist and classist.

JL: And what do you think we can do within that medium to change things?

AG: I am part of a group in Argentina that has just managed to establish equal representation of men and women in the selection of the National Salon of Visual Arts. I have already worked in Argentina for a long time and I wrote to the Minister of Culture and sent the statistics. And we didn't write a manifesto, because we believe this is a sexist genre. But we wrote a compromise, and we were criticized because it was too long (laughs). When we started with the project, many people were against and opposed our research, saying that this was a matter of the past. That's why I went to get the statistics, to prove that it's a problem.


JL: How do you see American critic Linda Nochlin's 1971 essay, “Why Were There No Great Women Artists?”, in light of your research and this exhibition?

Cecilia Fajardo Hill: I think this essay is an absolutely fundamental text, it raised a question that is very important. But I always say that the question I asked myself is “where are the women?”. I do not start from a negative assumption, I start from an affirmation: if they exist, where are they? And you have to find them. This was one of the first feminist texts I read. First I read Simone de Beauvoir, but I had no direct connection with art. The first feminist text I read that made me question myself about art was this one. But for Latin America, in the 21st century, we can no longer use this question [posed by Linda Nochlin]. We already know that they exist, because after this text they found Artemisia Gentileschi, and many other women. Today we know that many women painted under male pseudonyms or that they were not recognized. Women never had a place, not even in Greece which was the height of Western civilization – in Greek theatre, which was so important, female roles were performed by men. Women had no place, this patriarchal submission has been going on for a long time now. But when we started this project, we knew that there were women artists, we had to find them, and that's why this research was so necessary.

JL: Why were so many years of research?

CFH: Yes, because the research was necessary, but also because the project started in a museum that later did not want to continue, and we were left without a place. But I knew it was something I had to do, I was done! And then Hammer was looking for a project, and they called me. I presented the research and they called me. The museum loved the proposal. And it was beautiful because we didn't have to explain why it was important to show women. That was three years after we started, three years of people saying the project was rubbish, our peers included. The argument was that this exhibition was not necessary, that women artists already have space, and that holding an exhibition only for women was a patriarchal, stereotypical concept. But I am an art historian, I have the right to study a subject that matters to me, that is important! The basis of art history is research, how could they tell me that this field is not necessary? When we went to countries to do research and asked some researchers, curators and local artists if they knew female artists from that period, several times the answer was “I don't know any”. What happens is that when people write books, they even know who the important artists are, but they choose not to include them in their research, and this is the hierarchy of visibility – in this visibility, artists who were really important are erased.

JL: Of course, art history is written by the winners. In this sense, is the representation of the woman's body also a problem?

CFH: Yes, they erase languages that are not hegemonic, they see art that is not European as primitive. When I was studying art history, we saw women in the works of Renaissance artists like Botticelli, we thought “where are women like us?”. We couldn't find them. Our body is not the classic body of a tall, white, blonde woman. Women were represented in art history either because they were beautiful, in this pattern, or because they were important. In the exhibition, we have a democratic body. We are all represented here. In this matter of the body, the problem is not only in the representation. They sterilized women without their consent, like eugenics. They had to control the population, so Latinas, Chicanas, black women were sterilized so they wouldn't have more children. Exclusion from patriarchy involves violence such as abuse, but also these measures, to eliminate the possibility of reproduction, and eliminate the possibility of being represented.

JL: Something interesting about the period addressed in the exhibition is that these women were not in contact, they had not formed a network, but they were producing similar things because they were dealing with similar issues. Is it possible to say that they created a unique language?

CFH: Sure! Between 60 and 85, when the contemporary language as we understand it today was established, these women, who theoretically were in subordinate countries, were experiencing in the same way, they were producing in the same way. They were experimenting with using cameras, which is why there are so many photo-performances in the exhibition. They didn't perform them in public because, perhaps, they didn't have an audience.

JL: Or maybe because repression and censorship wouldn't allow it.

CFH: Yes, many times the police arrived and confiscated the work or repressed the women. They had to stop or try to do it somewhere else. And it was dangerous. Especially since many of them worked during dictatorships.

JL: I also think it's important to comment on the title of the show, which is not a radical woman but in the plural.

CFH: I think that if we go back to your first question, about Linda Nochlin, which is a question about the history of art, I believe that the affirmative gesture of this exhibition, in addition to having 120 different ideas of radicality (it is not a homogeneous idea of an artist radical, of a woman artist), is that for researchers of the future, especially those who do not wonder where women were, the idea is that they understand that the history of art that will be made from now on cannot be made without women. I always say that my role, a woman over 50, was to make a very simple statement: there are women, there are women, there are women! That's such a basic statement. But now what to do with this information is the duty of the next generation, to ask where they are, what are the other stories, what else can we discover from these artists? The new question should not be where they are. Are here. And there are many more.

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