Since last year’s International Women’s Day, the Time’s Up movement has taken down Hollywood power players and Saudi Arabia has lifted its ban on women from driving. Women have come a long way, and it’s worth taking time to reflect on what it is to be a woman today.
We may be born female, but it is the social expectations and culture around us that sculpt us into the women we become. Here are eight artworks by female artists that explore the experiences that have made us the way we are.
Birth of Venus
Prue Stent and Honey Long, Soft Tissue, 2017
When society celebrates women, it often does so by celebrating femininity. Women are wonderful because they are nurturing, gentle, beautiful, etc etc. Oh and they LOVE pink. But where does the line between appreciating women and perpetuating limiting stereotypes? Prue Stent and Honey Long are multidisciplinary artists whose work explores their ambivalent relationship with femininity. This photograph from their series Soft Tissue cleverly echoes one of the world’s most famous images of femininity - Botticelli’s Birth of Venus - raising questions about the hold that the myth of womanhood has on society, the expectation that women ought to be modest, and women’s vulnerability to external judgement.
"Hello, How May I Help?”
Verena Issel, Hidden Agenda, 2015
Traditional gender norms in many societies often teach women to put on a public face for others - always sweet, attractive and amenable. God forbid that she should raise her voice or not shave her armpits. And perhaps there is no group for whom the gap between public and private is more jarring than sex workers. Artist Verena Issel explores their world in her work Hidden Agenda, installed in a former brothel in Yokohama, Japan. The brightly lit “showroom” invites you in through its public door on the street in the red light district, leading you through the back door to secret rooms where plant life is nurtured artificially amidst tatami mats left behind by the women who once worked there.
Bovey Lee, Sewing Highways, 2011
Bovey Lee creates intricate works through paper cutting, a Chinese practice traditionally practiced by women, turning what was customarily an anonymous craft into artworks that express her social and political views. This piece Sewing Highways, created in 2011 in response to the extraordinary pace of development in China, highlights the female labourer whose quiet industriousness has been a crucial part of a country’s progress, as highways get built as fast as fabric passing through a sewing machine.
Louise Low, Lean On You And Me: Vehicle, 2014
Malaysian artist Louise Low creates playful sculptures with bra cups that challenge taboos and preconceptions about women, including the superstition in her home country that displaying women’s underwear is unlucky. Her bra-covered car is especially apt, responding to the stereotype of the incompetent woman driver and calling out the huge impact that mobility has on a woman’s autonomy. She is now applying for a permit to take her bra car (officially a “decorative vehicle”) out on the road.
Phoebe Man, A Present For Her Growth 1, 1996
Underwear isn’t the only feminine thing that’s viewed as unlucky. With a significantly higher ick factor is that most natural of biological processes - menstruation. As if dealing with period pain wasn’t bad enough, women have had religions label them ‘unclean’ because they bleed, and even today some cultures require women to isolate themselves during their period, excluding them from work, school and social participation. In the face of such taboos, Phoebe Man’s work A Present For Her Growth, made with sanitary napkins and red-dyed eggs traditionally given out to celebrate a baby’s first birthday, is an important reminder that menstruation is part of life - crucial for creating life external to her but also a part of her own personal growth, something that could be embraced rather than dreaded.
Katie Cuddon, Celia Hempton, Roman Fountain, 2014
Female friendship is for many women a critical support system for their growth. Intimate ‘girl talk’ about everything from flirting to future careers creates a safe space for expressing vulnerability, sharing stories and advice. Ceramicist Katie Cuddon and painter Celia Hempton worked across disciplines seamlessly together for their joint show Pontoon Lip, inspired by the intimate conversations they shared over working alongside each other at a residency in Rome for a year. Their work together is playfully awkward, full of shapes and colours that hint at secrets yet leave things undefined, perhaps a bit like the meandering and agenda-less way that girls can chat all night.
Don’t Call Me Sweetie
Carrie Mae Weems, After Manet, 2002
In her photographic series, African American artist Carrie Mae Weems references Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur L’Herbe, a painting remarkable for its pair of nude female picnickers sitting oddly next to two fully clothed men. Where Manet’s female figures seemed not quite real, ghostly even, detached in the scene and glowing pale, Weems’ portrait of three black girls zeroes in on their forceful presence. They defy their frilly romantic costumes with clear-eyed confidence, refusing to be patronised.
Luo Yang, Pi Pi (Highway), 2016
The making of a woman is never complete, continually shifting and evolving. Chinese artist Luo Yang’s photograph series GIRLS captures young women on the cusp of adulthood, in a nation coming to terms with being a global superpower. Self-assured and vulnerable at the same time, the female figure in Pi Pi (Highway) could be a guide for other women today - take risks, embrace your vulnerability, and don’t be afraid of attracting stares.