In 2016, The National Women in the Arts Museum began the project #5WomenArtists, which involved asking the question ‘Can you name 5 women artists?’ every March during Women’s History Month. Before writing this article, I asked my friends and family to name any five artists that came to mind. Myself, my family and friends all easily listed Picasso, Van Gogh, Andy Warhol, Monet, Michelangelo, etc., but to come up with five female artists we had to do so collectively, and even then, we still struggled. Why couldn’t we list women artists as well as we could male artists? Where are the women in art? Are they not there? Or are they just not seen?
Female artists have always been here. Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe, Faith Ringgold, Bertha Morisot, to name a few. Well, where did they go? Nowhere. They’re still right here. A study conducted by the Freelands Foundation discovered that in the UK, 64% of undergraduates and 65% of postgraduates in art and design degrees are female. So why do some of us struggle to name five female artists? Well, that same study also found that in the top commercial galleries in London, 68% of the artists represented are men. Essentially, female artists are always present, always creating, but hardly ever represented.
Unfortunately, the problem with the underrepresentation of women in art stems from a general lack of appreciation for female artists from collectors, billionaire buyers, and galleries alike. A data analysis report in 2018 looking into the diversity of artists in major US museums found that of the 18 major art museums, the collections held were made up of 87% male artists and 85% white artists. This is sadly almost unsurprising. It’s relatively well known that art created by women sells for around 50% less than artworks by men at auctions globally, meaning not only are women underrepresented in the art world, but they’re also undervalued and underpaid.
It’s important to pay attention to and appreciate the work of female artists in order to do anything about this. To start us off, let’s look at Faith Ringgold. Born in 1930, Ringgold is an American artist and author, who has always been heavily engaged in the fight for civil rights and gender equality. Early on in her career, Ringgold used oil paints to create pieces based around the exploration and celebration of African American history and gender inequality. During the 70s, Ringgold began instead to create narrative quilts. Ringgold would use acrylics to paint on canvas with fabric borders, this technique is what is commonly recognised as the Tibetan thangkas (the painting of cotton or silk applique, usually illustrating a Buddhist deity). In the ‘70s, Ringgold also painted political posters, crafted African-style masks, and was constantly involved in pushing for racial integration. In 1974, Ringgold became a founding member of the National Black Feminist Organisation in addition to becoming a founding member of ‘Where We At’, Black Women Artists, a women’s art collective based in New York. Faith Ringgold also taught art at the University of California from 1987-2002, and has received over 75 awards during her lifetime, including 22 honorary Doctor of the Fine Arts Degrees.
Whether you were already aware of Faith Ringgold or not, both her story and work are undeniably fascinating. It makes us wonder why she isn’t spoken about with the same adoration as the likes of Picasso and Van Gogh. So, what can I do to make a difference? Well, the good news is: a lot! The National Museum of Women in the Arts is a great starting point. Filled with the tools to educate and help out, the organisation runs regular online workshops and annual Wikipedia edit-a-thons which the Museum describes as an
“edit-a-thon focused on improving Wikipedia entries related to notable women artists and art world figures… since 2014, tens of thousands of people have created or improved nearly 60,000 Wikipedia articles about women in the arts.”
Going forward, challenge yourself and your friends to name #5WomenArtists, support and buy from local female artists, and praise institutions that actually do a great job of representing absolutely everyone.