The National Museum of Women in the Arts has one task for you: Name five women artists.
You might not be able to. It’s a task many have failed at before.
“Women artists have been working just as long as male artists have, but you just don’t know about them,” says Emily Haight, a digital editorial associate for NMWA. “Their contributions have either been forgotten or obscured or ignored.”
For too long, artwork by women has appeared in fewer places than work by men, from prominent institutions to smaller galleries. From 2007 to 2013, women artists made up only 27 percent of solo shows in the United States.
Men continue to outnumber women in museum director roles. Although we are inching toward parity in terms of who fills the positions, the gender pay gap is vast: On average, female directors earned 73 cents for every dollar that male directors earned, according to the Association of Art Museum Directors. Women are also running museums with much smaller budgets.
Though inequality persists, progress is being made. Social media is mobilizing museums and visitors to post photos of artwork, and campaigns like #5WomenArtists challenges them to narrow their focus. The initiative is now in its third year, and the hashtag has more than 13,000 tagged posts on Instagram. This year, NMWA is encouraging people to focus on women of color.
As we saw last week when a photo of 2-year-old Parker Curry staring at Michelle Obama’s portrait went viral, representation in museums can have a profound effect.
“Museum institutions have the power to influence people’s ideas because they qualify what matters in the eyes of the world,” the artist behind Obama’s portrait, Amy Sherald, told Gallery Gurls, a site dedicated to highlighting women of color in the arts, last year. “Seeing artists in these places is important and always has been.”
In honor of International Women’s Day, Haight chose five women artists for us to highlight in The Lily: Alma Woodsey Thomas, Amy Sherald, Lalla Essaydi, Hung Liu and Frida Kahlo.
When Alma Woodsey Thomas retired as an art teacher in 1960, she was nearly 70. Her retirement signaled a new chapter.
Thomas grew up in Columbus, Ga., and came to Washington, D.C., with her parents when she was a teenager. In 1924, she became the first graduate of Howard University’s fine arts program, and she painted throughout her career as a teacher. But she didn’t start creating the colorful, abstract works that she is now known for until the 1960s. Her work captivated art lovers. In 1972, when Thomas was 77, she became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum.
“When I was a little girl in Columbus, there were things we could do and things we couldn’t” Thomas told the New York Times that year.
She drew inspiration from the natural world, including gardens and parks in D.C., Haight explains. Her signature “Alma stripes” — thumb-size brushstrokes that resemble mosaic tiles — appear in the two pieces on display at NMWA, the “Orion," from her “Space Paintings” series, and “Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses.”
“It’s very jubilant and pretty, almost like confetti,” Haight says.
Amy Sherald became known nationally this year for her portrait Michelle Obama, which she unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery last month. Those unfamiliar with Sherald questioned her choices: The painting didn’t look like Obama, some complained. Why was the former first lady’s skin color gray?
Sherald consistently uses graytones to paint her portraits, and they rest on vibrant, colorful backgrounds. It’s a way of “deconstructing race and asking that question about what race means to us as a people,” Sherald told NMWA. All of her subjects are black. Some are friends, and others are people she spots on the street. In her paintings, she sometimes outfits them differently, giving them objects to hold, like a ship model or a toy stick horse. In “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)” — for which she won first prize in the prestigious 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition — the woman holds an oversized teacup and saucer.
When people visit NMWA, they gravitate toward her paintings, Haight says. “They Call Me Redbone but I’d Rather be Strawberry Shortcake” and “It Made Sense … Mostly in Her Mind” are large and impossible to miss.
At a NMWA event last year, the museum asked if she would consider making smaller works. She said yes, but in a museum environment, “the bigger the better.”
“I want to take up that space,” Sherald said. “I don’t want anyone visiting the museum and wondering if there was an Amy Sherald in there. I want them to know it was an Amy Sherald.”
Sherald “is reinserting black figures into this art historical canon where you were not seeing them before,” Haight says. “She definitely has some staying power.”
Lalla Essaydi’s art draws from her experiences as an Arab woman who grew up in a traditional Muslim household in Marrakech, Morocco. Her work depicts women posing in ornate sets that Essaydi creates from scratch. She photographs the women, who sometimes stare sensually directly into the lens of the camera.
“Traditionally, the presence of men has defined public spaces: the streets, the meeting places, the places of work,” Essaydi writes in her artist’s statement. “Women, on the other hand, have been confined to private spaces, the architecture of the home.”
“In my photographs, I am constraining the women within space and also confining them to their ‘proper’ place, a place bounded by walls and controlled by men,” she continues.
The photographs reflect the orientalist iconography popularized in 19th century paintings, when women in the Middle East and North Africa were portrayed as highly sexualized to Western societies. Rather than looking at her work with a male gaze, Essaydi wants people to be aware that the images they see are a fantasy, not real life.
Essaydi also uses calligraphy in her work, an art form typically reserved for men. In a twist, Essaydi writes using henna, which is often worn by women. In “Bullets Revisited No. 3,” a set of three chromogenic prints on aluminum on display at NMWA, a woman is lying down, her body covered with words. At first glance, Haight says, you might notice that the woman is gorgeous: Her long hair is draped over a bed, nearly touching the floor, and adorned in gold and silver.
“Then you get a little bit closer,” Haight says, and “you realize there are polished bullet casings everywhere. It gives you this sense of beauty and danger. It’s alluring but it also forces you to take a step back.”
The piece reflects how women were treated after the Arab Spring, Essaydi says: “Women have been at the forefront of the uprisings … and as soon as these new regimes took hold, women were subordinated anew.”
When artist Hung Liu was born in Changchun, China, in 1948, Mao Zedong was leading the country. Her family suffered extreme hardship, and her father was detained. During the Cultural Revolution, when Mao was intent on reasserting his control over the Communist party, Liu was sent for “re-education” in the countryside, where she labored in rice and wheat fields for four years.
In 1984, Liu was able to travel to the United States, where she began her graduate studies at the Visual Arts Department at the University of California San Diego. After completing her degree, she remained in the United States, and she now lives in Oakland, Calif.
Her work in NMWA shows off Liu’s printing and collage techniques, and her subjects remain the same: Ordinary Chinese people.
“She’s elevating subjects that didn’t receive recognition,” Haight says. “Even though you don’t have names for these people, these are subjects that we shouldn’t forget. Just because they weren’t leaders of a particular movement doesn’t mean they didn’t play a part. It’s a way of remembering people and resurrecting history.”
Although she is best known as a painter, Liu’s tapestry work is equally stunning. “Rainmaker“ is particularly intriguing.
“From far away it looks like another print or painting, but then when you get closer, you realize it’s thread,” Haight says. The girl has dragonflies in her hair, and it appears as if “you’re looking through a rainy windowpane.”
Perhaps one of the world’s most recognizable women artists, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo died in 1954 at 47. As a young adult, she was in a bus accident, and she never fully recovered, living in pain for most of her life. Initially confined to her bed after suffering multiple fractures, she painted mostly self-portraits, later saying, “I paint myself because I am frequently alone. I am the theme which I know best.”
In 1939, the Louvre bought “The Frame,” one of her self-portraits. Despite being the first Mexican artist whose work was acquired by the Louvre, Kahlo was known for her marriage to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. She had few solo exhibitions during her life.
In 1977, when her first painting appeared at auction, it sold for $19,000, a low price considering her acclaim. The following year, biographer Hayden Herrera organized a Frida Kahlo exhibit in Chicago, laying the groundwork for the “Cult of Frida.”
“She’s had so much influence after her death,” Haight says. She is now considered a Mexican treasure and a feminist icon.
“She looks a little bit more demure than in her other self-portraits, which are really psychological or shocking,” Haight says.
In the painting, she holds a letter dedicated to Leon Trotsky, a Marxist revolutionary who was in exile in Mexico. Kahlo and Trotsky had an obvious affair while they were both married and not far from their spouses.
“With all my love,” the note reads.