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Women's Eye I: The female artist's gaze

Before the American artist Miriam Shapiro was known as a “feminist” artist she painted abstract art. As such in the ‘60s her art superficially appeared like that of her male contemporaries, however, it didn’t attract much attention. This was one of the reasons she started to make obvious feminist art from domestic things (a doll’s house, textiles) that spoke about the condition of being a woman.

The fourth wave of feminism that has taken hold, leading to hashtag campaigns such as #freethenipple and the more contentious, #menaretrash, and widespread global protests against Donald Trump, has finally put the female voice upfront and centre. Does all this female activism mean that art made by women must evoke domestic life to get noticed?

Perusing the catalogue for Aspire’s auction, which will take place in Joburg on July 17th, it appears that South Africa’s female artists remain fixated with representing the female body. Two charcoal drawings by Diane Victor present the female form, as do several works by Penny Siopis (it so rare for her art not to, even when she paints a still life). A younger generation of artists, such as Gabrielle Goliath and Jessica Webster also present female subjects, though in Goliath’s striking 2010 series Berenice, where she presents portraits of so-called coloured women, she digs into where this theme intersects with race. A 2009 photograph titled the Golden Mask, produced by the internationally renowned female performance artist, Marina Abramovic, tellingly features her face covered in gold leaf, as if literally conveying the value of the female body/identity. Estimated to sell for almost R2-million it certainly is valuable.

The work of female artists is gaining in value, as museums have, finally turned their attention to overlooked female painters from Shapiro’s era. Female abstract expressionists are finally enjoying their place in the sun at a large survey of this art at the Denver Art Museum and at Moma, the famous New York art institution where Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction is showing. In London Tracy Emin’s infamous unmade bed installation is in conversation with the art of male ‘masters’ such as Francis Bacon.

In South Africa male artists might outnumber female ones and have hogged the limelight, but they have faired as well at auction, if not better. An Irma Stern work has fetched the highest amount on auction – R21-million. Maggie Labuser, one of her contemporaries also does well on the secondary market. One of her landscape works on Aspire’s Winter auction is valued between R1 and R1,5 million. In the contemporary stakes William Kentridge may appear to be leading but it is the painter Marlene Dumas whose paintings sell for around the $1-million range.

Girl power can’t necessarily be measured in numbers, perhaps their impact is better gauged via prominence and, as Shapiro discovered back then, how they are shifting the dialogue around women and pushing for equality.

Women continue to be stuck in a precarious space, are at the mercy of men and their bodies. Or so might be the message behind Victor’s Daphne (undated) which presents a naked woman caught in a thorny bush. She is also threatened by a dark male figure. The young ideal body in that drawing contrasts with the female subject in Untitled (from Theatrical Character series) featuring an older woman with her puckered thighs on show. This work is probably more characteristic of Victor’s art, in which she delivers these rough unpalatable scenes – the unseen, the unsightly.

Sight, seeing and been seen are themes that unite the work by female artists. This is likely to be in response to the high visibility or privileging of the body as the defining essence and power of femininity. This idea is most prominent in Siopis’s Pinky Pinky (Red Eyes) oil painting in which a pair of eyes stand out against the pink flesh that fills the canvas. In this way the eyes and the idea of looking out and being looked at, a consciousness of constant scrutiny dominates. In resisting the viewer’s gaze the subject appears ashamed and powerless. As the title of this work and the series, the eponymous 2002 exhibition it is linked to, suggests these subjects are pure flesh - the pink impasto paint alludes to this. It’s as if their skin has been ripped off, leaving this vulnerable wounded naked subject. The pink colour obviously evokes femininity too, an imposed idea of it, which perhaps forces the subject to perform in a certain way – to look away, to feel shame, while similarly wanting to be looked at. Perhaps this is the source of the shame and contradiction inherent in being female.

The politics of the gaze, who is looking at whom and how this sets up certain traditional power relations, is best communicated via the eyes. In Irma Stern’s portraits of women it is interesting to observe when they engage with the viewer, or how they look out, registering their consciousness of being observed or resisting it. In Woman with orange, which is expected to sell at he Aspire auction for around R250 000, the subject looks down. In the catalogue Andrew Lamprecht suggests that this forces the viewer to look away from the centre of the painting. Her stance reads as a sign of demureness, as does her position - seated on the ground with her legs drawn up to her stomach and her bare feet. This recoiled position could be read as resistance to the way women’s bodies are studied, but there is the sense that the subject lacks the confidence to be ‘looked at’, she is beyond notice. Only the artist sees her, in a way.

Abramovic, is easily the most well-known female artist of our times and as such is ‘powerful’ – yet and maybe because of this her art and its value is directly tied to her body and how it is consumed, positioned and understood in the context of her live performances. Her most well-known performance – The Artist is Present, is centred on looking – her staring into the eyes of whichever member of the public stepped into Moma during a retrospective in 2010. Abramovic sat inert in a chair and simply offered to gaze at whomever was seated across from her. Nothing more, nothing less. Some people wept, as if proving the impact of looking, really looking, can be.

She has performed in Joburg, at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in a 2005 exhibition curated by Kendell Geers. Fortunately for Joburgers, she did a lot more than look at people – she emptied pap and bloodied organs onto the floor. However, for the first time her art will be on sale in SA, at the Aspire auction.

The photographic work titled Golden Mask, is a still from the film in which only her face is visible – her body is concealed in a black background. In typical fashion she doesn’t perform or even move; it is the gold leaf, partially covering her face that flaps back and forth in a gentle wind. It brings Siopis’s Pinky Pinky work to mind as Abramovic’s her eyes stand out from this textured gold mess and the dark background. Unlike Siopis’s subject she looks directly at the viewer without a sense of shame – perhaps because we can’t see her body.

Abramovic has rejected the idea that she is a feminist artist or makes feminist art.

“It puts you in a category and…an artist has no gender,” is what she has argued. Ironically, this articulates her feminist stance, her desire to be seen as an artist first. Ultimately, this is what all female artists desire, though right now, being a female one gives them the edge. First published in Business Day.

  • Aspire’s winter auction takes place on July 17th at Park on 7 Hyde Park Corner. Corrigall will lead an artcrawl at the venue on July 14th at 7pm titled A Woman’s Eye. Tickets are R150 and can be booked on


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