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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.</