Looking back over the years, the art world has seen an influx of female artists that are painting strong and definite strokes in a field that has been dominated by males for centuries. The female form and the woman herself, has been objectified, the figure of othering and fetishizing, their minds smothered and suffocated. The woman has always been the spectacle and not the designer, the architect, the painter, the photographer. It’s an inescapable fact that the Guerrilla Girls, the infamous New York gorilla masked group of female artists pointed out almost 30 years ago in their screen-print, ‘Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? However, this gender disparity that still resonates daily: ‘Less than 5% of artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female,’ is slowly being turned on its head.
Diana Chire, performance artist, curator and the editor of the magazine SheZine is one of the modern day icons shattering the art world’s misogynistic glass ceiling. The London-based artist took matters into her own hands outside 2015’s Frieze fair, staging ‘TAKE! EAT!’ - the impromptu 16-strong all-female guerrilla exhibition of underrepresented women artists. It was a revolutionary act of intersectional feminism which ironically garnered the attention of the very male artists and critics that she wished to counterpoint.
With London Drawing Group’s sold out tour ‘Female Sexuality and the Male Gaze’ at the National Gallery and an upcoming tour in September at Tate Britain ‘Female Sexuality and the Male Gaze II: Berger and the Nude’ and later in November, ‘Powerful Women: A hidden history at the National Gallery’, we are seeing real attempts to transcend the overlooked power of the muse, heroine and goddess, to unpack the ‘stories behind the stares’.
Chire’s art is the epitome of her publication, a female ‘outlet to express political stances in art and elsewhere, exploring the personal experiences that have moulded the great women they are today.' SheZine itself serves as a platform for female artists and creatives who would of otherwise been foreshadowed – or as Chire puts it ‘not adhered the full recognition’.
Chire posits the renowned artists, British, Sarah Lucas and American, Hannah Wilke as her icons, the patrons of subverting the male gaze. Alike to their photography, it is performance art that allows Chire’s body to do the speaking.
"I think women are reclaiming their sexualities from men - Art history is so used to women being the muse instead of the artist. John Berger wrote in his 1973 Ways of Seeing, describing gender politics and the woman as object: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” It is through this lens of patriarchal control that much exploitation of women has been enacted."
Female artists are now not only subverting the classical role of the muse through their autonomous art, but reclaiming their bodies, and their sexualities through documenting their raw nakedness. The 1960’s saw American photographer and conceptual artist, Hannah Wilke, rail against the norms with her vagina saturated works. Yet, alike to Frida Kahlo’s gruesome oil representations of her miscarriage, Wilke’s photographic self-portraiture evoked criticisms of ‘pornographic’ imagery and narcissism, perpetuating the clichéd male sexual objectification of the female form.
In the last decade, social media, in particular Instagram has offered modern female photographers a fast raw platform to somewhat reclaim agency over their bodies. With an Instagram following of 184k, Stephanie Sarley (@stephanie_sarley) is testament to the power of social media in catapulting female artists to fame. The spotlight shone on 27-year-old, American artist, illustrator and videographer when her Instagram video series, Fruit Fingering; (as the title suggests) caused nothing short of a frenzy. Sarley’s work, similar to an orgasm, started on impulse. She created her first video (which immediately went viral) with the original fruit of a halved blood orange, originally intending to eat it.
Short moving images of soft overripe fruit are complimented by a soundtrack consisting purely of fingers and their pressure inducing wetness. Melons, passion fruit, lemons, peppers and even avocados have all been at the mercy of Sarley, who rubs the fruits until their juices ooze. It would be an understatement to say that Fruit Fingering shocks, with her followers, or some perhaps better defined as ‘trolls’, leaving misogynistic comments and creating copy-right infringing vulgar memes.
The reception to the sexual explicitness of her work paints a perfect paradoxical picture of our current sexually dependent social media outlets; so ready to ‘like’ a tween in barely-there lingerie, and equally ready to condemn a fruit for reproducing a female organs activity. For Sarley, Fruit Fingering represents the true organic female form, the vulva, the vagina.
Hailed by art critic Jerry Saltz as a ‘Genius’, Sarley represents the immediacy of Instagram’s digitalized creative platform to showcase works that really rile people up; even offending the social media giant itself – leaving her Instagram account disabled under the guise of ‘sexual suggestive’ content.
But she’s not disheartened by the backlash. Her most recent posts include her clutching two clementine’s with a caption that reads, ‘Grab em by the balls’ and it’s this two fingers up sentiment that the lesser known Instagram superstar Giulia Joana Scientwehst (@scientwehst) heralds. She could be labelled the female Kalen Holloman – her raunchy collages are more than tongue-in-cheek, pornographic stills overlapped by images of household items, geometric architecture and even stuffed turkeys to replicate the curves of the vagina and anus.
Instagram’s ever-infuriating censorship laws are not just focused on nudity, looking for the random nipple to report. The billion-dollar service is suppressing the imitation of female sexuality, of even uttering the words masturbation and clitoris. Like many, Diana Chire recognises that there is certainly still a sustained journey before the ‘numbers turn significantly in favour of women artists,’ and the female body and active female sexual expression is left unscrutinised. Yet one can only hope that Wilke has left an unshakeable foundation for the Sarley’s and Scientwehst’s of the art world to thrive despite deep rooted patriarchy.
Images courtesy of DIANA CHIRE
words HELENE KLEIH
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