Image via Instagram

the instagram account shining a spotlight on great women artists

“You can’t just cut women out of history,” says curator Katy Hessel.

by George Douglas-Davies
04 May 2018, 2:35pm

Image via Instagram

Honestly, we’re sick to death of hearing about the male gaze. Sick of the exclusionary bro hugs/ secret handshakes/ tap dances/ whatever it is male artists do to congratulate one another, and bored of seeing art shows dependant on what sold best at Sotheby's, AKA work produced by old white men, often dead white men. The art world is basically just one big game of soggy biscuit and women have had enough.

Katy Hessel, who founded the Great Women Artists initiative, is changing the narrative with her daily Instagram updates on the talents of womankind. “A lot of the time it’s their life stories that interest me,” she tells i-D. “It's fascinating to me that women who were overlooked 500 years ago are being talked about today. Unfortunately, many of them didn't end up in a lot of the standard history books, but there is loads of information out there, thanks to the likes of feminist art historians Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris. These women must've been incredibly driven and ambitious to have even had a career, especially mastering an art form that women were historically not even taught.”

Galvanised by her art history studies at UCL, and inspired by the cultural riches London has to offer, Katy has always been interested in art. “I always went to museums and galleries as a kid,” she says, “I remember being blown away by the giant Louise Bourgeois spider and Anish Kapoor installation at Tate Modern when it first opened. I was about six, so it seemed even bigger for me. As a teenager I was always going to exhibitions, I remember the first time I ever took the tube by myself was to see the Chris Ofili retrospective at Tate Britain.”

She began her mission to rewrite history three years ago, after attending an art fair with no female artists involved. “I decided to challenge myself to find one female artist a day and put my knowledge to good use by telling other people about female artists in a very simple, easy to read and accessible way. I want to normalise the idea that female artists also make up the canon of art history. There are so many out there, so why not celebrate them.”

The historical issue with gender exclusion has a lot to do with perspective. It’s difficult to get the full picture if you’re only getting 50% of the story -- why read only the odd page numbers of a novel? “I want to understand art history,” Katy says, “which you can’t do from just the perspective of a western, white man. I love the National Gallery, but the fact that less than 20 of the 2,300+ artworks are by women (and probably white women) shows that it doesn’t represent history. You can’t just cut women out of history, it doesn’t work like that.”

“I love to find out interesting stories about female artists that people might not know, for example I was immediately drawn to the Kilburn-born Marlow Moss, who was a constructivist in Paris with Léger and Mondrian. As soon as World War II broke out, she moved to Cornwall and pretty much disappeared off the art scene aged 40. Recently the Tate put on a big survey of her work and put her back in the spotlight.”

Katy is not the only curator taking our blinkers off, and shows like these are mainly thanks to Maria Balshaw, who was recently appointed director of the Tate galleries, and is the first woman in history to hold the role. Over at Whitechapel Gallery, Iwona Blazwick, who discovered Damien Hirst, has been promoting and nurturing female talent and even ran a show with the Guerrilla Girls, a collective synonymous with the fight for equal opportunities.

Instagram has also helped make the art world more inclusive. Anyone can post without bias or restrictions (excluding nipples) and successful accounts have the potential to reach millions. This is something Katy saw potential in to promote the rich history of female artistry. “Instagram is very democratic, anyone can curate an online exhibition, not just established galleries. As a result, users have so much more choice and the success of accounts celebrating diverse artists show there is a hunger for it. it's actually incredible -- the community that's on Instagram right now: women supporting women. I think Instagram is shaping a really exciting future for art, and no one really knows which direction it's going to go in.”

When she’s not swiping through the ‘gram, Katy works at the Victoria Miro gallery. “I am lucky to work for a gallery that represents such brilliant female artists,” she says. “I get to see works by Wangechi Mutu, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Alice Neel, Sarah Sze, Chantal Joffe and Adriana Varejão every day.” In fact, the gallery is currently hosting an an all-female abstract exhibition titled Surface Work. Fresh from the exhibition launch, here Katy picks her top 5 posts of all time.

1. Maggi Hambling's portrait of Dorothy Hodgkin. A great artist painting a great scientist, who was the first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

2. Niki de Saint Phalle's Tarot Garden. Niki's drive is to create a giant sculpture garden full of possibilities and hope, going there you feel completely immersed in her mind.

3. Aloïse Corbaz’s series of drawings. Still to this day she’s overlooked despite her contemporary approach to art, perhaps because she was an outsider artist and didn't follow trends.

4. Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes. A contemporary of Caravaggio, Artemisia was a Baroque sensation known for her violent and bloody scenes of heroic historic women.

5. Toyin Ojih Odutola's works from her Whitney show, To Wander Determined. Ojih’s portraits chronicle made-up Nigerian aristocratic families, both putting into question the lack of black wealth in the history of America and imagining a world without any colonialist meddling.

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great women artists
katy hessel