Conversation with four female artists: rewriting a history of art with more female names?

What are the difficulties faced by a woman who wants to make a career in the arts? What could be done to improve the situation? We discuss this with four women artists.

Take note: hardly during a job interview will a man be asked if he plans to have children or, generally, asked questions about his personal life. This is, however, something that becomes very possible if the protagonist of this interview were a woman. Rivers of ink have been spent on the topic of equal opportunities and women’s economic independence, but in fact, in 2020, this much-coveted equality is still a utopia and will surely remain so for a long time to come. Diversity of earnings, of treatment, of numbers in important and less important jobs, and this a bit in all sectors. Without forgetting that women are often forced to compromise, while men do not even know what the word “compromise” means, or if they do know it they are willing to accept it.

The art sector and the contemporary art system are no different, indeed they are a stark and naked mirror of this established reality. And if already being an artist today is not considered a job for all intents and purposes, when it is a woman who holds this role, the word “artist” is completely replaced with that of “hobbyist” or “do-nothing.” If in the history of Italian and international art there are very few female names that are remembered because in the past women were not allowed to devote themselves to art or were mostly the less famous companions of much better known artists (one remembers Artemisia Gentileschi, Rosalba Carriera, Frida Kahlo ... and a few other names that it is possible to count on the fingers of one’s hand), in contemporary art the numbers of women who have or are engaged in art are increasing, but not enough, and women continue to be valued less and less in the marketplace than men. For women who have taken or are taking the path of gallerist, curator, art journalist, critic, the discourse remains more or less the same: few names and rarely at the top. The first Venice Art Biennale curated by a woman was in 2005 (one hundred and ten years after its founding), when the artistic direction was entrusted to a female duo, Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez. Since then there have been two other editions curated entirely by women: the 2011 edition, with Bice Curiger, and the 2017 edition, with Christine Macel.

So we talked about what it means to be women artists in today’s society and their role within the contemporary system and market with four women artists working on the European scene, from Chieti to Paris, via Venice and Cologne. The result is an interview with four of enormous interest that we want to report here in part.

Francesca Maria D’Antonio, a very young costume and set designer, specialized in historical costume at the Academy of Fine Arts in L’Aquila with already several collaborations around Italy to her credit as a costume designer, set designer and theatrical makeup artist. finds herself very often using tools (hammer, hacksaw, screwdriver...) that are mostly employed by male hands. This obviously makes her proud of herself, but she also admits the difficulty, precisely because she is a woman, of winning the trust of her male colleagues.

“An employer or colleagues have a hard time seeing a woman who has more potential than a man in an area, perhaps in construction that is purely male,” she says. “You’re a woman and so you can’t know how to use the jigsaw. You’re a woman and then you can’t use the screwdriver well. You are woman and according to others you always need a hand.” And again, “They always consider you to be inferior for some things or too superior and therefore you are annoying, or even worse, you are an element to be disturbed during working hours.”

It is difficult to unhinge the concept of “strength” for those who make art, as stated by Raghad, a sculptor born in Baghdad but living in Paris, who with the strength of her sculpted horses has managed to give grace, elegance and liveliness to forms belonging to the male imagination, such as horses in motion. “Society still feels today that ’the male artist is stronger than the female artist,’” the artist says. “And this is absolutely not right. That’s why the woman artist always and everywhere on earth needs to do twice as much as the man artist to exist in society, but so far she cannot exist easily!”

Francesca Maria D'Antonio
Francesca Maria D’Antonio. Courtesy the artist

Raghad. Courtesy Henrietta Weithorn

Very often affecting these beliefs is the legacy that women should be given the jobs aimed at taking care of the family and the home, a discourse that obviously applies to women engaged in artistic careers as well, as painter Federica Scoppa, a Venice resident with several solo and group painting exhibitions to her credit, tells us: "At the personal level there is still no real support from men in the role of caring for the ’res - home,’ while at the public level women artists are practically ’invisible,’ there is no flexible welfare system they can rely on to reconcile motherhood with their work."

Rosanna D’Ortona, a self-taught photographer of Italian descent who lives and works in Cologne, says, “Men, in general, are not asked if they have children or if they want to have children. In fact, this aspect is not brought back to being a man at all. In fact, when dealing with a man, one immediately talks about his work as an artist or his works. A woman, on the contrary, is always asked personal and sometimes too invasive questions.”

Despite the many difficulties along the way, especially in dealing with the financial expenses, many women stubbornly sacrifice so much of themselves and self-sacrificingly decide to pursue a career in the art world, often clashing with those at their side. All of the women artists who were asked in this interview were asked why they took this path and what art is for today. All of them answered that they would have no choice but to try their hand at this career, even though they know the difficulties involved because artistic practice is what is part of their deepest essence, it is the vocation to which they have been called to respond, some with a well-established course of study behind them, some as self-taught. “Art is a language through which the artist speaks,” Raghad maintains. “Art,” Federica Scoppa points out, “today in all its forms serves to survive, to denounce, to give comfort, to encourage critical thinking, awareness, to give psychic well-being.”

The real challenge is to think of a concrete solution to help women artists make their way in the art world with the same opportunities enjoyed by their male colleagues, as well as to give incentives to gallerists, gallery owners, and any institution responsible for promoting women artists. “I think that in the art sector,” says Rosanna D’Ortona, "surely some kind of solidarity association or community would work that would be able to fund the needs of all of us in the sector (especially for women artists who are not part of the small percentage who have succeeded on the contemporary artist scene). An example might be specifically solidarity farming initiatives or the sharing system: everyone offers what they can thus giving the opportunity for those who cannot afford it to participate in special exhibitions or events and to enjoy, as a result, the works of art and be inspired by them. Could the artist’s profession have a position (difficult however to make a concrete comparison) perhaps similar to that of teachers and professors? I think of this solution because the experience and encounter with a work of art (music, literature, performance, sculpture, painting, photography, murals) are collective and at the same time intimate moments: they manage to propose experiences and open worlds that commercial and capitalist materiality cannot: art, in fact, manages to speak a universal language and connect people." In Cologne, where Rosanna D’Ortona lives and works, there is still a great lack, as she tells us, of structures that allow a woman artist not to have to make the decision between being a good mother and her work.

Federica Scoppa
Federica Scoppa. Courtesy the artist

Rosanna D'Ortona
Rosanna D’Ortona. Courtesy Henrietta Weithorn

From Venice, Federica Scoppa echoes Rosanna D’Ortona’s words and highlights an important issue: the awareness and recognition that there is a difference in the contemporary art system between treating a man and treating a woman.

"I believe that first of all we need to recognize that in this field, as in many others, there is a gender gap that needs to be bridged,“ says the Roman artist. ”And to break the glass ceiling that also hangs over the heads of female artists, ’affirmative action’ needs to be implemented, as proposed in other fields to overcome the gender gap. In the case of art, it could be competitions reserved for women artists, with themes that stimulate creative research, both by institutions and private individuals, allowing participation not only on the basis of titles, but on the basis of artistic proposal, recognizing in particular the determination to make artistic work one’s profession, that is, one’s source of income. But art practice in general should have more space in the education of/for young people, be part of all high schools: not only because it allows one to stay in touch with a certain manual skill, but because it serves to develop one’s creativity, to look inside oneself, to build a sensibility and culture that goes beyond the screens of a cell phone."

Raghad thinks that in order to address this discourse and find a solution we need to stop thinking of the art system as male or female, but more generally of the human being without gender distinction.

When asked, perhaps a bit obvious, who are the favorite female artists on the part of the four, not entirely obvious names emerge that should be explored and whose histories should be better known in order to rewrite from scratch the history of ’art hitherto known, such as costume designers Gabriella Pescucci, Anna Anni, and Collen Atwood, but also names of more familiar artists such as eccletic artist Natalia Goncharova, Georgia O’Keefe, Marina Abramovic, Yayoi Kusama, and Bridget Riley.

Warning: the translation into English of the original Italian article was created using automatic tools. We undertake to review all articles, but we do not guarantee the total absence of inaccuracies in the translation due to the program. You can find the original by clicking on the ITA button. If you find any mistake,please contact us.