On art and gender

What does art have to do with gender? Quite a lot, it seems.

Ever since we can talk of art history, we are facing a rich variety of ways to look at the human figure — anthropomorphism in art exists since we saw the first cave drawings and found the first “Venus” little figures in Europe.

The Venus of Willendorf, Vienna

In a very short summary of all millions of years of art history, we can summarise that humans have had different reasons to change the way they illustrate other humans in time. A very little is known for the prehistoric times (when there was no written historical materials) — we only have some drawings and sculptures with no historical materials and writings about them. What we saw is a very schematic representation of human figure. The venuses are a bit more question-raising: who are these female figures and what is their purpose is still a mystery. Were they made by men or women?

Later, in the Ancient worlds of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome we find a rich variety of illustrations — very often personifications of gods and nature. In time, clear rules start to apply when illustrating women and men, very different in the various cultures around the Globe (for example, in Egypt men were having a darker colour of the skin than the women; in Ancient Greece female sculptures were supposed to be dressed etc.).

Until structured religious systems changed everything. The religious canons were quite clear on illustrating style, matching the secrecy of the rituals and religious philosophy. In early Christianity (1–4 CE) Virgin Mary was most probably the only woman to be illustrated; her son, Jesus, the evangelists and prophets — the men. In these transitional times, christian art was very much influenced by ancient classical art until the Ecumenical councils created clear rules on Medieval art in the holy churches. The woman was forbidden to step into the altar, so was the woman forbidden to be a full, equal member of the religious society. In most of the cases powerful women were either wives of kings and emperors, being illustrated as donors of churches, or female martyrs who were turned into saints after their agonising deaths.

Fresco at Rozhen monastery, Bulgaria (17–18 CE).

Art is definitely very often showing the things that history books did not write about. The freedom of the artist existed all through the history no matter the canons and political rules that were set at the time — very often the artist (no matter if they were craftsmen or court painters) sneaked into their creations hints about how the society reflects on the world, current historical and political situation at the moment. That’s why it is also art that would always help us express what we want to change in the world.

Gender equality in art

A hot topic, gender equality in art (and life) is always to be looked at with a critical eye. The popular culture coming from United States and Europe definitely developed idealistic images of women — thin, beautiful, white — all sorts of discriminations and unrealistic models are still there. What has changed in the modern culture is that more and more people realise that and face this issue openly. What is more, there are more brands that make efforts to respond (remember Johnnie Walkers’ new branding of Jane Walker?) But is it a marketing stunt or a real effort to gender equality? Same question goes for the “political-correctly” movies created by the contemporary movie studios.

As images are quite powerful in sending messages to the humans, it is definitely a way for us to address all sorts of daily challenges we are facing. Therefore, we designed our workshop “WeMen” especially in that context: to challenge gender clichés with rich and powerful imaginary!

To get some inspiration and to start thinking on the matter, we asked several women, part of Nomadways’ artivists community or participants at the upcoming workshop, to think of the subject and give us their examples of images illustrating gender challenges. We are very excited to show you some of their messages here.

8 artivists on gender quality

We challenged ourselves to think critically on gender equality in history and our daily lives. Here are some illustrations we made.

Anne Merlin

When I get lost in infinite internet spirals, I often end up binge watching & reading feminist doodles and comics. I find them touching, relieving, inspiring… which I very much need most days. That’s how I thought well, why not try and do my own. And I’m a bit of a series freak, I looove collections of stuff, so I decided to draw portraits of inspiring figures, describing something special they did on a specific date, until I have 365 characters and their 365 inspiring actions, one per day of the year. What a collection!
Then, I started looking for feminists and sheroes to draw, and found myself stuck with a list of almost-only white European and American ladies. So, I changed my strategy and decided to take a list of all countries of the world, look for amazing feminists from each country, learn tons of stuff in the process, and draw at least one person from each state of our incredible planet.

-Anne is a Nomadways artivist, a smily creature, who designs & teaches workshops of visual or performing arts & other funkiness.

Ilaria Fresa

Maria Montessori has been one of the first women to be accepted in a Medicine Faculty. It was back in 1893 when she finally asked the Pope to recognise her right to enter in Medicine, since administration didn’t let her, because “women are not suitable for this kind of profession”.
She was an amazing innovative doctor and she always worked to empower every human being in general and the child in particular, recognising in children capabilities and building up environments to help them express and shine as the best human they were meant to be.
I believe children are the future and is our duty and honour to take care of them; and let them help us to keep the contact with our inner child.

-Ilaria is a visual artist and graphic facilitator. Check her website here.

Verena Mans

Feminism is about realising the power, the strength, the beauty WeMen (WeMen = Women + Men) combine in themselves. It is about the pride of being a parent raising your child on your own. About the glory of being a sibling who does not judge you, to whom you can always talk to. It is about following your intuition, doing your thing instead of craving for success, for appreciation which is defined by others.
Feminism is about connecting to the source we are all coming from. It is the universal wisdom, the recognition of the beauty of life itself. It is peaceful and leaves space for everyone to develop whatever WeMen feel like. Moms tell you this. Nature takes you there. Art expresses it. Society does not. Office jobs do not.
Feminism is equality, freedom, fairness, caution, acceptance, peace.
I cannot put in words, but if I’d have to define it, that’s it.
Inspired by Vanja Vukelić

-Verena is finishing her studies in media and culture in Germany, a yoga teacher and Nomadways’ first ever intern ❤

Selen Aktumen

You should hit the power in your inside.Then it will be even stronger.

-Selen is an artist and photographer. Her feminist quotes illustrations and works you can enjoy at her website here.

Ål Nik (Alexandra Nikolova)

Can you imagine someone telling you that you cannot do what you are born to do? Because you are a woman, a gay or something else that they do not understand and their cultural and political background claims as not acceptable.
In 2018 I cannot. I am terrified by the thought of how many, many, many people in history were murdered, forced, being “healed”, imprisoned because of how they are born. I am even more terrified about the fact it is still happening in 2018, after all the history and knowledge we have… Why humans tend to be so stupid?
I started a little series of posters like these 3 — beautiful, amazing, talented humans who gave their lives for what they love. They achieved greatness without fitting some stupid models — they are not white, they are intelligent and talented. I am sure they would also use irony and black humor to mock the ignorance of the crowds. Do you know the stories of Frida, Farrokh and Neerja? No? Read them, they are truly inspiring!
Artworks were inspired by Polish artist Jan Bajtlik. See Ål’s “Men can… too” here.

-Alex is a communication designer, content strategist, art history student, doodler and illustrator. You can check her works here.

Joana Maria Neves

“Rise Up And Get Ready”, oil on canvas, 40x70cm
This is a painting representing how I see the history of women in society, as well as the future we should consider having from now on. Elements symbolising women’s figure and rights throughout times and what we should aim for.
The collection of drawings you see on my behance page is related to feminism and feminine sexuality, relating it to natural forms and nature itself, breaking the taboo that was created around sexuality (specially feminine) and showing how beautiful it can be — some of them are more related to gender equality and others to this sexuality issue.

-Joana Maria is an artist and painter — you can enjoy her works here.

Karolina Ufa

Paulina Kuczalska-Reinschmit (1859–1921) was a social reformer, publisher, writer and the most radical fighter of women’s movement in the Polish lands before the outbreak of the First World War. She actively campaigned for women’s right to vote in Poland, which was then partitioned between Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary.
In 1895, she founded the periodical Ster dedicated to women’s rights. In 1907 she founded the Union for the Equal Rights of Polish Women (in Polish: Związek Równouprawnienia Kobiet Polskich).
Isabella Bird (1831–1904) was an English traveller and the first female fellow of the Royal Geographical Society who made a remarkable series of journeys at the end of the 19th century. Bird was a fiercely independent woman from a middle-class family and she rewrote the rule book of travel journalism as she blazed a trail through China in the late 1800s, taking cheap transport and facing violent mobs.
The collage was created on the base of American/Austrian duo Cooper & Gorfer project “I Know Not These My Hands”. With intricate photos that resembling dreamlike paintings, artists documented remote places and people by reshaping them into capturing poetic stories. The collage itself speaks of the human aspects of love, loss and identity.

-Karolina is currently doing her masters of Gender Studies — Intersectionality and Change at Linkoping University, Sweden.

Kim Goddard

A little ‘logo’ I designed to represent how I’m feeling at this moment in my life.
It’s inspired by the book by Clarissa Pinkola Estes ‘Women who run with wolves: myths and stories of the Wild Woman Archetype’.
At this juncture in my own story, but also in the story of the planet (ecological crisis etc.) it seems that by the growing of humans in numbers, we need to reconnect with ourselves and our place in the universe; and to find a different way of being, both for our own sakes and for the environment and humanity in general.
It’s part of the journey - trying ‘to be the change that I want to see in the world’ — a tall order!
The logo is in the colours of the suffragette movement. As a young woman I wore only purple and green for several years. It was a statement of who I was. The moon as a feminist symbol is a reflection of my many women friends and the shared knowledge that we are all just a moonlight beam away from our witchy natures — something that we only really find when we are cavorting with other like-spirited women. The three wwws that make up the somewhat ‘mis-shapen’ woman are a testament to the effects of child-bearing and life-living that mould us physically as well as mentally. The three wwws also stand for the ‘Web We Want’ — and my reasons for me training to become a ‘webmaster’ (prefer webspinner!) at this ripe old age. The wolf howling at the moon is my creative and wild side calling to the moon and to other women….
Wild Wolf Woman — this ‘label’ gives me the courage to be more than I feel inside…. it’s one I hope to grow into.

-Kim is a webspinner, activist, immigrant, feminist, philosopher — potentially, resilient-network-weaver contributing to designing regenerative cultures. You will be able to discover more about her soon on this web address.

Article by our amazing Alex (Nomadways team), who studies Art History at the National Academy of Arts in Sofia and loves to draw & do digital images.

About Nomadways

We craft international workshops for artists, educators and youth workers. Together we create pedagogical artwork, share and invent practical solutions to social problems.