Decolonizing Practices – Feminism in Contemporary Art, Design and Craft

The emergence of feminism in contemporary art, design and craft occurred in the late 1960s during a revolutionary time in human history. Anti-war fervor and the Civil Rights movement had taken center stage across the United States with the sole aim of positively transforming society.  Thus, women saw this as an opportune moment to actualize certain utopian ideals that had been suggested by predecessors their movement during the modernist era. Feminists viewed art as another area of human life that was male-dominated, where women rarely thrived despite their efforts.

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Rewriting art history was therefore necessary for feminist artists to change the negative perceptions about women’s abilities that had been accepted at face value across society. Their aim was to intervene in contemporary art, participate actively   and transform its legacy with the hope that their actions will influence social interactions in everyday life. Proponents of feminist art such as Suzanne Lacy intended to use it to transform the widely accepted societal prejudice against women in a bid to influence cultural attitudes (Robinson, 2015, p. 87). As a result, women soon became a new topic in art prompting leading artists to feature them prominently in their productions and discourses. Feminist artists acknowledged that a system of power existed in our gendered world and in a phallocentric order.  Banding together was, therefore, the best option available that would help them contract the erasure of women in art history and their contribution to this discipline. Pursuant to these goals, feminists sought to develop an interchange between the artwork and its viewer in the context of inclusion. To many feminist artists, art was not intended simply for aesthetic approbation, but as a self-inquiry tool that would prompt an internal dialogue in viewers about equality in society. A discussion of feminism in art, design and craft is, thus, fundamental in understanding the strides that have been made with this regard. In addition to this, the discussion will focus on Linder Sterling and Judy Chicago as two practitioners who exemplified this trope through their work.

Linder Sterling as a Feminist Artist

            Linda Sterling is arguably one of the most renowned individuals in the feminist art movement. In fact, she represents the first generation of women who dabbled in feminist art during the late 1970s with the aim of introducing women to the mainstream. Her dedication to the feminist cause soon saw her collaborate with other radical feminists to showcase her works as a confrontational performer and collage artist. Sterling’s feminist inclinations resulted from an interest in activism and expressive art that was inculcated by her parents while growing up in Manchester.  After a short and controversial stint at Upholland Grammar School, Sterling moved to Manchester Polytechnic. Sterling became actively involved in the punk movement which, inadvertently, sparked the feminism in her.

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As a professional artist, Sterling was always preoccupied with how to use her new found passion and expertise for the betterment of women across the globe. She was well-aware of the power and influence that she wielded and was fully committed towards ensuring that she made a difference in society. She presented numerous speeches, with the overarching themes always being the role of feminism in contemporary art, design and craft. Sterling’s efforts were soon acknowledged by her contemporaries who included her as a member of the post-punk scene. Her duties quickly shifted from a feminist art campaigner to lobbying for an increased presence of women’s art in British museums.

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Sterling artwork also challenged the dominant hegemonic patriarchal tenets in an attempt to expose women to the public eye.  During this period, it was common for galleries to use gender as a parameter to display various works of art. The creation of an alternative venue meant that women now had the power to change systematic and institutionalized policies in an attempt to promote their visibility in society. Using photomontages as her primary medium, Sterling sought to develop an intimate connection with the female gender in a non-traditional way while still expanding acceptable artistic perspectives.

Judy Chicago as a Feminist Artist

Judy Chicago’s proclivity to feminist art was prompted by her search for human connection through art. To her, art was a tool that could be harnessed to bring marginalized members of society together. Chicago’s art, therefore, focused on immediate human concerns such as equality for the sexes and humanism. Her work as a feminist artist began in the 1970’s when she focused her attention on transforming the lives of women and their portrayal. In essence, Chicago’s objective was to raise awareness of the importance of positive reflection and the active participation of artists in changing long-held stereotypes about women. The societal conditions during the 1970s had an air of revolution which was ideal for the production of contemporary art that focused on women.

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Chicago was also keen on developing feminist art that questioned authority, especially in the context of the Western world. She was well aware of the minimal role played by women in contemporary art and was ready to change the status quo and promote her version of modernism.  Chicago’s style was one dominated by the relation of personal narratives by women to describe their struggles in an unequal world.  Women subjects soon became her area of focus since her intention was to make feminine characters her centerpiece. It also included an elaborate celebration of all known achievements and milestones attributed to women over the past century. By so doing, Chicago succeeded at pushing feminist art up the treads of artistic hierarchy while creating a safe space for the expression of their ideals. Essentially, Chicago focused on adding women to the list of notable historical figures, therefore, promoting their visual representation. Glass and Ceramic art were central to her work since she viewed them as the best materials that one could use to validate feminist art. Through her Feminist Art program, Chicago clamored for female creative expression devoid of any prejudice.

Artwork by Linda Sterling

Hiding But Still Not Knowing (1981-2010)

Hiding But Still Not Knowing (1981-2010)

Sterling is particularly famous for her brazen attitude when seeking to confront societal issues head-on. As a radical figure from the post-punk scene era, she was determined to leave an indelible mark by creating feminist photomontages and art that would depict her independence of thought. Sterling’s intent was to produce art work that would move her audience to a point where they would connect with her and the radical feminist agenda which she espoused. Hiding But Still Not Knowing (1981-2010) still ranks as Sterling’s best known work in which she participates as the primary subject.  She takes pleasure in amalgamating a heterogeneous version of herself to open the audience’s consciousness to a new realm. Sterling’s disquieting representation stares directly at the viewer from every possible angle. It is also fundamental to note that both her mouth and nose are in transparent plastic film usually used for packaging. As a result, she appears menacing while still maintaining her defiant look. The sensory deprivation caused by the packaging film is a depiction of patriarchy as a transparent veil which seeks to cover feminine potential.  Even in her current condition, the subject still maintains a graceful appearance as a sign of approaching victory when women will ultimately break from this type of bondage.

Pythia (2017)

Over the years, Linda Sterling has demonstrated obsession with the female form when presenting her subjects. The main reason for this leaning is as a result of her feminist leaning that has often dictated the type of art that she creates for her audience. Even though locations might change from time to time, a large majority of the subjects presented are mostly female. To her, female subjects are the most versatile decorative objects available for any artist and can, therefore be used to create masterpieces.  In Pythia (2017), Sterling explores the female form as a decorative object and uses it on her own terms as a feminist.

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Here, she appreciates a beautiful woman as part of the natural world as opposed to an object of pleasure. Interweaving her work with a snake, snail, rose flower and owl suggests that she appreciates the natural world altogether. In essence, they are all expressed in a manner that suggests that they are in union and with the same spiritual contact. Sterling’s presentation is simply impeccable. Her subject remains hidden in the background, yet one can clearly see the connection that they have with the other creatures in the collage. Thus, Sterling succeeds in depicting the role of women in societies where they are pushed to the periphery.

Artwork by Judy Chicago

The Dinner Party (1974-79)

The Dinner Party (1974-79)

Judy Chicago’s iconic installation, dubbed The Dinner Party, was incepted as a celebration of female achievements in history. She uses a woman’s point of view to construe The Last Supper and present her version of the same but with numerous feminist undertones. Historically, women have set tables for a male-dominated society that rarely acknowledged their achievements which is why Chicago decides to hail them. The triangular shaped table contains 39 sections set aside for the guests who are expected to attend the dinner. Coincidentally, the guests are notable women in Western society that are still remembered for their contribution.

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Chicago also makes certain that their achievements are embroidered on their sections to demonstrate their achievements in various spheres of life. The use of a ball raises their standard in society and goes on to demonstrate their status as heroes. Chicago’s artwork, therefore, seeks to challenge the widely-accepted view that all historical achievements are attributed to men’s efforts. Furthermore, it also defies typical fine-art tradition by celebrating feminine grace in full splendor. It is for this very reason that Chicago used a form of textile art decoration which is particularly popular with feminist artists. Moreover, the intricate details points to feminist gestures that actually inspired most of the artwork done by Chicago

Through the Flower (1973)

Through the Flower (1973)

During her nascent years in the art community, Judy Chicago was acutely aware of the gendered equality that existed. This particular niche was male-dominated which made it quite difficult for any woman who dared venture into it. Those who were brave enough to confront the establishment over these claims were immediately silenced and their works removed from all known galleries. Nevertheless, feminist artists such as Judy Chicago were ready to risk their career in an attempt to achieve their objective of breaking the yoke placed on women in a male-dominated art community. In Through the Flower, Chicago depicts her freedom of expression through a piece that has more imagery and is less abstract. Her attempt was to raise the consciousness of her audience through art, which will eventually result in their self-improvement. Furthermore, Chicago embraces her female sexuality fully and endeavors to put it on display cryptically. The round elements represent the female sexual organ, which also serves as an indication of her liberal outlook in life. It is also important to note that the hallucinatory representation of the artwork’s optimality is as a result of Chicago’s experimentation with mood-altering drugs such as magic mushrooms. Chicago’s boldness in Through the Flower prompted her to use the same title for her autobiography and non-profit as a signal of the power inherent in feminist art.

Conclusion

Feminism in art, design and craft represented a shift from a male-dominated scene to one that featured works from female artists. Linder Sterling and Judy Chicago were trailblazers in the feminist art movement who sought to express women’s achievement through their work. Hiding But Still Not Knowing (1981-2010), Pythia (2017) ,  The Dinner Party (1974-79) and Through the Flower (1973) are prominent pieces by these two artists. They also represent feminism in art and women’s efforts to gain equal status in an imbalanced society.

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