Boy crazy: why are women artists almost invisible in our galleries?
Last year 97% of National Gallery acquisitions were by men. Even at Imma, where women featured in more than half its solo exhibitions, 85% of the permanent collection is by men. It’s time for our institutions to take a new approach After being kidnapped a
Letchworth State Park, in New York State, is a spectacular place. Its 6,000 hectares are gouged by gorges and waterfalls, so it’s much used for all sorts of activities, including geocaching, camping, whitewater rafting and hunting. It’s also the site of the grave of Ma r y J e mi s o n , also known as Deh-he-wä-mis.
Irish connections to North America are many and varied. Direct links with Native Americans are harder to come by. Mary Jemison was born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in the autumn of 1743, aboard the William and Mary, which was bringing her parents, Thomas and Jane Jemison, from Northern Ireland to America.
After landing in Philadelphia they joined other Protestant Scots-Irish immigrants who were heading west in search of cheaper land.
The Jemisons settled – squatted, really – on land that was under the control of the Iroquois Confederacy, an association of six tribes in the region, which included the Mohawk, Onondaga and Seneca peoples. They cleared land at a place called Marsh Creek, created a farm and had several children.
Within a decade of their arrival skirmishes had begun in the French and Indian war. The North American leg of the Seven Years’ War between France and Britain, a nasty, messy conflict, saw both sides working alongside Native American allies.
One morning in 1755 a raiding party made up of six Shawnee men and four Frenchmen captured Jemison and her family. They brought them to present-day Pittsburgh, then known as Fort Duquesne and under French control. En route Thomas and Jane, as well as several of Mary’s siblings, were killed and ritually scalped.
Mary and a boy from another family were spared, probably because they were considered suitable for adoption. At Fort Duquesne, Mary was given to two Seneca who took her downriver to their settlement. Her adoptive Seneca family renamed her Deh- he- wä- mis, which means “a pretty girl” or “a good thing”.
It must have been an almost unimaginable lifestyle change for this 12- year- old Irish girl, yet Jemison became fully assimilated into Seneca culture and, as an adult, chose to stay with her new family rather than return to British colonial life. She married twice – her first husband died while
In 1986 the US feminist group Guerrilla Girls, referring to the art world’s sexual and racial discrimination, proclaimed, “It’s even worse in Europe.” Ireland was no exception. In 1987 the Douglas Hyde Gallery, in Dublin, mounted a group show, with work by 12 artists, that responded to the Troubles. None of the dozen contributors to the exhibition, which was called Directions Out, was a woman.
Its curator, Brian McAvera, attempted to defend his selection, writing, “I was very conscious of the need for a woman artist [but] I refuse to bow to tokenism just to satisfy some numerical notion of representation. The blunt fact is that women do not seem to be working in the areas considered by this show.”
But the exhibition’s primary themes, war and violence, were being explored at the time by women artists, Rita Duffy and Alice Maher among them.
Last year the Guerrilla Girls returned to the subject of their 1986 declaration with a project called Is It Even Worse in Europe? And although their recent exhibition did not incorporate their findings from Project Ireland, a series from 2009-10 that exposed Irish museums as “boy crazy”, there is ample evidence that Irish arts and culture are still lagging when it comes to representing the work of women artists.
One of the most recent examples is the Abbey Theatre’s Waking the Nation programme. As soon as it was launched, in 2015, it came under fire for its dearth of work by women. Within two weeks 600 members of the Irish theatre community had gathered at the Abbey under the #WakingtheFeminists banner to demand equality for women in the arts.
Just like McAvera before him, the Abbey’s then director, Fiach Mac Conghail, insisted that the exclusion was warranted. “Sometimes plays we have commissioned by and about women just don’t work out,” he said on Twitter. “That has happened. Them the breaks.”
It seems to have been easier to exclude women almost entirely than to rethink the theatre’s attitudes towards marketing and public engagement.
Yet the conservative attitude of Ireland’s national theatre begs a question: is there equity in the representation of women in our national cultural institutions?
In 2016 the National Gallery of Ireland held several big historical exhibitions whose cultural, historical and canonical focus tipped them in favour of men. Excluding Jackie Nickerson’s exhibition Uniform, which concluded within days of New Year, only one exhibition by a living artist was mounted in 2016: Pathos of Distance, Sarah Pierce’s exploration of migration and diaspora. And a survey of the gallery’s recent acquisitions is nothing short of troubling.
In 2016 it acquired 342 works, 332 of them by men. Only one of the 26 artists who created them was a woman. Simply put, men accounted for 97 per cent of the National Gallery of Ireland’s acquisitions last year.
Of the 10 exhibitions that the Douglas Hyde Gallery held in 2016, eight were solo shows. And only two of those eight artists were women. So women accounted for only a quarter of the gallery’s solo shows and a fifth of its exhibitions last year.
Across the city on Parnell Square, however, for her exhibition No More Fun and Games, Jesse Jones transformed a portion of the Hugh Lane Gallery into a “feminist parasite institution”. It challenged the structural sexism of museum collection and curation and, more widely, a history of art that privileges the male sex.
Jones’s exhibition ran alongside Julie Merriman’s Revisions on the first floor. If one focuses on the gallery’s major first-floor exhibitions, then women accounted for two of five shows. This number diminishes, however, when several smaller exhibitions at the gallery are taken into account.
The Lab Gallery in Dublin, which specialises in work by young and emerging artists, has a significant record of showing works by women. Since 2012 women artists have slightly outnumbered their male colleagues, and in 2016 women accounted for four of the gallery’s seven solo exhibitions.
There is no obvious answer for this, according to the Lab’s curator, Sheena Barrett, but as the gallery supports recent art graduates, and as most recent graduates are women, there may be a correlation, she says.
Lastly, the Irish Museum of Modern Art hunting – and had a total of seven children.
At the age of nearly 80, Mary told her story to a local minister, the Rev James E Seaver. It was published in 1824, the kind of classic “captivity narrative” that would later inspire a raft of Hollywood Westerns, including The Searchers and A Man Called Horse.
Seaver’s description of Jemison paints a fascinating picture. She spoke English plainly and distinctly, he wrote, “with a little of the Irish emphasis”. He added that “she has the use of words so well as to render herself intelligible on any subject with which she is acquainted”.
She was short, with light-blue eyes. “Formerly her hair was of a light chestnut brown – it is now quite grey, a little curled, of middling length and tied in a bunch behind. When she looks up and is engaged in conversation her countenance is very expressive but from her long residence with the Indians, she has acquired the habit of peeping from under eyebrows as they do with the head inclined downwards.”
She walked quickly, without a stick, and “could yet cross a stream on a log or pole as steadily as any other person”. held nine solo exhibitions in 2016: five by women, four of whom are living. The museum also invited the feminist art historian Griselda Pollock to give a lecture to coincide with the museum’s Carol Rama retrospective. During her lecture Pollock rebuffed a canon that denies women success during their lifetimes, then celebrates them after their deaths. These posthumous gestures of recognition perpetuate marginalisation; she warned women artists working today to beware.
Imma’s 2016 programming contradicted this trend, although the museum’s permanent collection echoes the gender inequalities of its fellow institutions. Eighty-five per cent of Imma’s permanent collection is by male artists, according to one recent survey – a remarkable statistic for a museum founded in 1991.
The artist Una Walker claimed that female representation is higher when the institutional gatekeepers are women. One historical example is the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. Brian King became its president in 1972, replacing Norah McGuinness, who held the position for almost 30 years. His tenure saw female participation dwindle from 28 in the mid-1960s to three in 1975.
The representation of women has been an ongoing point of critical reflection for the Royal Hibernian Academy. In 2014 its secretary, Abigail O’Brien, said she hoped the RHA would reach a 50-50 gender balance by the gallery’s bicentenary, in 2023. A glance at the annual catalogue shows that most RHA members are still men – 65 per cent of its members are male – and it has never had a female president.
At this time the Seneca, having taken the British side during the war, was being forced to give up its land to the United States. Jemison helped the tribe to negotiate more favourable terms, and a tract of almost a hectare was set aside for her use. She eventually moved to the Buffalo Creek Reservation, living with the Seneca Nation until she died, in 1833, aged 90.
In 1921 a statue of Jemison was erected in the grounds of a church in the town of Orrtanna, Pennsylvania, near her home in
Although the 2016 exhibition featured 398 artists, 43 per cent of them women – down slightly from 45 per cent the previous year – the RHA’s solo exhibitions are also dominated by men. In 2016, 38 per cent of soloists were women; the figures were 33 per cent in 2015 and 28 per cent in 2014.
Remarkably, this year’s programming is overwhelmingly female: women account for 75 per cent of its solo exhibitions. With luck this is a precedent that will continue rather than being an unprecedented coincidence.
When the art historian Linda Nochlin asked why there have been no great women artists, she did not ask the question subjectively. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones or our menstrual cycles, Nochlin wrote, but in our institutions and education. Some may view this criticism as dated, yet even today women are being marginalised from national institutions, just as they were marginalised from career-defining shows in the 1980s.
These statistics are evidence of an ongoing and unchallenged ideological view that engenders art as masculine.
This is so unfortunate. Some of the greatest contemporary art produced in Ireland over the past 30 years has been made by women. And audiences are engaged by women artists: Amanda Coogan drew 31,000 people to the RHA in 2015 with her six- week show I’ll Sing You a Song from Around the Town.
Ireland’s women artists have always been up to the task of making art. That leaves the final undertaking of achieving equal recognition. Our country’s institutions must support current and future women and minority artists, recognise women’s artistic achievements of the past, and identify their potential and agency within Irish visual culture.
The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones or our menstrual cycles but in our institutions and education, according to the art historian Linda Nochlin
Michelle Doyle works at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London. This is an edited extract from an essay that will appear in the catalogue for the Royal Hibernian Academy’s 187th annual exhibition, which opens on May 23rd; rhagallery.ie Adams County. Part Pocohontas, part Virgin Mary, it’s an extraordinary image – an apt memorial for an extraordinary woman.
Artistic equals: Alice Maher re-creates her installation Les Filles d’Ouranos; and (below left) Lucy McKenna’s show Astronomical Mashup, at the Lab. PHOTOGRAPHS: KEITH HENEGHAN, PETER VARGA
Resting place: Letchworth State Park, where Mary Jemison is buried. A statue (left) stands in Orrtanna, Pennsylvania. PHOTOGRAPHS: MICHAEL MARQUAND/GETTY, J STEPHEN CONN