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

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Michelle Doyle Ir­ish Con­nec­tions Mary Jemi­son, the Ir­ish­woman who joined a Na­tive Amer­i­can tribe ARMINTA WAL­LACE

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.

Num­ber di­min­ishes

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

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