The struggles of being a female artist

“While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last”, said Kamilla Harris in her acceptance speech as the Vice President of the U.S. Kamala made history on three fronts: she is the first Black, first South Asian American and first woman to hold that post.

Kamala is not the only woman shaping the political landscape in 2021. More than four thousand miles away from the White House,  Kaja Kallas became Estonia’s first female Prime Minister. The country now has both a female Prime Minister and President.

Women might be making headlines in politics  more often than ever, but female underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is a great concern to the society.  Those spheres are always in the spotlight, but it’s not only areas that require raw intellectual talent that lack women’s presence. Art is also a field dominated by male talents.

Here’s a teaser. How many famous female artists can you name in one minute? The chances are you will run out of options very quickly.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts reports over half of all visual artists today are women. But when it comes to gallery representations, the numbers look different. Almost 80 per cent of galleries in London represent more men than women, while only 5 per cent equally represent both. 

Take the Tate Gallery for example. Figures from 2017 show that only  27 per cent of living contemporary artists in the Tate Collection were women.

“It is very much something that is trying to change but I do think there are still overhangs on how women are represented in the art world. (…)If you are a female artist it can be very much  seen as just a hobby. It’s not taken seriously,” says Alexandra Gallagher, Lancashire-born multidisciplinary artist.

Alexandra, 40, looks into the notions of feminism, identity and sexuality, and challenges long-standing stereotypes about women through her art. Her work takes the form of collages, paintings and prints and is deeply influenced by surrealism, the cultural movement which explores the workings of the mind, and rejects a rational vision of life. Floral and botanical tropes, geometric shapes and lines are a central part of her art.

Floral and botanical tropes are often portrayed in Alexandra’s work

Alexandra exhibits her work both in the UK and around the world and has been nominated for a number of awards. She won the Saatchi Showdown Surrealism Second Place Award and was a finalist in the London Contemporary Art in 2018. She started off with painting portraits in 2006 and has been a professional artist for the past ten years. 

Alexandra says: “I have always wanted to be an artist and I never really wanted to be anything else. My dad was a painter, so I grew up with him teaching me how to paint and how to think critically.”

Alexandra is taking inspiration from the experiences of women in Western societies, where she believes they still have to fight stereotypes and are often paid less, victim blamed and face the tough decision to balance their career life and children. All these topics could be seen in Alexandra’s art.

She says: “The feminist side of it is very much questioning the things we as females have been told and the constraints the society can give us. It is also taking some of the negative aspects of being a woman such as domestic violence and sexual assault and turning them into something beautiful.”

Alexandra is taking inspiration from the experiences of women in Western societies

Unfortunately, some of the stereotypes and attitudes portrayed, Alexandra has experienced herself.  One particular case stands out in her mind.

She says: “I have had an incident once where I was dealing with a male gallery owner who damaged my work and when I tried to get if fixed, he was extremely aggressive about it. He probably wouldn’t have done that that If I was male. It was one of those situations where I was left shaking afterwards.”

But the difficulties of being a female artist do not end here. To a great extent, the art world has been a territory dominated for centuries by men and the reasons behind this are in the history of gender inequality. Women were largely barred from artistic professions until the 1870s, so there weren’t many female artists before that period.

In the Renaissance and Baroque periods a woman who became an artist was likely to be part of a family of painters, like Artemisia Gentileschi, the daughter Orazio Gentileschi, because they were more likely to get training otherwise not open for women. Throughout the years, women’s position in society has been largely limited to the role of a child-breeder and a housewife. Those stereotypes still exist, which explains some of the difficulties female artists face nowadays.  

Alexandra says: “The art world is not set up to take into account childcare. A lot of the domestic side is still put very hugely on women. We do most of the cleaning and cooking and childcare.

“If you are a male artist a lot of the time you will be able to tour the preview shows and make connections and go to all the meetings because you are not juggling family and career life. 

“It’s very difficult to do a preview night when you have to put your children to bed, and you have a baby to sit and can’t get childcare.”

“It’s very difficult to do a preview night when you have to put your children to bed,” says Alexandra

The statistics can also confirm the art world is not one of gender equality. One study suggest that average transaction price for women is around $29,235, while for male artists it is about $50,480.

According to Alexandra, there are double standards for men and women. Most of the times men are idolized for their “wild” character, but the same attitude in women will earn them a reputation of a “mess”.

Alexandra says: “Certain male artists who are well known to behave very badly are still revered.  They can assault women, they can do lots of drugs but galleries would still be selling and showing their work. 

“But imagine if a woman was taking a lot of cocaine and smacking people up. She would be very much judged for that, and her career would be over.”

There is no doubt the art world can be harsh on women. But artist like Alexandra are determined to change it for good. The rise of social media has given female artists a ray of hope as many take their art to different online platforms.

So, hopefully, Kamala Harris won’t be the only woman making history in the 21st century.

If you want to have a look at Alexandra’s art work, click here

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