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Gender issues

Gender has been a social construct for centuries trying to dictate what it means to be female or male, from the colours associated with each sex to how each gender should behave and what is considered a male or female role, activity or profession. This is a common topic that intrigues and challenges many contemporary artists who choose to tackle the idea of gender stereotypes in their art practices.

Three artists that address gender issues in their practices are Kiki Smith, the Guerrilla Girls, and Yasumasa Morimura. Each artist constructs and communicates these issues in different ways and via different approaches but all have been successful in various ways. This paper focuses on each artist, their methods, constructs and communication strategies and the degree of their success. In conclusion, it will be established that Kiki Smith deals with gender issues on a wider and more effective scale in regards to reach, consistency, success over a longer time frame and in relation to impact on the art world, community and audiences.

Yasumasa Morimura addresses gender issues in his work and has built a reputation for being an internationally celebrated artist known for his portraits of himself as Marilyn Monroe, Rembrandt, Vivian Leigh and other artists and celebrities. His portraits are a comment on western culture and a reflection on female and male identity. Many of his portraits depict himself dressed up as famous women. This was a conscious decision of Yasumasa Morimura’s to focus on the feminine side of the Japanese culture. In his culture, the sun goddess, Amaterasu, is known for her warmth and compassion. The artist wanted to make reference to the difference in gender perception and relationships of how the feminine is seen as giving life and nurturing life, in comparison to the typically male traits of dominance and destruction. His aim was to make a statement on the violent historic events in Japan’s history which he contributes to men and their masculine tendencies to control and take by force. His desire was to highlight that Japan would benefit from a less male driven society to one of less violence and more compassionate values attributed to the female. He acknowledges both the male and female attributes in all of us but seems to warn that too much of one or the other can lead to destruction, and unwanted consequences including avoidable suffering and chaos.

His portrait series not only address gender issues but have portrayed him as also dressing up and posing as famous western artists. This is to reflect the influence of the west, western paintings, western ideas of glamour, the ideal and what is of value compared to the Japanese traditions and historical influences. Hence, Morimura’s work is related not only to gender issues but history, politics and cultural issues. Some of his series address the impact of the west on Japan and it’s traditions and how modernisation and exposure to western influences effects his culture. In particular his aim is to encourage the audience to think about the importance of traditional values versus new and modern values. Some of Morimura’s works also portray his own struggles in life unrelated to gender. For example, in 1985, he did a portrait of himself as the self-mutilated Vincent van Gough.

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“At the time, I was in my mid-30s and contemplating how I wanted to live the rest of my life. I was at a standstill…My suffering at the moment was overlapped with Gogh’s anguish, and that’s why I chose Gogh’s most tragic expression, cutting his ear.”

Morimura has produced over 300 images and is classed as the most famous Japanese appropriation artist.2 He has installed photo booths at exhibitions so that visitors could also use their own likeness in the self-portraits he re-created. He explained this by stating that everyone has a shared yearning for transformation and to see oneself as someone different from who they are perceived to be. Even though he communicates gender issues and how the sexes are seen and portrayed in society through his work like posing as female artists and actresses, his work also relates to issues of culture, politics, history, self-expression, traditions and modernisation and are therefore not always gender targeted.

The Guerilla Girls also address gender issues. These issues are communicated not only via art through the use of posters, but also through public appearances, books and videos. Thus they are known as not only being artists but also as feminists and activists due to their protests and stands against discrimination against female artists and the racial discrimination of coloured female artists. Their fame has grown by using humour and illustrations as a method to address gender and racial matters but they do not stop there they also undertake “corruption in art, politics and culture in general.”1

They originated in New York city, forming in 1985 but have had a global impact achieved not only through humour but with the combination of this humour with real hard hitting facts and statistics to expose and highlight the injustice against female artists by not only organisations but also individuals that under represent or exclude women artists from exhibiting, being added to collections or are overlooked for funding.

Their 1989 poster was strategically placed on New York City buses looking like an advertisement and read, ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’ emphasising the double standards of the art world showing and representing predominantly male artists. The statistics under this heading read that less than 3% of the modern art section artists were women but 83% of the nude pictures were of women.

The Guerilla Girls don’t refrain to just communication with posters, they are seen as artists and activists and appear in public, in gorilla masks to remain anonymous, and rally for their causes speaking out in public at conferences and events and sharing their passion for standing up for women’s rights and against sexism and racism exposing these double standards to a wider audience and platform reaching a global audience.

“…we found out quickly that humour gets people involved. It’s an effective weapon.” “But we also wanted to make feminism…fashionable again, with new tactics and strategies. It was really a surprise when so many people identified with us and felt we spoke for their collective anger. We didn’t have the wildest notion that women in Japan, Brazil, Europe and even Bali, would be interested in what we were doing.”

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Their methods and success has led to exhibitions at the Tate Modern, the Venice Biennale, and places like MoMA which has in turn increased their range of audience and impact on the population.[67] This success, impact and reach on exposing the injustices on the art world have led to them to tackle other issues including abortion rights, rape, current affairs, the homeless and many other topics not necessarily related to the art world or being gender specific. So although their reach has been wide spread their themes are varied and not motivated by gender issues alone.

Kiki Smith is credited with being one of the first female artists to address the reality of being a woman through her art practice. In her pieces, the female body was not depicted as seductive and an object of desire through seductiveness, nudity and beauty as it had been by myriads of male artists but shown in it’s true functional form. Displaying the skin, organs and bodily functions of processing waste, giving birth and a female’s monthly cycles, Smith showed the female body in all it’s true glory and not just as an object of desire. Her work highlights the importance of honouring the integrity of other living beings and showed that a woman could be beyond a stereotype, and live life on her own terms and not bow down to conformity, men or other so called authorities.

She likes to push past views of being a female, domesticity, religious views and identity and explore and create new meanings around what it is like to be a woman or what it means to be a woman. For instance, in her works depicting the woman and the wolf, she is portraying each character as an equal, not as one more dominant over the other, there is no victim, no prey and therefor no discrimination against gender, race or class.

Kiki Smith has been documented as saying: “If you look at representation… in Western, figurative art—there’s a small sector of life represented. I used to say that it was women lounging around eating cherries…and there is very little representation of women from the experiential side. There are ideas about the gaze, women being looked at, but not from the active standpoint of being an embodied participant.”

Her series consistently challenge the world’s views on how females are seen through provocative works like representing the uterus as a cage or naming her etching of a girl and wolf as ‘Friends’. She has depicted the Virgin Mary not as often seen in religious robes but as a figure of flesh, representing the body underneath without the skin to represent that she was physical, and a person like everyone else not just a woman seen as a nurturer and one of depicting the churches view on humility and service which is often portrayed as a woman’s role.

Smith furthermore communicated gender constructs through her use of materials utilising tapestry, textiles, paper and other materials seen as female related further emphasising gender issues and how women are portrayed and stereotyped as more craft directed than art directed. “Lucy’s Daughters” is an example of such a piece. Smith uses little female dolls leaning against each other and forming a group wedged into a corner. “By her use of materials, she blurs the distinction between art and craft, between what has been considered man’s work and what has been considered woman’s work, to produce images that address issues of sexual identity.”4

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The content of Smith’s work has referred to issues like aids, man and nature, abortion, life and death, and more often the female whether a character from religion, or fairy tales. But it is the rejection of previous social constructs that has elevated her recognition and success throughout the world.

Kiki Smith’s success has resulted in numerous awards and exhibitions over 40 years. She is described as “one of the most enduring creators of post-feminist imagery in mediums from sculpture and drawing to tapestry and printmaking.” In Munich last year she was credited with the following statement for her exhibition at the Haus der Kunst: “At a time when the art world and society at large is finally facing up to the debate on feminism and gender roles, an exhibition with Kiki Smith, who has perhaps done more than any other living artist to tackle these issues, could not have come at a better time.”x In her 2004 exhibition, Lynne Tillman, has stated that her “influence on the art world-particularly on the treatment of women and the body—has been dramatic.”x

She also claimed a spot in 2006’s TIME Magazine’s list of ‘People who shape our world’. xx

Due to Kiki Smith’s approach and focus on gender issues, that particularly of being female, I believe she has been the most effective of the 3 artists in highlighting the treatment and portrayal of women in art. Although, The Guerilla Girls and Yasumasa Morimura also tackle gender issues they also focus on other issues which are not gender specific. The Guerilla Girls comment on political, social and racial issues and Yasumasa Morimura comments on political, historical and cultural issues that may or may not relate to gender. Kiki Smith’s work generally is tied to female issues or the feminine even in her nature series and focus on the human experience thus staying true to tackling the issues between the genders and how genders are perceived and how they can potentially be perceived differently.

Smith, not only through her topics, but also through her use of materials, explores female related issues and pushes back on female stereotypes and therefore holds an even stronger focus and tie to gender issues which has proven her to be widely recognised as having a huge impact on gender perspectives spreading her recognition in this area throughout the world. Concluding that, in comparison to The Guerilla Girls and Yasmasa Morimura who both address gender issues, Kiki Smith most embodies an artist intent on tackling gender issues, by hugely impacting on society through her controversial and modern approach to depicting the female body in art and challenging society’s notions on gender and creating new meanings varying from the past meanings found in literature, religion, society and throughout the history of art.

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