Explorations 3: Seven Women Artists – Introduction

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The Explorations 3: Seven Women Artists exhibition opens to the public on Sunday, May 31 and as is now customary, we will be posting the exhibition text panels and other exhibition-related material over the next few days. Here is the first such post, the general introduction to the exhibition:

Seven Women Artists is the third in the National Gallery’s Explorations series, which explores major themes and issues in Jamaican art, and asks whether notions about women’s art are relevant in the Jamaica context. This question is asked with new and recent work by seven mid-career female artists, who live and work in Jamaica or are from Jamaica: Kereina Chang Fatt, Miriam Hinds-Smith, Amy Laskin, Prudence Lovell, Berette Macaulay, Judith Salmon, and Jasmine Thomas-Girvan.

The feminist movement produced major activist challenges to what had been a significant blind spot in the dominant art historical narratives: the marginalization of female artists and of what could be defined as “women’s art.” This campaign was spearheaded by feminist art historians such as Linda Nochlin and activist groups such as Guerilla Girls and has extended globally, into many different socio-cultural contexts. As a result, women artists are now receiving more recognition in art-historical and institutional narratives but the project is far from complete and women artists are still at a disadvantage compared to their male counterparts, in terms of the dynamics of recognition and exposure.

Feminist art activists have argued that a major reason why female artists have been marginalized is that much of what they have historically produced does not fit dominant notions about “fine art.” The response to this has involved reclaiming and validating such “women’s work” and many feminist artists have embraced traditional “craft” media such as embroidery and quilting. Another area of feminist art activism has involved challenging the dominant representations of women in mainstream art, which have typically reflected male perspectives, and representing female themes from an assertively “female” perspective. This has involved at times provocative representations of female sexuality and the female body that illustrate the extent to which the personal is the political in this context. Such politicized conceptions of “women’s art” have however also been critiqued by those who feel that this pigeonholes female artists, who should be empowered to claim any artistic theme or medium they wish to pursue, without being tied down or defined by their gender.

The question this exhibition asks is whether these debates have any relevance in the Jamaican context. Some may argue that such issues are not relevant here since there is gender equality in the Jamaican art world. The gender balance we see today is a recent development and is mainly a numerical one, however, which is complicated by factors such as race and class. The subject also has special urgency because of the social pressures and dangers that face women and, particularly, young girls in Jamaican society today.

Our intention with the present exhibition is not to provide or prescribe answers but to ask questions and to invite debate, on a subject that has not been fully aired and explored. We thus invite you to join us in exploring the work of the seven artists in this exhibition who, we are well aware, represent but a small sample of a much broader field. What is it these artists are communicating through their work and what is it they do or do not have in common – conceptually, thematically, aesthetically and technically? How does this separate them, if at all, from any commonalities that may exist between their male counterparts? How does their work compare and relate to that of other female artists, in Jamaica and elsewhere, and of different generations? Does their work qualify as women’s art, in the politicized sense described earlier on, and what does it represent in the Jamaican context, in terms of its agendas and politics? How does their work reflect and address the broader dynamics of gender, race and class in the Jamaican art world and what does this tell us about the relationship between art and society in this context? We look forward to fertile debate on all these issues and any other questions that may arise from this exhibition.

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