It’s All Greek to Me

Let’s talk Greek.  Women could not be citizens, vote, or own property.  They weren’t even important enough to be included in the census counts.  Lower class women could be sold by their male relatives to other men as slaves.  Fun fact: the Greeks believed menstrual blood would sour wine and make dogs become rabid.  Sounds super sciencey.  It is remarkable, given this misogyny and oppression, that there were any ancient Greek women artists at all.  But women are badass and there were successful women making beautiful art whenever they took a break from making dogs lose their minds.  They painted and sculpted, ran workshops, and taught.

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Helena of Egypt was one of these remarkable women.  Sadly, very little is known about her.  She lived and worked in Egypt during the 4th century BCE.  Her father, Timon, was also an artist and her instructor when she began creating art.  The one work that is known to be hers is a wall painting depicting the defeat of Darius III by Alexander the Great.  “Alexander the Great Confronts Darius III at the Battle of Issus” would have been lost forever, but it was so admired that a mosaic reproduction was done in Pompeii and later found and preserved.  Her other works have not survived.

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Helena and her female cohorts didn’t let an ignorant and shitty pluto-patriarchy get them down.  They made awesome art in a difficult and oppressive environment.  They are an inspiration to us as we enter into a new era of misogyny, racism, and stupidity.

Inuit-ive Art

I am cold all the fucking time.  So, the thought of being born in an igloo in Canada’s Northwest Territories makes me cringe.  But for Kenojuak Ashevak, badass lady and Inuit artistic ground-breaker, it was just fine.  She was born in 1927 on Baffin Island.  Her father made his living by hunting and trading in furs.  He was also a shaman.  Pretty cool.  Ashevak’s grandmother, who she lived with as a girl, taught her many of the traditional Inuit crafts.  When Ashevak was 19, she got married.  She had many children (16!), both adopted and biological, but lost seven of them to diseases.  Ashevak herself was hospitalized for three years starting in 1950 for tuberculosis.  In 1959, she and other artists from Cape Dorset, Canada started the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, which offered workshops and classes for all kinds of artists.  In 1963, the National Film Board of Canada made a documentary about her and her art.  In the decades that followed, Ashevak received honorary doctorates, earned a place on the Canada Walk of Fame (the first Inuit to do so), was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and won the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.  Ashevak passed away in 2013 from lung cancer.

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Ashevak worked in a variety of mediums: drawing (in graphite, pens, colored pencils), etching (including copper-etching and sugar-lift etching), stone carving, beadwork, and print-making.  Over the course of her life, she created thousands of works.  Her drawings have been on Canadian stamps and coins.  She has done multiple murals and did the first Inuit-designed stained-glass window for the John Bell Chapel in Ontario.  She exhibited her work in Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Quebec.  Ashevak’s art is in collections all across Canada, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.  In 2015, Ashevak’s “Rabbit Eating Seaweed” sold for $59,000.  She even had her very own Google Doodle in 2014.

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Ashevak’s work is beautiful and vibrant.  Her subjects are the beings and places that surrounded her: owls, rabbits, Inuit people, wolves, and fish.  Although it may seem like her subjects are simple, the works are quite complex and striking.  Ashevak drew on her heritage and her land to share her world with us and we are all lucky that she did.

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Back to the Futurism

A lot can happen in a lifetime, even when that lifetime is only 32 years long.  Russian artists at the beginning of the 20th Century witnessed massive amounts of upheaval.  1914 marked the start of the First World War.  Russia allied with Britain and France against Germany and Austria-Hungary.  This violent conflict ended in 1918.  In 1917, the Tsarist rule was overthrown in the Russian Revolution and a Communist government took over, eventually placing Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks in power.  Civil war followed.  The Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was established in 1922.  That’s a lot of shit for 8 years.

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Olga Rozanova was born in a village in Russia in 1886.  In 1904, she moved to Moscow and studied at K. Bolshakov’s and Konstantin Yuon’s art studios.  She also attended the Stroganov School of Applied Art.  Her art was seen in exhibitions in St. Petersburg starting in 1911.  Rozanova was very interested in Italian Futurism.  She became friends with many of the Russian Futurist poets of the time and married one of them, Aleksei Kruchenykh. She illustrated her husband’s books of poetry starting in 1912.   Her work was seen in Rome in 1914.  In 1916, Rozanova worked at the Verbovka Village Folk Center along with many other Russian artists.  Also in 1916, Rozanova joined Supremus, a group of avant-garde artists led by Kazimir Malevich.  But her art soon grew beyond Futurism and Suprematism, becoming more and more abstract, and utilizing more vibrant colors. She did a series of paintings that reinterpreted playing cards.

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As the country transformed, so did Rozanova’s artwork.  By 1917 and 1918, Rozanova’s paintings, which she called tsv’etopis’, were completely abstract and non-objective.  Rozanova died in 1918 from diphtheria, a bacterial infection that destroys the tissues in the respiratory system.  Diphtheria is pretty fucking gnarly and even with treatment 1 in 10 infected patients die.  Without treatment, that the mortality rate is 1 in 2.  Thank goodness there is a vaccine that prevents the disease.  At least until the anti-vaxers decide that the mumps and whooping cough are passé and need a new disease to bring back into the mix.  Get your kids vaccinated, for fuck’s sake.  Olga Rozanova would approve.  Shit, she’d be first in line.

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Rozanova had two posthumous exhibitions: one in Moscow in 1919 and one at the Tretyakov Gallery in 2007 that featured her artwork and documents.  Despite her short life, Rozanova’s art explored key artistic movements of the 21st century and her abstract work was beautiful and revolutionary.  Tumultuous times makes for great art and Olga Rozanova certainly made some wonderful, kick-ass art.

Iran So Far Away

If you ask politicians, Iran is a dangerous enemy with fundamentalist ideologies that oppress its people and threaten the West.  I rarely ask politicians anything, though, because I don’t really trust a bunch of old white men who rely on fear-mongering to continue their careers and their paychecks.  How about we ask someone who has lived in both Iran and America?  Someone who has over fifty years of navigating between the two countries and their evolving cultures and who experienced Islam as an Iranian woman and as an American woman?  That seems to make more sense than listening to Lindsey Graham or Donald Trump ignorantly spout off about terrorists.  Fuck that.  How about we learn about Shirin Neshat and her art?

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Shirin Neshat was born in Iran in 1957.  Her parents raised her Muslim, but were open to Western ideas as well as Islamic ones.  Neshat even attended a Catholic school in Tehran.  Her parents encouraged their daughters to become what they wanted to be and do the things they wanted to do.  Go, mom and dad.  In 1974, Neshat moved to California to study art at U.C. Berkeley.  She completed a BA, an MA, and an MFA.  Go, Shirin.  In 1990, she returned to Iran for the first time in 16 years.  After this visit, Neshat began to focus her art on the social climate created by modern Islam and the impact on women.  Her first solo show was in 1993 at the Franklin Furnace in New York.  From 1993 to 1997, Neshat created a series of photos called “Women of Allah.”  They are striking black and white pictures of women wearing the traditional chador and holding weapons.  The skin that is visible is covered in poetry written in Farsi by Iranian women poets.  These photos play with the ideas of femaleness and violence (usually associated with masculinity).  She released many videos during those years as well.  In 1998, Neshat began a three-part video series that utilized dual projection to emphasize the contrasts between men and women, and public and private spaces.  Neshat won First International Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999.  In 2006, she received the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.  For her film “Women without Men,” Neshat won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2009.  That same year, she participated in a three day hunger strike at the U.N. Headquarters protesting the Iranian presidential elections.  Neshat has had two retrospectives: one in 2013 at the Detroit Institute of Arts and one in 2015 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.  Neshat work has been shown in solo shows across the world from Mexico City to South Africa to Denmark to Singapore.  She participated in multiple film festivals and has been artist in residence at two American art centers.

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Neshat’s work is provocative and intended to open a dialog.  She uses photography and video to highlight contrasts: men and women, femininity and fundamentalist Islam, personhood and society, control and freedom, the West and Islamic culture.  She also addresses the ideal of martyrdom.  Neshat stated that “art is a weapon.  Culture is a form of resistance.”  By showing varying ideas, both conflicting and coexisting, Neshat allows the viewer to examine them.  She asks the viewer if they can be reconciled, if there are inequities, and if they are oppositional or complimentary.  Answers are not necessarily the point; the discussion is Neshat’s goal.  Neshat has turned her experiences, heritage, and observations into conversations about the many issues that relate to modern Islam and modern Iran.  And she’s done a beautiful job of it.

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Shuo Me the Way

China is familiar with change.  In just the last 50 years, it went through the Cultural Revolution, Communism, the Tiananmen Square Protests, and turned into a global capitalist power.  But frequent and rapid change doesn’t mean they’ve handled it with aplomb and adaptability.  Millions of Chinese citizens have been persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, killed, robbed of their land and possessions, and silenced.  People who speak against these abuses often find themselves on the receiving end of them.  But activists, artists, and writers continue to bring attention to the problems and contradictions of oppressive and hypocritical regimes.  Jiang Shuo is one of those awesome artists.

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Jiang Shuo was born in Beijing in 1958.  She studied sculpture at the Central Academy of Arts and Design, what is now the Academy of Fine Arts at Tsinghua University.  At the time, there were very few female art students.  Shuo then became the first female sculptor to complete a post-graduate degree in China.  Kickass.  Her first solo show was in 1985.  Shuo lectured at the school from 1986 through 1989 and then moved to Austria after receiving a scholarship to study at a university there.  In 1993, Shuo became an Austrian citizen.  She has exhibited her work in China, New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, Austria, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland.  Her work is sold in galleries and at auctions in New York, Beijing, and Hong Kong.  She currently splits her time between Austria and China and continues to produce awesome work.

Shuo is an expert in the lost-wax technique, also known as cire-perdue.  This is an ancient, like 2000s BCE ancient, method for creating bronze (and other metals) sculpture.  First, the artist makes a wax replica of what will be the sculpture.  Sprues, little tubes, are attached.  It is through these sprues that the melted wax will be removed and the bronze poured in.  Next, plaster is made and the wax model is encased in plaster.  This is placed in a kiln and the wax heats and melts and runs out the tubes.  Melted metal is then poured into the mold and allowed to set up and cool.  The plaster and sprues are removed and finishing touches can be added.  The sculptures, as we see with Shuo, can be quite intricate and detailed.  What is really cool about this technique is that every piece is unique.  There are no duplicates.

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Shuo’s early work had a folk-art feel to it.  She depicted children enjoying life, playing and laughing in bronze.  Beginning in 2003, Shuo started the ‘Red Guard’ series that drew on her experiences during the Cultural Revolution and the current transformative period as China evolves into a capitalist powerhouse.  The early ‘Red Guard’ bronzes show figures in the uniform of the Red Guard holding red flags and the red book.  These figures have an open mouth and no other facial features.  As the series progressed, the red flags and red books disappeared.  In their place were markers of Western capitalism and consumption: Coca Cola bottles, McDonald’s hamburgers, cell phones, coins.  The works are humorous, pop-like, and dare I say cute, but they offer a pointed critique.  The Cultural Revolution and its Red Guard went after the ‘bourgeois’ and its extravagances.  Now, those same people who persecuted luxury and capitalism are growing rich as businessmen and driving a growing capitalist economy with their consumerism.

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China has not always been kind to artists offering critiques.  But Jiang Shuo will not be intimidated or silenced.  She continues to make cool art with awesome techniques that has something important to say.  Rock on, Jiang Shuo!

The Longhi and Short of It

Ah, the Italian Renaissance.  An age of artistic mastery and amazing men: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Sandro Botticelli, Donatello, and so many more.  The Renaissance Man is believed to be a multi-talented gentlemen with a thirst for knowledge and a cosmopolitan outlook.  Except actual Renaissance men advocated strict social classism, didn’t want women to read or write because the idea frightened them, settled disputes by stabbing each other with pointy metal sticks, and were adamant that the world was flat.  Sounds fancy.  And yet, they are idealized and admired.  It’s the Renaissance women who should be applauded.  Not only did they have to put up with the men, but they had to fight to be included in any field of study or practice.  Women were believed to ruin creativity, but a few still managed to become great artists.

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Barbara Longhi was born in Ravenna, Italy in 1552, during the Counter-Reformation.  Her father was a Mannerist painter and she learned to paint in his studio.  She was involved in all aspects of the business: she helped on large commissions, modeled, interacted with patrons, and worked on her own paintings and commissions.  Longhi was well-known in the artistic community of Ravenna and respected for her talent.  She was prolific, but many of her works were lost and many were unsigned and thus unknown.  Longhi has only 15 known works, though some of the paintings attributed to her father may well be hers.  Only one of her known works depicts an adult man; the ‘Camaldolese Monk’ was done in either 1570 or 1573.  Longhi was commissioned by a monastery to paint St. Catherine and the resulting ‘Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ is believed to be a self-portrait.  Most of her subjects are religious and devotional.  Longhi painted several St. Catherines, Judith with the head of Holofernes, and many depictions of the Virgin and child.  She was included in Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1568.  Her paintings can be seen at the Museo d’Arte della Citta di Ravenna, the Louvre in Paris, the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, the Museo Biblioteca del Grappa, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Santa Maria Maggiore in Ravenna.  Longhi died in 1638.

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Mannerism reacted to High Renaissance styles that emphasized balance, drama, symmetry, and proportion (i.e. the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel).  Mannerism exaggerated proportion and played with asymmetry.  It emphasized elegance over emotions and grand gestures.  Longhi’s father was a Mannerist and some of these stylistic components can be seen in her works.  Longhi’s works are serene and elegant.  She did small works with simple compositions and a warmer color palette.  The subjects of her paintings convey a sense of peace and introspection.  Longhi’s paintings are great and her ability to be a successful, respected, talented artist in the time of Renaissance men shows her badassness.

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B. Yourself

Life in rural India is pretty shitty for women.  They struggle with poverty, hunger, homelessness, strict gender roles, misogyny, and physical and sexual violence.  But women are strong as hell and B. Prabha set out to show it.

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B. Prabha was born in rural India near Maharashtra in 1933.  She studied at the Nagpur School of Art and later received her degree from the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai.  Prabha had her first exhibit in 1956.  In 1958, her paintings were shown in the State Art Exhibition and she won first prize.  Hell yes.  She had solo shows in 1959, 1961, and 1993.  In 1996, Prabha’s paintings were included in the Contemporary Indian Painters show in Mumbai.  Her work has been in more than 50 exhibitions around the world and she has paintings in India’s National Gallery of Modern Art.  B. Prabha died in Nagpur, India in 2001.

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Prabha was a painter in a time when women were still fairly excluded from the Indian artistic community.  After experimenting with a variety of media while she was young, Prabha stuck with oil painting.  Her subjects are rural women, portrayed in daily life, elongated, elegant, and haunting.  The seemingly simple scenes show courage in the face of suffering, oppression, and poverty.  These images of poor women in rural communities were revolutionary at the time, and they still make a big impact today.  By showing the plight of women in her work, Prabha was able to bring attention to social and economic inequities and to give these women a voice in the wider world.  She stated that “I have yet to see one happy woman” in rural India, which was probably 100% true and 100% sad.  These women needed to be seen and heard, and Prabha made that happen.

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B. Prabha broke traditions and made some great fucking art in the process.  She was an artist when women rarely were.  She painted people who were neglected and ignored, all while affirming their personhood and their strength.  She brought attention to issues that were avoided.  And she did it all with skill, talent, and conviction. B. Prabha is an awesome Indian painter, and we should all know who she is and pay attention to what her paintings have to say.