From the writing of the history of art to the unrealistically high price tags offered to the celebrated art works at international art auctions, women artists have remained less favoured. Historically, they painted the narratives of their gods and goddesses on the walls of their homes, while men became court artists and earned laurels. It’s a different matter; almost all folk art forms of India are protected, propagated and powered by women artists. They were the silent backdrop for traditions, rituals, and festivities in conformist ways. Not anymore. Not in the same ways.
In a rapidly changing world, economy is defined more by competence rather than the gendered sociology. More women are able to find space in the art world to offer a different perspective on their world. They stepped out long back from the canvas as a mere ‘subject’ that remained confined to the ‘female form’ rather than an exploration of the complex web of femininity, to choose their own subjects. Yet, more often, women’s art is still viewed with the tag of ‘hobby’ or decorative art.
When we look at it carefully women artists have not really abandoned what has been accumulated through the centuries and generations. They have redefined and reinterpreted iconographies in the present context. This apart, they are inventing fresh metaphors and idioms, techniques and materials to voice their concerns.
Art, like many other vocations, when pursued by women, is not viewed as an activity to hold sustenance and hence not as ‘serious’ as the ‘mainstream’ art. Seminars are conducted dissecting content of ‘serious’ art but do we see the same fault lines around gender in art as we do in other inequalities in society? Do art galleries and museums see their work with a bias is a question worth exploring.
It is also pertinent to ask therefore, should there be all-women art shows? Do they give them a special platform, or, exclude them further from the so-called ‘mainstream’ art? People who visit an all-women show have already built a different expectation, or, the expectations do not vary from when they visit a general art show, is worth exploring for the organisers to take this show a step forward.
A show like All India Women Artists’ Contemporary certainly challenges the viewer to explore the art works on these lines. To see if the participating artists are able to come out of the gender identity of art, or, is it absolutely fine to remain within the gender identity to offer a confidently different worldview!
This debate has become all the more important in the last few years as women’s issues have acquired a larger space in public domain than ever before, for all the wrong reasons. And women artists have responded to it with a greater vigour. Not as a reaction, but as a deeper pondering, a profound exploration of their space, their role and the worth of their creative pursuits, not only in monitory terms, but for their relevance in the larger context.
Many contemporary women artists have created wonders from within their gender domain, while a few have been able to create transgressive icons in contemporary art. Both are challenging the boundaries of art, as it is perceived within the narrowly defined realm of women’s art.
At the ongoing Kochi Muziris Art Biennale, one is surprised to see how women artists, across the globe, have defied all tags associated to their art. Without any bias, one can say, Indian women artists have surpassed all limitations of content, technique and materiality in their explorations of the contemporary world, as one witnessed at KMAB, Kochi.
I have seen the works of participating artists of All India Women Artists’ Contemporary, both award winning works as well as the ones that could not feature in the show, these women artists come from across India and the vibrancy of their ideas and expressions are in no way less captivating than those of the established names. That their geographies affect the frame and depth of their exploration is evident all through the exhibition. One finds deeper layers and a strong desire to break -free in terms of treatment and themes in the works that have come from the hinterland.
This reflects a lot on the quality of art education imparted in our colleges and universities. The farther they are from the monumental institutions, the greater is the level of originality of their works. Their expression of art is as global, as contemporary and as ‘serious’, as any art exhibited in a gallery of repute.
Creating art is a cloud phenomenon, an invisible alchemy, not plausible to define. No one has been able to nail the phenomenon of creativity; why people paint, or sing or dance. In the present world where an artist has to process a stream of disparate information, influences and observations, it becomes even harder to attempt to give utterance to an absorbing image. Creative exploration poses more challenge as every image one creates has been seen, every thought one has thought of, rings a bell of familiarity. Within this, defining an art show as women’s art show makes the artistic exploration even more challenging. This very challenge raises the bar.
The subtle danger that lurks behind the women artists is, if their creative appropriation misappropriates femininity? Especially in a world where parameters of ‘success’ are defined by the men’s world, the lure of misappropriating femininity are greater. There is a very thin line that needs to be treaded, a fine balance that needs to be earned with great caution. And, most women artists do not fall.