SA's female artists are pushing boundaries & galleries are taking note

In the 1970s, you'd have to struggled to find female artists in galleries around the world. This is slowly starting to change

04 August 2019 - 00:11 By Lisa Witepsky
Hannalie Taute's 'Boererate: wyn maak die bors oop'.
Hannalie Taute's 'Boererate: wyn maak die bors oop'.
Image: Supplied

Name a famous female Impressionist. A woman Surrealist? An Expressionist, then? You may have been able to dredge up one or two names, but the reality is they're greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts.

That's not surprising, says Corlie de Kock, manager and curator at Knysna Fine Art, given that women traditionally lacked the opportunities to study or take up the apprenticeships that were open to men.

The effects of this centuries-old convention are still in evidence: only 24 out of the British National Gallery's 23,000 paintings are by women, for example.

Moreover, next year marks the first time the gallery will hold a solo exhibition on a historic female artist, in the form of Artemisia Gentileschi.

These statistics are the reason why De Kock is pleased to have noticed an increased demand for works by female artists.

It's a trend driven by a number of factors, she says, from the growing number of women studying fine art at university (now outnumbering men) to the fact that collectors of contemporary art are always on the lookout for the fresh and groundbreaking.

In SA, it's often women who are pushing those boundaries.

Hannelie Taute is a good example. "She's combining embroidery - traditionally a feminine pastime - with inner tubes, items that have a male association, to create social commentary."

Liberty Battson also stands out for her work that references the masculine realm," says De Kock.

But it's not just in SA that female representation in the art world is gaining pace, says Susie Goodman, executive director at Strauss & Co.

This is a global phenomenon, perhaps a spillover of movements such as #MeToo.

Jo Anke Gallery owner Hlengiwe Vilikati echoes the sentiment, observing that while art mirrors society, technology has also made it easier for women to share their stories and, in so doing, has paved the way for women to support each other more visibly.

This is certainly her strategy: "I will always promote the work of female artists because I'm aware of the responsibilities women face in both their personal and professional lives."

"Those responsibilities are included in the reasons many women artists don't often achieve the kind of acclaim men do," says Makgati Molebatsi, co-founder of Latitudes Art Fair.

"Many of the women who are now enjoying success are those who have persisted," she says, pointing to Penny Siopis and Billie Zangewa.

'Ma Vie en Rose' by Billie Zangewa.
'Ma Vie en Rose' by Billie Zangewa.
Image: Billie Zangewa/Blank Projects
'All dressed up and everywhere to go', oil on canvas, by Angela Banks.
'All dressed up and everywhere to go', oil on canvas, by Angela Banks.
Image: Supplied
'Fragile Impermanence I', Giraffe bone, by Beckwith Kraft.
'Fragile Impermanence I', Giraffe bone, by Beckwith Kraft.
Image: Supplied

Those who aren't able to push through the challenges of motherhood and economic realities often turn to academics or curating - often to the benefit of other women as they're able to influence public tastes.

And, they're able to open new doors. Underline Projects - founded by independent curators Natascha Becker, Londi Modiko and Lara Koseff - is a case in point, providing a platform for other independent curators to present an exhibition.

This may provide an opportunity for women artists to grow their profiles - although, as Molebatsi notes, this shouldn't be difficult given that they are coming off a low base.

'The Power & Principalities II', bronze edition, by Elizabeth Balcomb.
'The Power & Principalities II', bronze edition, by Elizabeth Balcomb.
Image: Supplied

"A Black Aesthetic, an exhibition showcasing the work of black South African modernist artists that was hosted in April, featured the work of only one woman: Gladys Mgudlandlu."

On the other side of the spectrum, Goodman says Irma Stern has been the highest-grossing South African artist for the past 10 years and interest in Maggie Laubser is also consistent - signs that collecting is about subject matter and artist rather than gender.

All the same, she says, there is an upswing in female participation in the industry. She cites Thandi Kumalo, the first female master printer at The Artist Proof Studio, and her residency in Florence as an example of inroads into the industry.

Goodman says there is also an increasing female presence in art auctions. Sotheby's introduced its first female auctioneer in 2016 and by 2017 women made up about one third of the company's global auctioneer network, according to iNews.

One of the most obvious questions about this increased female presence is how it is impacting on what art lovers get to see: how does their subject matter differ from that of men? It needn't, says De Kock.

"We have a great tradition of resistance painters, upheld by the likes of Siopis and Jane Alexander.

The works we're seeing now are an extension of this, although they're linked to ideas of identity on a global scale.

We're living in a post-modern era, and there are so many movements running concurrently. This creates an open field. I don't think there's any distinction between the work of men and women."

Molebatsi disagrees, saying women seem more open to experimentation - Nandipha Mntambo's cowhide sculptures, for example. And if there isn't a difference in the material handled by women, there should be, says Vilikati.

"Women need to seize this opportunity to take control of the dialogue around their bodies and the way they are perceived. Art presents us with a vehicle for exploring people's expectations of women."

Zanele Muholi's oeuvre is doing just this, she adds, making her an artist to watch.

Other talents include Odette Graskie, Chrisel van der Merwe, Mbali Dlamini, Mbali Tshabalala and Lady Skollie, says Molebatsi - and if the trend continues, there will be many more women entering the canon in years to come.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Bongi Dlhomo was the only female artist to be featured in the 'A Black Aesthetic' exhibit. The artist included was in fact Gladys Nomfanekiso Mgudlandlu.