The Power of Female Artists in the 21st century is as much a statement as a question. From Georgia O’Keefe to Yayoi Kusama, there’s never been a better time for female artists to shine…

Words: Nathan Clements-Gillespie
Lead image: Swan Lake Series by Adrianna eu 

Why should we attempt to limit art – which is universal and transcending – to gender? We could argue that by 2016 the notion of ‘gender’ has been surpassed altogether: male artists, female artists, transgender artists, or as in the case of Andrea Crespo, both. In fact Andrea refers to him/herself as ‘we.’ The role of female artists – and of gender in the arts is one of the many topics that will be addressed at Art16, London’s global art fair. Such conversations are key to our mission of quality, geographical diversity, and accessibility.

The power of female artists mirrors the power of female leaders in business and politics, and gender rights and equality on the political and social agenda. Art is not only a mirror of society; it can also foreshadow collective feelings and emotions. This can be seen in the many exceptional exhibitions dedicated to women artists, and the numerous London institutions supporting them.

The Tate Modern has been an incubator since it opened, fostering female artists and curators alike

The Tate Modern has been an incubator since it opened, fostering female artists and curators alike. Frances Morris was recently appointed as its Director and in 2012 Sheena Wagstaff was headhunted from the Tate Modern by the Metropolitan Museum in New York to run their prestigious Contemporary Art department.

In 2015, the Tate produced three stellar shows by female artists: Marlene Dumas, Sonia Delauney and Agnes Martin and this year an exhibition by Lebanese born, Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum will open at the Tate Modern on May 4. The gallery also has a stunning Georgia O’Keefe show scheduled for summer 2016 (July 6 to October 30). The Tate’s exhibition will explore the artist’s position both within the context of the American landscape tradition, and her influence on later feminist artists.

Jimson Weed by Georgia O’Keefe

Jimson Weed by Georgia O’Keefe

Perhaps best known for her flower paintings, O’Keefe’s work was deeply influenced by her spiritual engagement with the (American) landscape, and with abstraction. Interestingly, the exhibition has been developed by two female curators Tanya Barson and Hannah Johnston.

The Saatchi Gallery also dedicated its recent 30th anniversary exhibition, Champagne Life to female artists. The show offered a vibrant overview of contemporary creativity and brought together the work of 14 women including Serbian painter Jelena Bulajic (shortlisted for the BP portrait award in 2014) and French sculpturess Virgile Ittah.

The auction record for a living female artist stands at $7.1m (£5.1m) for Yayoi Kusama, whereas it soars to $58.4m (£42m) for male artist Jeff Koons

While all this interest in female artists is exemplary, the auction record for a living female artist stands at $7.1m (£5.1m) for Yayoi Kusama, whereas it soars to $58.4m (£42m) for male artist Jeff Koons. The same holds true with deceased artists, where the record for a female artist is $44.4m (£32m) for Georgia O’Keefe, and $142.4m (£102.8m) for Francis Bacon. In a 2013 ELF (East London Fawcett group) audit of 134 commercial galleries in London, only 31% were found to represent women artists. All this would point to their being undervalued – and that the market is catching up.

Bound by Alice Anderson from the Champagne Life exhibition at The Saatchi Gallery

Bound by Alice Anderson from the Champagne Life exhibition at The Saatchi Gallery

Many older artists are also being ‘rediscovered’ late in their lives and careers, several of whom are female. 100 year old Cuban born painter Carmen Herrera was recently featured by the Whitney Museum in their inaugural exhibition for their new Renzo Piano designed building in downtown New York. Herrera sold her first works at age 89, and these were placed in very important collections, including those of Ella Fontanals-Cisneros (Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, Miami) and Agnes Gund, a passionate and committed patron of the arts.

Last summer 91 year old Iranian born artist Monir Shahroudy had a solo show at the Guggenheim in New York: ‘Infinite Possibility. Mirror Words and Drawings 1974-2014.’ Her first monograph, published in 2011 was edited by the Serpentine Galleries’ Hans Ulrich Obrist, and as Farmanfarmaian said to Obrist about her installation ‘Lightening for Neda’ one should see in the work’s reflective surface as ‘your own picture, your own face, your own clothing; if you move it is a part of the art.’

Not to be outshone by her contemporaries, 90 year old Lebanese artist Etel Adnan has also become a contemporary art superstar, with substance. Her work was an important feature of Carolyn Christov-Bakhargiev’s dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel in 2012. Trained as a poet, Adnan paints not only small, beautiful, and vividly colourful abstract landscapes but also her trademark Leporellos, small, folding books featuring both poetry and watercolours.

Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas of course came to international fame after exhibiting at Sensation in 1997 and they both continued to excel but a whole swathe of contemporary female artists from around the globe are being recognised now too. At Art16 this year we will be featuring new work from Polly Morgan (UK), Faiza Butt (Pakistan), Adrianna eu (Brazil) and Sophie Milner (UK).

As we see the resurgence of so many female artists, it should also be noted that female collectors are among the most prominent. London is home to many, such as Nicoletta Fiorucci (Fiorucci Art Trust), Valeria Napoleone (Valeria Napoleone XX Contemporary Art Society) who has dedicated her collection to female artists, Anita Zabludowicz (Zabludowicz Collection), Fatima Maleki, and Muriel Salem (Cranfield Collection). Their engagement is fundamental to contemporary arts in the city and the development of artists’ practice and careers.

Nathan Clements-Gillespie is Fair Director of Art16