Women artists draw the eye in winter auction of top local works
While male artists outnumber female counterparts in SA, the high value of pieces by the likes of Irma Stern and Maggie Laubser confirms a turning tide
Before the American artist Miriam Shapiro was known as a feminist artist, she painted abstract art. As such, in the 1960s, her art superficially appeared like that of her male contemporaries, but it didn’t attract much attention. This was one of the reasons she started to make obvious feminist art from domestic items that spoke about the condition of being a woman.
The fourth wave of feminism that has taken hold, leading to hashtag campaigns such as #freethenipple and the more contentious #menaretrash, and global protests against Donald Trump, has finally put the female voice upfront and centre. Does all this female activism mean art made by women must evoke domestic life to get noticed?
Perusing the catalogue for Aspire’s auction, which will take place in Johannesburg on July 17, it appears that SA’s women artists remain fixated on representing the female body.
Two charcoal drawings by Diane Victor present the female form, as do several works by Penny Siopis (it is so rare for her art not to, even when she paints a still life). A younger generation of artists, such as Gabrielle Goliath and Jessica Webster, also present female subjects, though in Goliath’s striking 2010 series Berenice, where she presents portraits of so-called coloured women, she digs into where this theme intersects with race.
A 2009 photograph entitled the Golden Mask, produced by internationally renowned performance artist Marina Abramovic, tellingly features her face covered in gold leaf, as if literally conveying the value of the female body and identity. Estimated to sell for almost R2m, it certainly is valuable.
The work of women artists is gaining in value, as museums have finally turned their attention to overlooked female painters from Shapiro’s era.
Women abstract expressionists are finally enjoying their place in the sun at a large survey of this art at the Denver Art Museum and at Moma, the famous New York art institution where Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction is showing.
In SA, male artists might outnumber female ones and have hogged the limelight, but work by women artists has fared as well at auction, if not better.
An Irma Stern work has fetched the highest amount on auction – R21m. Maggie Laubser also does well on the market. One of her landscape pieces on Aspire’s winter auction is valued between R1m and R1.5m.
Girl power can’t necessarily be measured in numbers; perhaps the impact is better gauged via prominence and, as Shapiro discovered, how they are shifting the dialogue around women and pushing for equality.
Women continue to be stuck in a precarious space — at the mercy of men and their bodies. Or so might be the message behind Victor’s Daphne, which presents a naked woman caught in a thorny bush. She is also threatened by a male figure.
SIGHT, SEEING AND BEING SEEN ARE THEMES THAT UNITE THE WORK BY WOMEN ARTISTS.
The young ideal body in that drawing contrasts with the female subject in Untitled (from the Theatrical Character series) featuring an older woman with her puckered thighs on show.
This work is probably more characteristic of Victor’s art, in which she delivers these rough unpalatable scenes — the unseen, the unsightly.
Sight, seeing and being seen are themes that unite the work by women artists.
This is probably a response to the high visibility or the privileging of the body as the defining essence and power of femininity. This idea is most prominent in Siopis’s Pinky Pinky (Red Eyes) oil painting in which a pair of eyes stand out against the pink flesh that fills the canvas.
In this way, the eyes and the idea of looking out and being looked at dominate.
As the title of this work and the series, the eponymous 2002 exhibition it is linked to, suggest, these subjects are pure flesh — the pink impasto paint alludes to this. It’s as if their skin has been ripped off, leaving a vulnerable, wounded and naked subject.
The pink colour evokes an imposed idea of femininity too, which perhaps forces the subject to perform in a certain way – to look away, to feel shame, while similarly wanting to be looked at.
The politics of the gaze is best communicated via the eyes. In Stern’s portraits of women, it is interesting to observe when they engage with the viewer, or how they look out, registering their consciousness of being observed or resisting it.
In Woman with Orange, expected to sell at the auction for about R250,000, the subject looks down. In the catalogue, Andrew Lamprecht suggests this forces the viewer to look away from the centre of the painting. Her stance reads as a sign of demureness, as does her position — seated on the ground with her legs drawn up to her stomach and her bare feet.
This recoiled position could be read as resistance to the way women’s bodies are studied, but there is the sense the subject lacks the confidence to be "looked at". Only the artist sees her, in a way.
Abramovic is easily the most well-known woman artist of our times and, as such, is "powerful", yet — and maybe because of this — her art and its value is directly tied to her body and how it is consumed, positioned and understood in the context of her live performances.
Her most well-known performance, The Artist is Present, is centred on looking – her staring into the eyes of whichever member of the public stepped into Moma during a retrospective in 2010. Abramovic sat in a chair and simply offered to gaze at whomever was seated across from her. Some people wept, as if proving what the effect of looking, really looking, can be.
She has performed at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in a 2005 exhibition curated by Kendell Geers. Fortunately for Joburgers, she did a lot more than look at people — she emptied pap and bloodied organs onto the floor.
However, for the first time, her art will be on sale in SA, at the Aspire auction.
The photographic work, Golden Mask, is a still from the film in which only her face is visible — her body is concealed in a black background. In typical fashion, she doesn’t perform or even move; it is the gold leaf, partially covering her face, that flaps back and forth in a gentle wind. It brings Siopis’s Pinky Pinky work to mind as Abramovic’s eyes stand out from this textured gold mess and the dark background. Unlike Siopis’s subject she looks directly at the viewer without a sense of shame — perhaps because we can’t see her body.
Abramovic has rejected the idea that she is a feminist artist. "It puts you in a category and … an artist has no gender," is what she has argued.
Ironically, this articulates her feminist stance, her desire to be seen as an artist first. Ultimately, this is what all female artists desire, though right now, being female gives them the edge.
• Aspire’s winter auction takes place on July 17 at Park on 7, Hyde Park Corner. Corrigall will lead an art crawl called A Woman’s Eye at the venue on July 14 at 7pm.