Why Are All-Female Exhibitions So Problematic?

moje sabz 2011 (B)
Soheila Sokhanvari, Moje Sabz, 2011. Taxidermy, Fibreglass, Jesmonite blob, automobile paint. (c) Soheila Sokhanvari. Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

“Champagne Life” is the new exhibition at Saatchi Gallery featuring 14 women artists. It inaugurates the gallery’s 30th year, so this first all-female show of the gallery seems to be a big statement, and, accordingly, it’s the talk of town. It has even been said that this could start “to shift male gaze of the art world.” It’s indeed a fact that women artists are still very much underrepresented in whichever museum of contemporary art you go to, and galleries are not doing any better. In Berlin, for instance, Johann König Gallery is a rare exception, representing more female (16) than male artists (14), whereas others like Johnen Galerie has 22 male and three female artists. 

In the face of all this, the Saatchi Gallery might think they’re bringing things forward but effecting gender equality in the art world is not that simple. First of all, given the fact that its owner, the art tycoon Charles Saatchi, was recently embroiled in a domestic violence scandal, this show easily comes across as an act of atonement. Besides that, there’s a puny thinking behind its curation, one that goes along the lines of: “let’s take care of discrimination once and for all, let’s get it over with now!”

All this might have the glaze of being radical, but in reality Saatchi Gallery is playing very safe. To change structures that discriminate in the art world, one should go about it differently. Can an all-female show really put women artists in their righteous place in art history? Hardly; instead it can only repeat the convention, despite the best intentions. 

Alice Anderson
Alice Anderson, Left: Bound, 2011, Bobbin made of wood and copper thread 345 x 248 x 248 cm. Right: 181 Kilometers, 2015, Sculpture made after performances, copper thread, 200 cm (diameter). Image (c) Steve White, 2015. Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London
Mequitta Ahuja
Mequitta Ahuja, Rhyme Sequence: Wiggle Waggle, 2012, Oil, paper and acrylic on canvas, 213 x 203 cm (c) Mequitta Ahuja, 2012. Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

Women shows became popular in the art world not so long ago, around 2010, with Centre Pompidou showing the work of women artists from the collection in “elles@centrepompidou”. Did it mean that the art world has taken the work created by women more seriously? Feminist Germaine Greer had a cynical sneer at it in The Guardian: “Does anyone really think that Martin Kippenberger could have been Martine Kippenberger?” In the same year the Brooklyn Museum showed “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968” and since then many have followed suit. Auction houses have also jumped on the bandwagon and last year Sotheby’s put on the exhibition “Cherchez la femme: Women and Surrealism”.

The droll thing is that it’s never the other way around:  “Men and Pop”, “Men and Surrealism”. Why not? Because it’s considered to be norm, no need to emphasise the male gender. If Saatchi Gallery would have mounted an exhibition with 14 male artists, nobody would call it a male exhibition. I remember the shock I got in 2014 at the Hans Richter show in Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin, curated by Timothy Benson of LACMA. In this exhibition they showed Richter together with his colleagues Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (no, not his artist wife Lucia!), Viking Eggeling, Walter Ruttmann, Theo van Doesburg, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, and Max Ernst. There was one woman who made it onto the wall, Irene Bayer-Hecht, for making a portrait of her husband Herbert Bayer. The preface of the exhibition catalogue was written by the five (male) directors of major institutions stating that Hans Richter worked with the “who’s who” of the 20th century avant garde – they were all male artists. Amen.  

Okay, all good, but what exactly would be a radical thing to do for Saatchi Gallery? Well, it would have been, for instance, much more radical of them to make an exhibition about something as random as eyeglasses in the 20th century that just happened to feature only works by women artists. Would anybody notice? As it is, talking male and female seems to be so 20th century. Aren’t we living in a time that it’s generally acknowledged that there are more than two genders? Putting on an all-women exhibition is as original as making a show about let’s say Belgian artists – it repeats the boundaries in society and it pigeonholes artists. I personally have nothing against quotas and I would have loved it if Saatchi had declared that from now on 50% of every group exhibition will comprise works by female artists. And that would be the moment when we could start talking about a real shift in the art world.

Text by An Paenhuysen Berlin-based curator and author

“Champagne Life” is at Saatchi Gallery, London until 9 March 2016

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