The Instagram Giving Great Women Artists Their Dues

@thegreatwomenartists shines a light on art's brightest female talents. Here, curator Katy Hessel shares her favourite women portraitists working today.

© Toyin Ojih Odutola

In 1971 Linda Nochlin wrote her pioneering essay “Why have there been no great women artists”. In this landmark work of feminist art history, Nochlin outlines the institutional reasons for women’s omission from the art canon as opposed to an innate lack of talent on women’s part. The essay is a major source of inspiration for Londoner Katy Hessel, who named her Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists in its honour. Hessel hopes to carry on Nochlin’s great work by showcasing female-identifying artists..

Hessel started @thegreatwomenartists in October 2015 after studying the work of American portrait painter, Alice Neel. “She was a woman working in a male dominated industry and it shocked me at how many women had been overlooked in history,” she explains. Seizing the democratising opportunities offered by social media, Hessel took matters into her own hands and made what she describes to be “a platform to celebrate female artists, who I think deserve recognition”.

The result is an Instagram account that is as much educational as it is enthusiastic: each image or gallery of images is accompanied with an informative description flecked with good-humoured emojis. Hessel’s posts exude an infectious passion for her subject; a browse through her feed will make you wish you knew even more about the outstanding artists that she presents. This is where you will discover the brightly-coloured works of little known pop artist Evelyne Axell, or the beautiful paintings of Oei Katsushika, the daughter of Hokusai, or a celebration of contemporary painter, Caroline Walker. Women artists or not, this is just great art, period.

@thegreatwomenartists spotlights the significance of representation – not just of women, but of different races, cultures and nationalities too – which is emphasised by the prevalence of portraiture on Hessel’s account. “I think portraiture is important for anyone, but especially for those who have been underrepresented. Historically, it was white, wealthy males who were immortalised into portraits, which cuts out a huge demographic of society”, she explains. “Portraiture gives someone something to relate to, so I think it’s important that every age, race, wealth status and gender is recorded through portraiture”. Given the important relationship between portraiture and representation, we asked Hessel to select her favourite women artists working in portraiture today.

1.    Lubaina Himid

“Recent Turner Prize-winner Lubaina Himid’s luminously coloured and richly textured portrayals of people do not just look at intimate and tender relationships between the characters, but also question the wider historical role of portraiture in her work.”

2.    Kaye Donachie

“I redeem images from the past and morph them into a single moment of time.” ??? Glasgow-based Kaye Donachie's (@kayedonachie) small canvases, infused with sensual brush stroked in tones of pink and blue, depict images of radical women of the early twentieth century including writers, activists, poets and artists. Almost silhouettes of themselves with the ghostly hues of white strokes interspersed throughout the face, (that seem almost abstract when looking up close!), Donachie ensures that the legacy of these 'modern thinkers' live on through her intimate portrayals. ? A very stunning show and not one to miss @maureen_paley ? ..and just look at those hands!! Quote via @elephantmagazine • #KayeDonachie #WomenArtists

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“Scottish-born Kaye Donachie reimagines deceased radical female writers and activists in her latest body of work, which she portrays with sensual licks of white, pink and blue paint to create a ghostly effect.”

3. Antonia Showering

“Slade MFA-student Antonia Showering paints portraits based on memories and the memory of relationships. With her contrasting palette of fiery and gentle colours, she inverts the pigments we see in real life as if to capture the fraught depiction of dreams.”

4.    Toyin Ojih Odutola

“Toyin Ojih Odutola paints beautifully tender and intricately technical portraits that chronicle Nigerian aristocratic families, simultaneously questioning the lack of black wealth in the history of America and imagining a world without any colonialist meddling.”

5.    Njideka Akunyili Crosby

“Nigerian-born Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s collage-based portraits merge her postcolonial and Afropolitan childhood in Nigeria with her experience of living her adulthood in Los Angeles, through the layering of old photographs in new interiors.”

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