Iconic feminist artist Judy Chicago once said, “How history is written, both in and out of art institutions, is how you shape the world.” Artists like Chicago, Barbara Kruger, Georgia O’Keeffe and many more have helped bring awareness to the issue of female representation in the arts sector. Although with time women have come to be recognized as prominent figures in the artistic world, there is still much more to be done in order to provide all female artists, regardless of their race, religion or sexual orientation, with an equal voice.
I invited the following women, all Ryerson-based artists, to continue this conversation with me, in the same spirit as those female artists who have come before us. These women are talented, passionate artists whose work you are sure to see adorned in galleries, plastered on living room walls and filling Instagram feeds.
Sidrah Khatoon’s graphic design work can be described as colourful, minimalist and pop art-like.
“I like to evoke a certain emotion when people see my designs or illustrations and so I often find myself automatically turning myself to yellow,” Khatoon says.
She enjoys cutting her teeth in Illustrator and Photoshop, always experimenting and learning new tools to advance her work.
Some of her most recent pieces are brightly coloured typography-focused posters with positive, inspirational messages. These posters were inspired by her own struggle with depression. Khatoon posted them on her website in the hopes that others would benefit from them too. She was surprised by the response her work received.
“I didn’t think anyone was actually downloading them and using them until my co-workers, friends and family showed me my designs on their lock screens,” Khatoon says.
She admits that early on, she struggled to see herself succeeding as a Muslim woman of colour in the highly competitive field of design. She says, “I was the one constantly bringing myself down and driving myself away from practicing my artwork.”
Khatoon’s attitude towards her own work changed dramatically after she was hired by Donica Willis, a graphic design manager who saw her potential. Khatoon now sees Willis as more of a mentor than just a boss, someone who, according to Khatoon, “is constantly pushing me to improve and break out of my comfort zone. I now feel like yes, I am a designer; yes I am an artist.”
Third-year photography student Bianca Barone says her work merges the line between fine art and commercial art. She is fascinated by the visual rhetoric and psychology of commercial images and explores this in her own photographs.
Her photography explores how commercial images are linked to personal experiences and how this connection affects consumer buying decisions. Barone’s major source of inspiration comes from the first artist to embody commercialism, Andy Warhol. With a background rooted in fine arts, she credits Warhol with inspiring her transition to photography specifically because “he didn’t conform to social norms, he didn’t conform to conventional practices,” Barone says.
When it comes to exploring the topic of representation in her university career, however, Barone sees a gap.
“The majority of our art history lessons were dominated by male artists and male figures,” she says. “I don’t understand why there continues to be this segregation of men and women and I feel that equality should be pushed.”
Despite this, Barone sees a shift in the landscape with the new generation of accepting and open-minded image-makers coming up the ranks.
“It’s getting pretty close to equal,” she says. “It’s not so much about who you are or what gender you are, it’s more so the work that you create.”
Natasha Serio and Rebecca Bentolila are two third-year photography students whose works are drastically different from each other’s. Serio’s pieces are often emotionally or physically dark, with deeper psychological and surrealist meanings. Bentolila’s work, on the other hand, studies how individuals interact with their environment and invokes much brighter colours and themes than Serio’s. It’s surprising that the two recently collaborated on a photo book titled Yours and Mine as part of the recent Photobook show held at the Ryerson Artspace.
“If you didn’t know us, you would wonder why, since we have such contrasting styles,” Serio says, “but those who know us don’t.”
The two share an apartment together and collaborate on projects often. Their views also align when it comes to how they perceive their place in the industry.
“I have never felt held back by my gender, and have always been given the same treatment without ever having to consider myself as a ‘female photographer’,” Bentolia says.
The two opt to use the term “photographer,” instead of “female photographer.”
“In terms of photography, if you are talented, you’re talented, and gender is not something intertwined with that trait,” said Serio.
“I say I do doodles,” says Jenny Barron, a fourth-year creative industries student. She incorporates these doodles into her hyper-realistic, intricate drawings of shoes. “It’s a very frustrating process,” she adds, as her love for fashion and doodles meet to create technical pieces worthy of Chuck Close inspection.
Barron finds most of her inspiration on Instagram. Her favourite artist is Caroll Lynn, a female graphic designer who recently collaborated with Puma to create her own line of running shoes.
“I followed her along that journey [and] to see that’s she’s getting up there is really inspiring,” Barron says.
She remarks that when she first started out in illustration she had trouble seeing anything out there that represented her. Barron turned to social media to find the kind of work that appealed to her not only in terms of style and aesthetics, but also as a woman of colour. There, she was able to find different artists from diverse backgrounds.
“You never see that in a history book,” Barron says.
Regardless of the closing of the representation gap that social media allows, Barron remains adamant. “We shouldn’t say, ‘Well, now there’s social media, and it doesn’t matter that women aren’t represented in art galleries.’” She adds, “It’s still something we need to keep on our radar. We have inequality at all levels, so to ignore the institution contributes to the problem.”
Third-year photography student Fehn Foss describes her work as largely concept-driven, evolving with every new project she undertakes.
“I have trouble with the term ‘photographer’ because I think it’s quite a narrow description,” she says.
Instead, Foss takes her cue from Jo Spence, a British photographer who considered herself first and foremost an educator, not an artist. Foss’ most recent work sees her dissecting a family album to reveal the power struggles that lie underneath the surface and another on the grief she felt after the passing of a close friend. Her work is often personal, but her universal themes of family and grief make them highly relatable.
“The idea of relationships and the idea of grief are, I think, what makes my work accessible to other people. A shared experience,” Foss says.
She sees the issue surrounding representation in history and in practice as a balancing act.
“You don’t want to get rid of significant works or take them off of their pedestal just simply because they were made by a man, that’s not the idea behind it,” Foss says. “I think it’s just seeing a bit more diversity in any way is always good.”
Foss sees sexism manifest in much more subtle ways than the obvious issue of female representation in art.
“I still think there are undercurrents, because everyone comes from a place of entitlement and prejudice, that you can’t erase.”
“Certain subject matter will be deemed as too feminine and emotional of a project,” she adds, especially if the concept is put forth by say, a female artist instead of a male artist. Just as some forms of art, like embroidery or felting where for a long time devalued as ‘women’s art’, Foss finds certain subject matter in mediums like photography are also undervalued for similar reasons.
“I think it is harder to get your voice out there when people just automatically devalue you for ridiculous antiquated notions,” says Foss. She advocates pushing through despite this because artists who face these disadvantages are in a “unique place to really change the way people think and the way people see.”