Why Have There Been No Great Roma Women Artists?
Małgorzata Mirga-Tas: Herstories, 2019-21. Photo: 3rd Autostrada Biennale, Prizren, Kosovo.
This year marks five years since the passing of the prominent American art historian, Linda Nochlin, who became world renowned for her 1971 ground-breaking article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Unfortunately, Nochlin will not bear witness to this year’s 59th International Art Exhibition Venice Biennale that promises to be a ground-breaking long-overdue acknowledgment of women artists and feminist art and curators across the globe. To be precise, both the list of artists presented at this year’s edition curated by Cecilia Alemani, and the list of artists representing their national pavilions are dominated by women artists. Does this mean that the rationale behind Nochlin’s question has become – or will soon become – obsolete?
Maura Reilly – a feminist curator, who back in 2007 co-curated with Linda Nochlin the international feminist exhibition, Global Feminisms, and in 2018 published the book, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating – already acclaimed the concept of this year’s Venice Biennale as an activist one:
For Alemani to curate a major international exhibition, arguably the most important one in the world, to be majority-female is, despite her subtlety, an overtly feminist and curatorial activist gesture—and it is a much-needed turning of the tables. It is a curatorial corrective to centuries of erasure of women from art history. And it’s not just market darlings on view; there are many female artists who’ve never before shown on the international stage, and many of the deceased female artists on Alemani’s roster have had far less recognition than the living ones. Major historical women artists are included in order to, as Alemani puts it, “trace kinships and affinities” across generations of women.
Reilly commended Alemani’s concept for her trust in the positive impact of women “who have offered up possible solutions during a dark and confusing time”, and for imagining “new modes of co-existence and infinite new possibilities of transformation”. Yet, according to Reilly’s short but overwhelmingly affirmative text, Alemani’s concept is only mildly feminist, since “she has not pegged this an overtly feminist Biennale, but has instead been relatively subtle in her framing of it”. Nevertheless, Reilly concludes her positive assessment of Alemani’s concept (as presented in her preliminary texts and interviews published prior to the opening) with the statement that Alemani’s concept focuses on the “forms of symbiosis, solidarity, and sisterhood”, rather than on “systems of direct inheritance and conflict”, because they are assumed male.
In the context of this text, the most relevant of Reilly’s comments is her emphasis on the fact that Alemani is interested not only in VIP women artists who’d already “made it” in the art historical canon or on the contemporary art “stage”. Although the Biennale’s list of exhibiting artists includes many women artists who have either already passed away but have secured their place in art history, and some living women artist legends of contemporary art, there are also many young women artists who have not been around so long, and some whose names though probably well-known in their communities, still do not ring a bell with the globetrotter critics and curators, as they are minoritarian in their own cultural contexts.
Most importantly, some of the National Pavilions, whether they were already aware of Alemani’s concept or not, followed a similar logic. Many countries decided to have women or queer artists representing their state even before the official announcement of her curatorial statement: the USA, UK, France, Germany, Albania, Argentina, Austria, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, among others. Moreover, with respect to decoloniality and intersectionality, some pavilions also went on to select non-white or nonbinary artists. However, the biggest surprise of this year’s National Pavilion selections was definitely the announcement of the selection of the Polish-Romani artist and activist, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, to be exhibited at the Polish National Pavilion.
And this brings me to the central focus of my text. The historic fact that this is the first time an artist of Roma descent participates in the official portion of the Venice Biennale (as far as I know, no written records state otherwise), at a National Pavilion, is definitely something that needs to be celebrated. Given the ongoing rise of right-wing and nationalist sentiment, backed by state-sponsored anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Romaist policies across the whole of Europe, and particularly across ex-communist Eastern European countries, with Poland and Hungary leading such political propensities, the Polish Pavilion seems perhaps an accident rather than a rule. This brings me back to Nochlin’s famous question and to some urgent reflection on her argumentation in light of the current art context, and particularly of representation of women artists of Roma background, and the discussion around what the near future holds for them.
Art History and the Question of the Role of Women Artists
According to Nochlin, the simple initial question in the title of her article triggers a chain of similar inquiries, and it provokes questioning of the traditional divisions in other disciplines in the context of intellectual research. As I write this text fifty years after the publication of Nochlin’s article, new questions come in succession. If one starts from a similar position, the current situation of women artists of Roma descent is much worse in many different ways than the situation of any woman artist in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While Nochlin was writing about the absence of women artists from art history books, a lack of their works on display in museums and galleries, less monographic and retrospective exhibitions, less works commissioned for museum art collections, and lower prices and honoraria, for so many Roma women artists, and I must add even for male Roma artists, some of these topics are not yet even on the horizon in the mainstream culture.
Nochlin’s essay relies largely on John Stuart Mill’s critical assessment of the impact of male domination in society. As male dominance and subjection of women to men appears universal and natural, she reminds readers of Mill’s warning that any eventual deflection from this trajectory would “naturally appear as unnatural”. In these terms, the number of women artists prevailing on the Venice Biennale list was seen as “unnatural”, even by those who celebrated this fact, such as Maura Reilly, and not because they objected to this change, but because it had not been done before and needed to be addressed.
Nochlin further questions the reasoning behind the dominance of man as natural in the context of art history and other academic disciplines:
If, as John Stuart Mill suggested, we tend to accept whatever it is as natural, this is just as true in the realm of academic investigation as it is in our social arrangements. In the former, too, “natural” assumptions must be questioned and the mythic basis of much so-called fact brought to light.
According to Maura Reilly’s concept of curatorial activism, such curatorial projects function as “curatorial correctives to the exclusion of Other artists from either the master narratives of art history or the contemporary art scene itself”. Clearly, she took note of both Nochlin’s and Mill’s writing on similar matters:
Just as Mill saw male domination as one of a long series of social injustices that had to be overcome if a truly just social order were to be created, so we may see the unstated domination of white male subjectivity as one in a series of intellectual distortions which must be corrected (emphasis is the author’s) in order to achieve a more adequate and accurate view of historical situations”.
For Mill, the primary obstacle to the social development of any state is the difference between the genders, and the dominance of the white male subject is one of the biggest social injustices.
Mill’s statements and Nochlin’s question are still relevant due not only to their ethical and social concern, but also for their intellectual pinning of often misunderstood issues in regard to the difference between the two genders. How does that difference influence the ways in which the two genders view the world? And how do they view art in general, and women’s art? What place does women’s art have in art history? How is a woman’s gaze different from a man’s, and does this affect their definitions of art? How has national identity interfered with gender difference in the frame of international representations of art from different national contexts? Many of these questions need in-depth analysis and more space than this text allows, so I’ll go back to the original structure of Nochlin’s essay for guidance.
Circularity of the Arguments
Nochlin had argued that the chief, and obviously incorrect hypothesis obscured within her starting question is that it can be demonstrated that the female gender is not capable of creating something at the same intellectual level as the outcomes from the creative activities of the intellectually superior male gender. And this is proven by the absence of names of great women artists in the history of art. She painstakingly goes through different attempts to prove this hypothesis and circularity of argument. The first attempt is through inclusivity – research and inclusion of new examples of previously unknown artists and new artworks. And this is exactly what Cecilia Alemani did. Nochlin’s counterargument was that this method opens new questions, such as whether these artists are really so deserving of the accolades, or if this is not only a politically invited argument. This could be discussed in more detail only after the Biennale’s opening.
The second argument addressed by Nochlin was to take into account the method of discussing and offering different criteria for greatness and different poetics of art production of women artists. This method offers different evaluation criteria due to different styles of “writing”/painting, different topics, choice of media, different biographies, conditions etc., which evade and even make impossible the comparison. Nochlin warned that this argument looks rational at first sight, but her counterargument was that women artists are more similar to male artists from the same period or region than to women artists from a different period, or regional school.
This argument is based on the mistaken assumptions that art is an expression of some inner and individual emotional experience of the artist. According to Nochlin, such a claim of art as the result of certain essentialist/biological specificities of women rather than as a result of a complex professionally learned art language and informed culture of expression actually calls for nothing else but status quo, even in more general terms of understanding what art is today.
The third set of arguments in Nochlin’s essay is linked to the institutional context and to the calls to accept the historic fact that, in retrospect, history cannot be changed from the outset. It is true that the issue is socio-political and economical, and not limited to a kind of biological and cognitive difference, and that the main obstacles to changing the future are in the institutional limitations based on stereotypical codes and symbols that are given and received. However, certain stereotypes, such as the myth of the art genius, render the institutional circumstances irrelevant and presume that if genius existed among women, it would have been discovered by now. Exactly this argument is circular since it is clear that nobody was looking for art genius among women, and the profession was often given as heritage patrilineal – from father to son. Non-existent time and access given to space for professional creation and other issues, such as the lack of education, and the conservative discipline of art history are linked to this argument.
Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, in collaboration with Edis Galushi: HERSTORIES, 2019-21, textile banners, various dimensions. Installation in progress. Photo: 3rd Autostrada Biennale, Prizren, Kosovo.
If one adds Roma women artists into this equation, it is clear that Roma women had no chance to be recognised as artists until most recently, and not only because of Western art history paving so slowly the paths even for white women artists who were often overshadowed by their male partners, also artists. Roma women were doubly-discriminated or even triply-discriminated by international art history and the art scene, and by their own patriarchal communities. Early and arranged marriages, lack of education, poverty, oppression, violence, sterilisation, and all sorts of other oppressive social practices as anti-Romaism would not allow the time and space for discussions as to whether there are Roma women artists at all, and why Romani female names are nowhere to be found in art history, not even in the footnotes (of course, unless Roma women were the models depicted in the paintings of famous white male artists, and even then). How, then, could it come to the point of more sophisticated discussions about whether one could find great ones among them?
And here, I would like to make a huge leap forward to more recent times, and once again to the 59th Venice Biennale. One should definitely ask the question of how, then, it was possible to get to the point of having a Roma woman artist representing Poland in their National Pavilion. Surely, there must have been a lot of weird coincidences and contradictions during the competition and selection that led to this national selection. For instance, while carefully reading through the announcements of the National Pavilions’ lists of artists and teams, one could spot the mention of Hanna Wróblewska, the former Director of the Zachęta — National Gallery of Art as the initial Polish Pavilion’s Commissioner (until the end of 2021, and before the Polish right-wing government’s Minister of Culture appointed the new Director Janusz Janowski). While this is far-fetched, this information at least makes it easier to understand how such a counterintuitive selection could have taken place despite the Commissioner’s reputation. Nevertheless, this still does not thoroughly explain the decision to submit such a project to the committee in the first place. And this is less obvious to the audiences that do not follow the intense programme of ERIAC: European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture, one of the important partners of the Polish Pavilion.
ERIAC’s Founding Executive Director is Timea Junghaus, an art historian and curator of Roma descent, who has invested her whole career into the research, curating and promotion of Roma artists, including Roma women artists of different generations and national origins. Many of these contemporary Roma artists originally started to show their work at Gallery 8 in Budapest, Hungary, that was initially also run by Junghaus, and/or were already included in one of the Roma exhibitions that have been included as collateral events in several of the previous Venice Biennales (starting in 2007), of which Junghaus was curator or commissioner several times. The RomaMoMA platform hosting this blog (which invited me to submit this text) is also part of ERIAC’s long-term strategy of promoting Roma artists and providing a stable environment for their art production and representation, that obviously pays off in the long run, making regular something that would seem unimaginable (or “unnatural” in Mills’ terms) until recently.
Nevertheless, it is all too soon to answer the question about the eventual changes with regard to the representation of Roma women artists on the worldwide art scene, as much as it is difficult to anticipate how the Venice Biennale’s concept and exhibition will reflect on the urgency of Nochlin’s question. It is needless to stress that, despite the many recent positive changes in the statistics of representation of women artists in the museum and gallery context, the art market is still currently dominated by male artists. According to Art News research, women cover only 18 percent of the total number of artists represented at international art fairs and only 34 percent of total sales, and sadly, the works of women artists bring in “just 8 percent of the $1.8 billion in total sales, generating a collective $138.6 million”. Such discrepancies invite more discussions in line with socio-political and institutional critique, and Linda Nochlin’s analysis continues to provide relevant arguments, let’s hope for not too much longer.
Finally, it is worth recalling Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s careful discussion of Marnia Lazreg’s call against the “essentialism of difference”. Mohanty quoted Lazreg’s nuanced analysis of the traps of the generalised attacks of either universalist, essentialist or constructivist feminist theories. “The point is neither to subsume the other women under one’s own experience nor to uphold a separate truth for them”. The model of comparative feminist methods proposed by Mohanty could be helpful in the context of the pertinence and urgency of the question borrowed from Nochlin’s essay, and paraphrased here in the context of Roma artists because it does not focus on any single fixed theory. Thus, it offers more options for grasping the complexities of the gender issue in the globalised world.
Mohanty reminded us that the local and global co-exist in a reciprocal relationship, which is not defined in material ways, in terms of physical geography or territories. Instead, she argues, they are linked conceptually, temporally and contextually. This kind of comparative framework assumes intersections of race, class, nation, gender and sexuality, and analysis of the intertwining of different historic experiences of oppression and exploitation – and this definitely applies to the ongoing socio-political issues of Romani lives. Mohanty’s view entails interrogating the potential for solidarity and mutuality in the struggle, both on specific and universal levels, so women artists, whether of BIPOC, Roma, Jewish or other ethnic origin or sexual orientation undergo struggles that intersect at many points.
The existing canonical methods in art history, representation and the terminology of writing about women artists are being deconstructed and dismantled as I write this text. I hope that the long-constructed myths and stereotypical terms that have dominated art history and criticism, as, for example, the myth of the “genius male artist”, a “vehement stroke”, or “viral energy” will soon become archaic terminology. The once dominating genre of the “female nude” has already been framed in a critical feminist, LGBTQ and nonbinary perspective, and some of the underestimated and underrepresented art media, genres, motifs and artworks have been reintroduced and reinterpreted from a feminist position.
Questions regarding the current issues and debates on the international contemporary art scene (mainstreaming feminism, feminism and neoliberalism, queer and transgender art, queer abstraction) and the tensions within the feminist and LGBTQ art scenes in the activist contexts and the absence of solidarity and collaboration between different camps will hopefully be addressed at the 59th Venice Biennale. In parallel, keep an eye out for some new debates and issues on the horizon of circles of intellectuals and art lovers, such as the issue of the potential financial effects of the presence of Roma women artists at international exhibitions, art fairs and art markets, the aspiration towards eventual inclusion of their artworks in museum collections and art histories, or the danger of exoticisation and essentialisation of the Roma body in some of the works by women artists of Roma origin. Ultimately, the question of how all of this will affect the status and position of Roma women in their everyday life is as relatable and urgent as the question of why there have been no great women Roma artists in the past.