Women battle for recognition in art industry

The fight for gender equality in the art industry and the recognition of women artists is an “ongoing fight”. So says Mirjam Asmal, the director of the Association for Visual Arts Gallery in the Cape Town City centre.

As Women’s Month draws to a close, the CapeTowner asked women in the art industry about their views on representivity in the art world and support for women’s work.

Among South Africa’s female icons of the art world are Irma Stern, who is considered to be South Africa’s foremost artist in terms of public recognition; Sue Williamson, who is famous for her portraits of women involved in the country’s political struggle; and Mmapula Sebidi, who, at the height of the apartheid regime, stopped at nothing to become the internationally recognised artist she is today.

But, said Gwen Sparks, on behalf of Red the Gallery in Westlake, “Women still have a long way to go before they are recognised as artists, although the number of female artists has grown significantly.”

Red the Gallery, which only has a branch in Westlake since its Cape Town CBD bran-ch closed down, showcases art from Cape Town and surrounding areas. The gallery represents a number of local women artists, including Helen van Schalk, Fiona Hart, and Jenny Merrit.

While their top five best-selling artists are usually men, the gallery’s best-selling artist at the moment is Lauren Redman, a known for her life-like and charcoal paintings.

Ms Redman, who is a newcomer to the art industry, said it still appears that women across all sectors earn less than their male counterparts do.

“In the art industry the wage gap is not as big as (it is in) other industries. I believe the price of art is determined more by talent, experience, age and popularity than the gender of the artist.”

Ms Asmal, however, did not share these sentiments.

Ms Asmal, who has been in the art industry for more than 20 years, said the gallery encourages women artists to showcase their work. “Women artists do not receive the recognition they need, “ she said.

Among the exhibitions hosted at the gallery was one by a group of young black women artists called iQhiya whose art relates to who they are as black women in the art industry.

She said iQhiya’s principle is that there is power in numbers, and the group of 11 women are demanding attention and creating their own space in the industry, with the statement: “As black women artists, they would not look at us in this industry.”

The art curator at Red the Gallery, Jean Irvine, who has been in the industry for 12 years, said she thinks women are making their voices heard in the industry. “There are lots of single females who make a living through art. I have been in the industry for so long, and some women have been here since I started. But there are a lot more male artists. It is difficult for women to break through in the art industry, because you have to look after children and you don’t have the time to paint and be creative.”

She said black wom-en, in particular, needed to be encouraged to explore their skills.

Ms Asmal said an-other point is to have a balance in art curators because most involved in large exhibitions were men. “The artists are there, but the art curators should also be. Once there are more female art curators, they won’t forget about the females.”

Ms Irvine said: “Looking back at history makes me appreciate just how far we’ve come in terms of women in art.”

However, Ms Asmal believes that the art in-dustry still needs time to develop and become more representative.

“There are many female artists who are good enough, but it’s like people need that extra push to take it seriously if the artist is a woman. It’s up to us – females and art experts – to make a point of equality.”