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The Value of Women in Art

Art Lovers | 25 February 2021

By Mandy McGuire

(**Warning: this article mentions an aboriginal person that is deceased)


While we seemingly insist on ranking artists in terms of gender, artists that happen to be female will continue to be thought of as a minority group. Surely, we are mature enough to recognise significant art, and the artists that make it, without attributing gender as a defining rank.

Artists, that are female, make up 74 per cent of visual art graduates worldwide, according to blogger, Elvis Richardson’s 2014 research. Sadly, they represent only 34 per cent of State Museum exhibitions. (Reich n.d.) This is not because art by women is lesser than art by men; it is because society tends to more readily validate, as well as assign a higher value, to art by males. This cultural habit is difficult to break. Early Australian aboriginalimage-making by women was considered equal in value to that of men. It was only when European anthropologists began to document and record information about cultural imagery, that an unequal ranking was applied to the work. While this assumption of value continues today, the gap is slowly closing. When Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s painting, Earth Creation 1, sold for a record 2.1 million, it brought attention to the gap between male and female artists in the industry. Kirsty Neilson, an Archibald exhibitor, said that ‘the sum paid for the work highlights (that) the pay gap between men and women artists is slowly but surely starting to be abridged. (Smileyn.d.)

Tania Blanchard Abstract Artist Gold Coast

Earth Creation 1 – Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Successful artist Del Kathryn Barton expressed a feminist rage at all that is unfair and inequitable in her 2017 exhibition at the NGV. Her work, comprised of paintings, drawings and collages, is adventurous and provocative. Anita Pisch, visiting Fellow at The Australian National University, wrote that ‘the vision she (Barton) expresses comes across as personalised, idiosyncratic and inconsistent.’ (n.d.) While this is vaguely critical, there is a sense that Del Kathryn Barton is moving through the rage to arrive as an Artist, minus the ranking.

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Del Kathryn Barton (Photo: Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Del Kathryn Barton follows in the footsteps of pioneers such as Joy Hestor (1920-1960). She was a member of the Angry Penguins, a group of creatives who played an essential role in the development of Australian Modernism. Her drawings were highly expressive and unashamedly autobiographical, and equal to that of her male counterparts.

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Child with yellow bird – Joy Hestor

Hestor stands out because she was true to her own vision avoiding derivation and imitation: so too, artists, Margaret Preston(1875-1963) and Margaret Olley (1923-2011). In a male dominated profession, each artist stuck fiercely to her personal vision without compromise.

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Margaret Olley (Photo:The Age)

Sculptor, Inge King (1915-2016), an extraordinary abstractionist,played a pivotal role in raising the profile of modern sculpture in this country. Thankfully, she was recognised for her achievements during her lifetime. In 1984, she was awarded an Order of Australia, and in 2008, the Visual Arts Emeritus Award by the Australian Arts Council. She was ‘a giant in the history of Australian art…one of Australia’s great sculptors… a liberated woman, a thinker of clarity and a massive achiever’. (Purves n.d.)

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Rings of Saturn – Inge King

Fiona Hall became the first artist to represent Australia in the Australian Pavilion at the 56th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale. Director of the National Gallery of Australia, Gerard Vaughan, said that it was ‘a fantastic opportunity for art lovers from all over Australia to share the Venice phenomenon and see one of our most important and influential artists’ (NGA n.d.) Hall’s art breaks the confines of so-called feminine subject matter. While many of her early sculptures and installations employed traditional feminine craft, such as knitting, her themes were and continue to be of global importance.

Bush Medicine Leaves – Gloria Petyarre

Responsible for the most significant stylistic development in Aboriginal art, internationally renowned, Gloria Petyarre is one of the most famous living Aboriginal artists. Her exquisite Bush Medicine paintings, of repeated small-leaf motifs, are equal to any of the great contemporary abstractionists of our time. ‘These leaves are an important bush medicine and are deeply rooted in the Aboriginal culture. Her vibrant, abstract images range in their complexity and colour’ (Widewallsn.d.) and produce a rhythmic, if not hypnotic, pulsing surface.

Overstepping – Julie Rrap

Julie Rrap’s Overstepping, 2001, is a powerful commentary on women’s perceived place in society, and perhaps the art scene. Her ironic and powerful imagery, challenges our notions of femininity while simultaneously taking a strong foothold in a male-dominated domain. ‘She parodies, attacks and ultimately subverts the traditional situation in both art and popular photography whereby women posed as models for the consideration of viewers who were, almost without exception, male.’(Ewingtonn.d.)

The glory and the triumph by Helen Maudsley on artnet

Glory and Triumph – Helen Maudsley

Gender ranking of artists should be so yesterday. The artist is not a gender, but like all careers in Australia, there is still a pay gap, regardless of perceived success. Helen Maudsley, an artist of note, now in her 90s, who had her first solo show at the NGV after an art career of seventy years, said that in the past women artists tended to succeed when what they were doing was in-line with something. Perhaps she meant in-line with art fashion, in-line with what men were doing. Maudsley does not see herself in that way.

‘I just think of us as just artists…I would never think of a man as being a man artist.’ (Reich n.d.)


About the author:

Mandy McGuire, visual artist, freelance writer, and curator, has been an art educator for 25 years. She was Director of Mangkaja Arts in the Kimberley from 2006 until 2008, during which time she contributed essays to a number of publications pertaining to Australian Aboriginal art.


Reich H n.d. 2017 Women artists take Melbourne in a summer celebration of the female, Retrieved from 3 March 2018

Smiley S n.d. 2017 Record sale of artwork by Indigenous woman Emily Kngwarreye highlights gender gap, Retrieved from 3 March 2018

Pisch A n.d. 2017 Del Kathryn Barton explores powerful female sexuality but reproduces the male gaze, Retrieved from viewed 3 March 2018

Art Gallery NSW. n.d. 2017 Artist profile: Joy Hestor, Retrieved from viewed 3 March 2018

Purves S n.d. 2016 Farewell Inge King, Retrieved from viewed 3 March 2018

National Gallery Australia. n.d. 2016 Fiona Hall Wrong Way Time, Retrieved from 3 March 2018

Widewalls. n.d. 2016 These Contemporary Aboriginal Artists Made an Impact for their Culture, Retrieved from viewed 3 March 2018

Ewington J n.d. 2016 Julie Rrap,Retrieved from viewed 3 March 2018


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