The Message, not the Medium: Feminist, Postcolonial, and LGBTQ+ Art

Explore a variety of artistic styles brought together by a drive for social awareness.

Howardena Pindell 'Free, White and 21' Howardena Pindell 'Free, White and 21'

Introduction

Art in this tile focuses on intention rather than style. Addressing women’s roles, the aftermath of colonialism, and the socio-cultural restraints on the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer Plus (LGBTQ+) community, these artists brought fresh new perspectives, subjects and materials, further broadening the definition of art.

Feminist Art, created by artists of any gender, challenges the dominance of men in both art and society. Artists question assumptions about womanhood and attempt to reverse historic gender barriers. Members of the Black Womanist artistic movement, although part of this  group, have much in common with Postcolonial Artists. Postcolonial Art is a response to the legacy of colonialism wherever it has existed around the world. It examines the human consequences of cultural subjugation and addresses national and cultural identity, race and ethnicity.

LGBTQ+ Art challenges established norms of gender and sexuality and creates art that broadens perspectives on gender identity. Coming to prominence during the HIV/AIDS pandemic, LGBTQ+ art has become mainstream.

Feminist Art

In 1971, ARTnews published the article Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? by art historian Linda Nochlin. Her contention that women lacked opportunity rather than talent shocked the art world and jump-started Feminist Art. Prompted by her essay, women around the world created pieces that broadened the definition of art, including feminine crafts and adding new subjects and perspectives. This first wave of Feminist Art centered on women’s experiences and anatomy including menstruation, childbirth and vaginal imagery. The second wave considered the social construct of womanhood and portrayed femininity as a series of poses in a masquerade.

Largely excluded from traditional feminism, Black artists formed the Womanist Movement with key artists Betye Saar, Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972); Howardena Pindell, Free, White and 21 (1970 &1972); and Carrie Mae Weems, Kitchen Table Series (1990). The Brooklyn Museum show We Wanted a Revolution highlights the work of Black women artists from 1965 to 1985.

Howardena Pindell 'Free, White and 21' Howardena Pindell 'Free, White and 21'

Postcolonial Art

While colonizing cultures have much in common, colonized people differ widely, and reducing them to one, homogeneous group erases significant distinctions. Postcolonial Art, therefore, takes many different forms. This art responds to the cultural legacy of colonization and the human consequences of being both controlled and exploited. While it focuses on the perspective of those exploited, it also includes a consideration of how native people and their culture were seen from the Western perspective.

In many cases, colonizers intended to destroy and replace the ‘inferior’ native culture, so colonization had economic, religious, and linguistic consequences. An interpretation of the oppression of the individual under imperialism underlies much of this art. Martinique-born Franz Fanon provided the theoretical background for Postcolonial analysis.  Despite its dark origin and serious purpose, Postcolonial Art can be humorous, ironic, and satirical.  Significant contributors include Nigeria-born Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Guyanese Donald Locke, and Afro-Caribbean Sonia Boyce.

LGBTQ+ Art

Members of the LGBTQ+ community have made an incalculable contribution to contemporary art by challenging normative understandings of gender and sexuality.  Although art by members of this community is as old as art itself, it was only in the 1960s that LGBTQ+ artists became explicit about their themes and issues in the mainstream. LGBTQ+ art became more overtly political in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1970s, and artists emerged who pushed the boundaries of visual culture by refuting the heteronormative male gaze. They have stayed at the forefront of the art world in pressing for change.

Incorporating a wide range of media and styles, LGBTQ+ art is identified by its themes and message: It explores hopeful and positive ways of living outside the dominant sexual paradigm, and it explores non-binary, fluid sexuality. LGBTQ+ artists work thoughtfully to both respect the suffering of the past and invite viewers to consider the freedom and joy of embracing one’s identity.

Catherine Opie 'Dyke' Catherine Opie 'Dyke'

Key LGBTQ+ Artist: Robert Maplethorpe

Born to a Catholic family in Queens in 1946, Robert Maplethorpe became the quintessential photographer of the LGBTQ+ Art movement. In the late 1960s, he took his first photograph using a Polaroid camera. By the mid-1970s he began photographing his wide circle of friends. He met New Orleans artist George Dereau who influenced his work so strongly that some of his pictures from this period are restaging of Dureau’s paintings.  He also became the official photographer for the Mineshaft, a members-only gay club in Manhattan.

Throughout the 1980s, he focused on statuesque nudes,  still lifes and formal portraits of celebrities. He worked mostly in the studio and concentrated primarily on black and white photography. Because of its eroticism, much of Maplethorpe’s work sparked heated criticism and raised questions about public funding for the arts and the limits of free speech. He died of HIV/AIDS at the age of 42.

Robert Mapplethorpe 'Ajitto' Robert Mapplethorpe 'Ajitto'

Key Feminist Artist:  Judy Chicago 

Judy Chicago created the first iconic work of Feminist Art, Dinner Party (1979). A massive triangular table set for 39 guests, the work incorporates embroidery, painted porcelain, and tapestry. The 39 place settings are designated for women who impacted the world from Sojourner Truth to Eleanor of Aquitaine. The white tile floor includes the names of 999 other notable women.

In the early 1980s, Chicago created two starkly contrasting works, The Birth Project and Power Play. Realizing that birth was almost completely ignored as a subject of art,  she created a massive set of needlework pieces depicting the various stages of birth. She was simultaneously working on Power Play,  a combination of drawings, paintings, weavings, cast paper, and bronze that focuses on the male figure and male violent behavior.

Other notable contemporary feminist artists include Ana Mendieta, Anita Stekel, Louise Bourgeois, Emma Amos, Elizabeth Catlett, Lorna Simpson, and Martha Rosler.

Judy Chicago 'Power Play' Judy Chicago 'Power Play'

Key Black Feminist Artist: Betye Saar

Betye Saar emerged on the contemporary art scene in the 1970s as an adherent of both the Civil Rights and Feminist Movements. An accomplished printmaker, she transitioned to assemblage art, which is more or less 3-dimensional collage, and which has primarily been created by men. Her signature technique is to sculpturally combine found items. In her work she explores the intersectionality of being Black, female and spiritual, investigating her own identity and the more generalized identity of women in an ever-evolving technological world. Her assemblages often include symbols of women’s work such as washboards and ironing boards as well as totems with magical significance.

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), her signature work, is an assemblage built around a notepad holder shaped like Aunt Jemima, flanked by a broom and a gun. She holds the picture of a black woman with a white child. Saar’s first overtly political assemblage was prompted by Martin Luther King’s murder.

Betye Saar 'The Liberation of Aunt Jemima' Betye Saar 'The Liberation of Aunt Jemima'

Key Postcolonial Artist: Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Nigerian-born LA artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby combines painting with collage, printmaking, and drawing to create intricate, layered scenes. Her work focuses on the syncretism between her two worlds of Nigeria and the US. Using photos she has taken herself, family photos, and pages from Nigerian magazines, she creates a fabric of images that includes photo transfers, acrylic paint, fabric and colored pencil.

Crosby moved to the US at age 16 and took her first painting class at a community college before entering Swarthmore where she changed her major from pre-med to art during her senior year. She completed an arts degree at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and received an MFA from Yale. Crosby was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 2017, and her work Thriving and Potential, Displaced (Again and Again and…) was featured at The Met in 2021.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby 'Nwantinti' Njideka Akunyili Crosby 'Nwantinti'
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