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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

Reading Feminist Literature

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

For my 29th birthday I asked to be gifted a stack of art books which I was interested in reading. Here are my reflections on the feminist art history literature i've read in the last 6 months.

When reflecting on my previous arts education (at sixth form college) and more generally, my knowledge of art history, I realised that I could name very few women artists. The questioned posed in the title of Linda Nochlin's seminal essay underpinned my deficit of knowledge. It was this realisation which prompted me to read 'Great Women Artists' and 'The Story of Art Without Men' to learn more about the work which has been created by women artists, but has historically been so rarely celebrated. My ultimate hope was that this literature would address the gender imbalance in my knowledge or history, below I will list some of the artworks and artists who resonated with me and my practice - who I intend to find out more about.

Hannah Hoch, (1889-1978)

Hannah Hoch is an obvious one to start with. I had come across her work before, when I was studying art in Sixth-form, but had not really appreciated the satire incorporated in her imagery. I had also only seen her collages, but never seen her oil paintings, which I love for their gruesome surrealism and bold use of colour. I had the privilege of seeing some of these paintings in person, when I visited the Berlinsche Gallery in Berlin in June.

Since my work was described by a member of the audience at Manchester Design Conference as 'Propaganda in Service of the truth', I have become more interested in the idea of propaganda and its historical use during WWII, but also more recently hot it manifests as press stunts and the sloganeering of modern-day politicians. Hannah Hoch's work and the wider Dada movement has therefore become of significant interest to me, so in the Berlinsche Gallery I bought a book on the Dada movement, which I am still reading.

Sharon Hayes, (1970-)

I was particularly excited to see this photograph in 'The Great Women' artists book because it legitimised protest, and specifically placards as a form of art. I have always paid great attention to the placards I create to take to different protests, usually in pen and watercolour - producing bold and memorable slogans and often featuring an illustration or caricature of a politician. As a result, I was very successful at capturing the attention of photo-journalists and being featured in news media, much to some people's annoyance.

Barbara Kruger, (1945-)

I was intigued to discover the work of Barbara Kruger for similar reasons - the use of bold, political statements and empowering imagery resonate a lot with my practice. I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the use of rhetoric and sloganeering in contemporary politics in order to garner support for campaigns. In the social media era where attention spans have been degraded and sound bites abound, the reductive use of words seems to have more impact than ever. 'Take Back Control', 'Breaking Point', 'Brexit Means Brexit' and 'Get Brexit Done' have been employed with the intention of manipulating public sentiment. In his essay on Politics and the English language, George Orwell wrote, 'Never use a long word where a short one will do', 'If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out' and 'Never use the passive where you can use the active'. His guidance on writing compelling narrative, has been taken to the extreme through the sloganeering of contemporary politics and used to great impact. And as much as I dislike these tactics, I believe that if the opposition are utilising strategies which are effective then it is imperative that the counter-campaign play them at their own game. Kruger's bold statement 'Your Body is a Battleground' garnered the feminist movement for abortion rights and embodies a compelling call to action.

Jenny Holzer, (1950 -)

Similarly I was inspired by Jenny Holzer's work with 'Truisms' and the concept of distilling an entire book into a single sentence particularly interested me in her work. I also admired the way she broadcast her messages for maximum impact in the pre-social media era, which has made me value the tools which every person now has at their disposal for communicating with the public.

Amalia Ulman, (1989 -)

Amalia Ulman's performance work, exploring the role of social media in society and how identity and power are constructed using these tools we now have at our disposal also interested me. I have always found it amusing that when people who follow me on social media meet me in person, they are taken aback by my personality. I've come to realise that the identity I have constructed on social media embodies many of the characteristics which I don't have in real life; confidence, gregariousness, extroversion, positivity and outspokeness. Creating the character "EU supergirl" as an alter-ego to narrativise my campaigning against Brexit and ultimately make my work more compelling and engaging to my online audience relates to Ulman's creation of semi-fictional personas. I am fascinated by how social media platforms have enabled users to create alternative identities which they can embody in online spaces.

Yael Bartana, (1970-)

I had never before come across the work of Yael Bartana, but I was very happy to do so. The questioning of collective identity particularly resonated with me because of my interest in nationalism and identity politics. The use of video as a medium also inspires me because of the documentaries I have edited from footage which I had filmed at protests and events as an activist, and is something I am keen to develop. I'm keen to learn more about her and explore more of her work.

Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir 'Shoplifter', (1969 -)

Arnardóttir's work instantly grabbed my attention because of its vibrant use of colour, something I love to employ in my own practice. I have never created installation art myself, but it is something I would love to learn more about and try. What particularly interested me about her work is her investigation of hair as a signifier of culture. It's quite easy to dismiss someone's hair style as superficial, but in fact it can indicate a lot about a person's character and identity. Myself, I often dye my hair various shades of blue, because I identify the colour with the European flag - it has become my trademark addition to many costumes and outfits I have worn to protests. As a troll recently reminded me on TikTok, I am often recognised for this blue highlight, or as they delightfully called me, 'the bint with the blue tint'.

Lee Krasner, (1908 - 1984)

Although I remember studying some of Lee Krasner's work at sixth-form college, I couldn't remember ever seeing this painting, 'Shellfower'. It instantly stood out to me, since many of my abstract paintings have a similar style. With the chotic use of colour and gestural brushmarks creating a sense of sensory overwhelm.


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