Women Artists as Role Models

The social role of women artists in contemporary art. This was the discussion posed by a forum organized in August by the International Women’s Arts Exchange Association. I was, with two other artists( one each from Korea & the US), asked to present a paper for the Forum organized in Georgetown Penang. It was to be based on research done. However, as I’m not from an academic/research background I wrote it based on my own individual thoughts towards the  theme.


The Forum & discussion took place at the UAB Building on Lebuh China Street Ghuat, Georgetown, Penang. The event was held in collaboration between The International Women’s Art Exchange Forum, The International Women’s Art Exchange and the Georgetown Festival.

Rachel Herzer spoke on her upbringing within a religious & remote household, the view, still, that girls do not need to go to college, and talked about her way out into the world of art. Very inspiring, her artwork is often ephemeral. It is very beautiful & her clay work is exceptional.

The speaker from Korea was Kyung-ae Kwon. the president of the Incheon Women Artists’ Biennale. She spoke of the issues related with organizing a women specific biennale & is looking forward to putting together another soon.

It was wonderful to connect to women artists from all round the world & to realize that we all face very similar issues in all parts of the world despite believing that women are more liberated in one place or another.  Historical, religious & cultural stereotypes still do haunt us & make us hold back. It was great to be in a forum like this where we could give & receive support, learn from each other, about each other, free from judgement, and celebrate our very diverse art.


Here is my paper.

The Social Role of Women Artists in Contemporary Art

The Basic Role of Women & the ‘Image’ of ‘Woman’ in our heads:
Before we look at the question of women artists having a social role in any context, it is important to ask if women as a whole, have an innate instinct to create an impact within their own social community, whether it be large or small.

Women are traditionally the caregivers in any community. They reproduce, protect, feed & take care of their families & children, & often are responsible for the care of groups of young. In any traditional context, women gather as groups to prepare food, care for children, & craft basic items that protect the community e.g. clothing, textiles, teaching these skills so that they can be continued. They gather to openly discuss issues of everyday life, often mutually solving problems through social interaction. These gatherings often revolve around everyday tasks.

In the most basic tribal context, women have traditionally been limited to these functions: mother & producer of children, caregivers, food preparation, & as a maker of craft ( producing items that are of use to the community in which they live). This has been accepted as a ‘fact of life’ in most communities.

Generally, women (& certainly in the traditional Asian context) are still limited to the function of the family caretaker; expected to marry, produce children, take care of them & to set aside their own aspirations for anything else. Men on the other hand are generally given the freedom to be ‘selfish’. Their manhood is measured by the fact that they can impregnate a woman, that they bring in the money to maintain the family, that if they work long hours to achieve this ‘success’, they are ‘better men’. Their roles as fathers are ‘limited’ and they are certainly not judged on their quality as fathers. For example, if they spend time away from the family home, away from mealtimes, from parent teacher meetings, away from the playground, they are not ‘missed.’  Their ‘fathering’ times are often limited to weekends & holidays.

Women generally, are not expected to be ‘selfish’. Those that have families are certainly judged on the amount of time their careers take them away from their children, the time spent away from the husbands, if they miss parent teacher meetings etc. The world is still very much about making the judgement that ‘Fathers are great if they spend any time with their children even thought they work so hard’ & ’Mothers are bad if they spend time away from their children because they work too hard’. These judgements are often made by both men & women, with both men & women looking down on a ‘bad mother’. Men are praised for giving up time for their children. Women are still expected to give up time for their children, & praise is certainly not to be expected for this.

In addition, today there is more pressure for women to have successful careers as well as everything else. The basics of being a mother is not enough and in modern Asia & often in the West, mothers that choose to be at home & look after their children are relegated to the title of ‘housewife’, & their worth is based on this alone despite this job being one of the hardest out there. We, as women, do not want to be referred to as ‘housewife’ any longer. We are much all more than that.

As a result contemporary women often have to become especially high achievers in order to ‘fit’ into their expected roles in society. A woman’s sense of self worth, in the age of instant gratification, sharing everything on social media, & the branding of ‘the perfect women’ on social media as the base for what you are supposed to achieve, has I feel, made the role of women so much more complicated with all of us struggling to match up to the ‘world’s’ idea of what women are supposed to be. This results in many of us being extremely high achievers often working tirelessly, without recognition.

“Still, those years of relative obscurity often became a source of strength, says (Mary)Sabbatino(Galeri Lelong), allowing these women artists to hone their vision and sense of self-worth as they continued to produce work without the need for accolades.”

Bring into this the volatile issues of morals & faith, religion, feminism, gender, race, poverty and privilege, the ideas of what women are supposed to be, & what they are supposed to contribute to their various communities becomes further skewed & unclear. In Malaysia, ‘woman’ cannot be defined as ‘one’. She is many, and the ideas that come from the many, impact hugely on how our country defines ‘woman’ as a whole. It also impacts on the physical ‘image’ we have of what a woman is supposed to look like. Should she be clothed, naked, demure, pretty, ugly, dark, white, long hair, short hair, seen, not heard, educated, uneducated, with children, married, unmarried? Should she be Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Iban, a party girl, a good wife, an Other, an Orang Asli, an Atheist? All these ideas translate into a ‘physical image’ in all our heads. Even with our eyes closed we as Malaysians, can conjure up what each of these women ‘look like’ and then we make an assumption on the ‘personality’ & ‘moral standing’ of this woman.

Then we have to add to the question of social responsibility by asking, is the contemporary social role of women limited to their own small community, or is it important for them to look at the wider context of not ‘just the ‘family’ of Malaysia’, but of ‘the whole world’.

How does this connect specifically to the social role of women artists?

“Given the undeniable high quality of these women’s work, why has it been overlooked for so long? Part of the answer—as in many other parts of the labor market and society at large—is simple sexism. Men have long dominated many facets of the art world, from galleries to museums to criticism.” Anna Louie Suissman. Artsy editorial.

What is an artist? Throughout history we have only seen lists of male artists. Men traditionally had the freedom to create ‘Art’, to philosophize, to imagine outside the idea of what constitutes ‘The World’, to explore outside their own family, to take the risk & to make the move out of the limited circles of their social standing. Women were held close to family, to their social circles, to the often overwhelming ‘morality’ of their communities. For women, creativity was stamped on, expressions of thought & ideas treated more like a sickness, a mental illness & a weakness. Women were kept from wantonly expressing their own sexuality lest they prompt the innate ‘debauchery’ of the male sex. Women have always been known as the ‘weaker sex’ but throughout history, the idea that women had to be hidden away, is in reality a fear that they possess the ‘power’, just by virtue of their sex & gender, to wreck havoc in the world & minds of men. Women are Witches, men are Wizards. Witches to be punished out of fear that they could be evil. Wizards to be held aloft, given power to rule & advise, often in order to create fear & evil.

These are all ‘images’ that we have seen through history. Stories & images told, retold & perpetuated by the work of artists ( mainly male) through out the history of the world. Successful male artists had patrons, sponsors, belonged to ‘guilds’, were given huge commercial contracts, workshops, had access to young interns that worked in their ‘master artists’ names. Male artists were allowed to study anatomy & life drawing the ‘naked’ form, women were not. There were even restrictions on what materials women could use because of the ‘Guild’ system in Europe. The world was & is also conditioned to issues of religion & race, limiting the type of image that could be produced . Female artists were practically unheard of and when they were, it was often the ‘controversies’ that they ‘created’ that they were remembered for, not their work.

Where women were allowed to excel was in the role of craftswoman, often based at home, trained from young in the arts of tailoring, embroidery, flower pressing, music, watercolor. These were the arts & hobbies that caused no controversy, no emotional stimulation and certainly no passion. It was not their place to have an opinion on religion, independence, family holdings, science, the process of learning.

Much of the public art through time has been made through the eyes of male artists; the ‘what’ of the world, of men, of women transformed into tangible images by the interpretive imagination of the male perspective.

Female artists (in the Western world) managed to come out of their drawing rooms when a few gained traction as ‘botanical’ artists. In their own time, many were unknown, working independently of the largely male dominated ‘scientific community’, quietly, much of their work kept together as a private collection. This did not however, mean they enjoyed success. And independence (both financially & privately) seems to have been a very large factor in the success of a few women artists during a time when only male artists were sponsored & given financial support by private patrons. This has been an issue throughout time, for women artists.


“Consider the trajectory of Carol Rama. Despite her recognition at the Venice Biennale, she was little-known in the U.S., and died penniless in 2015, according to McCaffrey. Ten years ago, Isabella Bortolozzi, who had met her in the 1990s through a mutual friend and art collector, put on a solo show of Rama’s work at her gallery in Berlin, with the eventual aim of realizing a major retrospective; a show of over 200 works spanning seven decades was finally mounted in 2014 at MACBA Barcelona, and subsequently traveled to Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, EMMA Museum in Finland, IMMA in Dublin, and GAM Torino in Rama’s hometown.”

It is only very recently that we are beginning to feel the influence of these ‘pioneer’ women artists, many of whom were not given credence in their own time. Important names of women artists are being highlighted now as never before & at last, work from the past is now bolstering the general rise of women artists. The factor of media, & social media especially in very recent times has been especially important in highlighting the talents of women artists. This factor cannot be under-estimated in ‘pushing’ the work of women artists & artists generally, into the everyday public eye. It is by far the main reason art has ‘boomed’ in recent years, making art from all over the world accessible to all.

This also paves the way forward for women artists to push for their vision away from the predominantly male dominated imagery that we have taken for granted for too long. There has been a female version all along, albeit small, and it has now been given the platform to slowly but surely change our versions of art history, & certainly of our interpretation of history, social standing & culture as we have known it. It is becoming more important to make sure that women artists work alongside, at the same rate as their male counterparts in order to open all our eyes on how women are ‘seen’, how women visualize themselves and the issues that reveal a common ground. This also builds a feeling of ‘self worth’, something that still is often lacking, by virtue of social forces in local society & culture.

“The art world in general is quite shallow and quite lazy and doesn’t pay attention,” says Ivan of Brătescu’s long years of working without recognition. “But if an artist is really good, eventually people will take notice.”

Ideally, that would be the case, but sadly, many gifted women artists whose careers began in the mid-20th century are likely still awaiting recognition. People interviewed for this story were quick to point to others whose renown did not yet match their talent.”

A Few Lesser Known Pioneer Women Artists We Should Be Aware For:

There are many other women artists that should be on this list as pioneers in the field of art. Their value was not only in the work that they created during their lifetimes, but the very choice that they made ‘to be an artist’ & social statements that they tried to make during their time in history are key to their standing in the history of art. These are as valid now as they were then, and in some ways more so because they show us quite clearly that history has been very unfair in its treatment towards women. The success of these artists was limited during their lifetimes but now as they are rediscovered & restored, their work shared & unearthed from archives & museums, they show a what should be ,a much more enlightened world, that women are still having to face issues that limit their freedom of expression, that limit their ability to build self worth. The issues sound so familiar in so many ways. The difference today is that women are able to communicate freely & share experiences that are familiar across all cultures & age groups, & thus take strength & knowledge from the experiences of others. This in itself creates social impact in that it slowly creates the confidence to inquire & question.

Caterina van Hemessen (1528-1587) a Flemish Renaissance painter, she is the painter to have painted the first self portrait depicting an artist at their own easel. Trained by her father, she did many portrait commissions but her body of work was small, having married, at which point her work stopped.


Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) set a precedent for women to be accepted as apprentices & students of fine art. Her father was a huge encouragement to both her & her sisters. However, because of the social constraints at the time, she was unable to study anatomy or life drawing, unlike her male counterparts. To get over this, she painted informal portraits of her family members or herself, with natural expressions. A painting of her sisters with natural expressions, playing chess makes a further statement because although chess was a popular game, it was typically for boys who at the time monopolised the powers logic and strategy.


Artemisia Gentileschi, the Italian Baroque painter( 1593-1653), influenced by Caravaggio, although hugely talented, was more famous in her lifetime for the charges she made against her mentor Agostino Tassi for rape. Her story is one with which we can connect with here in Malaysia. She, the young student, is raped by her mentor & her rapist promises marriage to restore virtue. The following trial is a sham & Tassi never actually serves any time despite a sentence of just one year of jail. This experience, the trail, changed the force of her amazing work. The lack of support from the public, from the law, from other women, made her focus on images of powerful women & graphic depictions including one where she paints the portrait of her tormentor in agony as he is tortured & murdered.


Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), a German naturalist and illustrator, was trained by her step father. At 28 she produced her first book of illustrations. In 1699, she was awarded permission from Amsterdam to travel with her daughter to Surinam. Her scientific expedition makes her perhaps the first person to ‘plan a journey rooted solely around in science.’ with the goal of spending 5 years illustrating new species of insects. Merian used vellum primed with a white coat. Because of the guild system in Europe, women were not allowed to use oil paints, so she was restricted to watercolours and gouache. To finance the trip she sold 255 of her paintings. She documented & collected specimens & in 1705 published the book ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium’ (Re-published in 2016 with updated scientific descriptions). After her death, her daughter Dorothea published ‘Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradox Metamorphosis’, a collection of her mothers work. It was only in the last quarter of the 20th Century that her work was reevaluated & reprinted, & she was recognised & her portrait was printed on the 500DM note before Germany converted to the Euro. When she died, she was simply listed ‘pauper’, a thoroughly despicable description for a woman who contributed so much to the world of science & art.


Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun(1755-1842), a French portrait painter during the Rococo period. She painted hundreds of portraits & landscapes, but was also Marie Antoinettes personal portrait painter & it is through her paintings that we now visualize the Queen who was the ‘figurehead’ for the French Revolution.


The British artist, Marianne North(1830-1890) travelled with her father. He was a big influence on her life. She never married. On the death of her father she became independently wealthy & took to traveling alone, visiting places far far away. She took her paints, observing flora & fauna, taking in views and kept all of her over 800 pieces of art. Her ‘value’ as an artist is now huge, having documented with paint, the views & places in situ during her travels, showing us today how these places looked in the past. Her interest in local flora & fauna & her drive to observe & record it in her paintings resulted in species, previously unknown, being named after her. She collected bits of wood, amassing an important collection, now used as decorative panels in the Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens. Marianne left her whole collection of paintings to Kew Gardens ( upon the agreement of the open minded curator who acknowledged the importance of her work) & with her own funds, designed & built the Gallery that houses all her work today. It is the fact that her work has been kept together as a single collection that hits the observer today as possibly the most important decision made for her own work. It is the fact that it was not broken up that created its value, both artistic & scientific, today. The fact that she made these decisions herself during her own lifetime, with her own money, gives us an idea of how strong & independent a woman artist she was. It is this fighting independence that gave her to us today. The contemporary world of female art, and the world of science, would have lost a star, without the wealth of her work on show today. Marianne North, although from the past, is without doubt still a huge role model for women artists in this contemporary world. Her legacy shows us that as women artists, a certain independence, a need to make decisions on our own, making a plan, is crucial.


Harriet Powers:
A Black American slave, Harriet made art in the only medium she had access to, Quilting. She created her pictorial masterpieces based on well known stories told to her. Her quilts were shown at cotton fair in the late 1880’s. When in financial difficulties she sold a quilt & the buyer, Jenni Smith, recorded the meaning directly from Harriet. Her quilts were sewn & embroidered, using thread like a pencil.


Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), British, is now known as a naturalist, conservationist, illustrator and writer. She painted many studies of fungi which serve as an important resource for mycologists today. Known as the writer & illustrator for the books on “Peter Rabbit’, she created & patented, amongst other things, a Peter Rabbit doll in 1903. The products were licensed by her publisher, allowing an income beyond the scope of her books & illustrations. She had a strong sense for business, & protected her work & illustrations.

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Note: The American Folk Art Museum is an institution that showcases the work of women ( & male) artists that often worked beyond or just in the fringes of gentile society. Their exhibitions highlight the arts of quilting, of embroidery, carving, drawings made by artists from all levels of society. Many of the artists often worked obsessively using the most basic materials available to them and are eyeopening, often emotionally raw pieces that reveal the worst of how ’society’ can decide a persons worth. They can be followed on Face Book & Instagram.

The Power of Art:

‘Contemporary Art’ creates trends that influence all parts of our lives, interiors, fashion, architecture, fabrics, even attitude & personality & how we perceive other people, other cultures & the world, and more than anything it has the power to attract people to certain locations anywhere in the world. At this moment in time it would be fair to say that Art is at the height of its influence & arguably one of the most important factors that can drive even economic forces up and down. We see this here in Penang in its very basic form, where Street Art attracts people, with the knock on effects impacting on numbers of hotel rooms, number of restaurants opening, the number of side businesses etc. set up to attract some of the run off.

We see the power of Art to attract, in the number of ‘Affordable Art fairs’ around the world, the number of countries that now set up their own Art Biennale’s around the world. As a curated ‘attraction’ they create an economic force to be reckoned with, and with this the power to take on a ‘social role’ or take on a ‘social position’ is definitely building momentum.

Do women artists have to take up the responsibility of a social role?

Personally for me, this question always brings up another question. Do male artists have to take up the responsibility of a social role? I do not often see men gathering to question their moral responsibilities in any capacity? I think this has to be part of the discussion. I do find it interesting that it seems fine for women to meet. Its non threatening somehow. In fact, if male artists & men today deliberately gathered, my feeling is that it would be quite negatively looked upon,  a bit like a mens club, probably interpreted as sexist & old fashioned, or some kind of threat. Do men feel the need to question their ‘being’, their morality or their worth?

I asked a few men & women I know, this question. ‘Why do women gather as a group that often questions or discusses their role in community or society? Certainly women seem to do this more often (outwardly) than men. Most answered that the reason behind it was ‘hangups’. Men don’t have them, many women probably do. Some said that in their own communities, women do not have the freedom to speak, or possess the position of power to be seen as individuals, the result being that their comfort zones are compromised. They are talked over, they are not taken seriously. Interestingly it was also mentioned that maybe men do want to support each other but the idea that they have to be seen as ‘macho’ is something that stops them admitting to wanting the support of a group. It puts into question the whole issue of ‘gender based’ artist groups.

Art does not rely on physical restraints. It does not highlight the physical differences between men & women.

So, should women artists deliberately make the choice to go into highlighting social issues within their work? Is it ok for them to rely just on making art that is a reflection of their natural thought process? Does having a social role limit an artists creativity or does it enhance creativity in the world of contemporary art? Does a social message add value to a piece of contemporary art?

Women & Social Consciousness:

Women no longer need to marry & they have the choice to bear children. This choice takes away a lot of the need to be ‘socially responsible’ in terms of bringing up children. It certainly gives women the option to be totally ‘selfish’ in the way they live & how they choose to behave in a social circle. Men have historically had the choice to be more ‘self centered’ for a long time. Both men & women instinctively feel responsible for their children. It is an instinct that kicks in with a power that is hard to explain. Parents worry about the future of their children.

Does being an independent single female artist with no children give an artist less social responsibility?

This ‘independence’ also highlights the ‘power’ of the older woman artist. Family dynamics change after a woman has done her share of the job of parenting. As a mother, other choices are often sacrificed to take up the full time job of parenting which includes imparting social skills & teaching social responsibilities, providing a list of rights & wrongs, to her children. After the children leave the nest, a woman has the power & the time to return to focus on her own work & certainly for older women artists, the sudden disappearance of these responsibilities is a strong catalyst to refocus on other themes. Today we are seeing the emergence of the older woman artist over the younger male artist and it speaks for the larger freedoms given to women today. Freedoms that these women did not have as younger women, freedoms that their mothers before them certainly, did not have.

“They’ve always been visible and exhibiting, but most of them had careers that weren’t at the center of the art world,” says Mary Sabbatino, vice president at Galerie Lelong,”

“Older women artists became the natural choice for galleries to look at, especially after 2013 and 2014, when all of a sudden it became clear that not every emerging artist is the next Warhol,” she says, noting that they offer the pedigree of being connected to the major art movements of their time.”

Often an artist cannot always be aware of the general social consciousness at any one time but it is a great time when art can hit a particular mind set or speaks for a body of people whose voices are too weak to be heard, even if only once. It begins a conversation. Art has the power to speak louder than words if an artist ’s thoughts can over lap with the public conscience at a specific given time. Nowadays, there are specific issues that play on our collective conscience; Climate change, the use of plastics, human trafficking, child abuse, domestic abuse, destruction of our natural environment, destruction of our biodiversity, extinction of species. Do we sub consciously impart our views on these issues in our work? As a group of women artists from diverse backgrounds, it would seem obvious that we will express many issues that impact on our lives.

“The art world is always looking for something that it both doesn’t know and it knows,” says Sabbatino. “They’re fully formed artists, they’re mature artists, they’re serious artists. They’re not going to burn out as sometimes happens with younger artists…and normally the prices are far below the other artists of their generation, so you’re offering a value to someone.”

Should We as Women Artists, Gather?

“These women were working well before the women’s liberation movement made inroads in the West;”

There is only one answer. Yes! It is of huge importance that on July 13, 1848 5 lady friends met for teas.

“The Women’s Rights Movement marks July 13, 1848 as its beginning. On that sweltering summer day in upstate New York, a young housewife and mother, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was invited to tea with four women friends.”

Without the act of ‘gathering’ women would not have won the vote, liberation, freedom to speak. freedom of choice. Women must continue to gather and work together in any capacity, Art being an especially creative reason to do so. With tea is preferable.

“The feminist movement (also known as the women’s liberation movement, the women’s movement, or simply feminism) refers to a series of political campaigns for reforms on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay, women’s suffrage, sexual harassment, and sexual violence, all of …..”

The Gathering of Women Artists in Malaysia:
I have been delighted to find on Twitter Malaysian Women Art @MyWomensArt Please follow them on Twitter & add your name to their list of Women Artists in Malaysia. The show ‘Di Mana?’ (Where Are?) showcasing the work of 101 Malaysian women artists at the National Art Gallery, is also very timely, & also marks the way forward for the very diverse group that makes up Malaysian women artists. Malaysia has always been a melting pot of cultures, of different peoples & religion. In some ways it represents a microcosm of the world as we know it & within our peoples are held the genetic memory of so many peoples from around the world. It seems only natural that here we have the opportunity to gather as women artists to once again begin a larger social movement that brings women together as a force of social betterment for all genders.

“If you are looking for issues of gender and identity, feminism and struggles of women at the Di Mana (Where Are) Young exhibition of 101 works by Malaysian contemporary women artists, you might be disappointed.

What you get at the all-women show currently on at the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) in Kuala Lumpur is more of a fuzzy, meandering voice in the conversation of what it means to be a woman in the 21st century world.

But then again, why should our gaze on today’s women, much less women artists, be confined to the singular lens of sociopolitical labels?”


There is a much longer conversation to be had & for me the bigger questions include:

“Can we really start to think of no borders between all genders?”

“Are men ready to be treated equally?”

“Can we take what we have today for granted?”

Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson



Follow Rachel Herzer on Instagram @rachelcastleherzer

The quotes within the paper can be found in the links & references listed below.

Links & References:












Malaysian Women Art @MyWomensArt