Evolutionary Expressions: A Brief Compendium of Women’s Written Contributions to Art History

Apr 4, 2023 | Art Insights

Written By: Chiara Atoyebi


Over fifty years ago, acclaimed art historian Linda Nochlin boldly asked the art world to contemplate, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? This question ignited an international dialogue during the 1970s and would catalyze the establishment of various women’s art organizations seeking to correct this void in the art world.

This is also the year the Women’s Caucus for Art celebrated 50 years of supporting and providing networking opportunities for women. That’s no small feat when you consider three major hurdles to achieving success within the enigmatic mainstream art world involve: exposure to the industry’s inner workings, access to opportunities, and a desire to participate in new programs. Historically access of all kinds has been gridlocked behind the gates of the many unnamned gatekeepers. Yet artists, especially artists of color and women, began to build their own tables and establish community support systems. This call to action, answered by courageous people all over the globe, signified a shift in power. Artists wanted more control, more representation, and to be seen as powerful allies for cultural exchange. Seemingly after five decades on the frontlines, the art world has taken notice of this shift, and we are witnessing exciting new work emerge from these D.E.I. initiatives and the art world at large.

Why Have Their Been No Great Women Art Writers?

While continuing to chart my artistic path and evolving art writing practice, I found myself referencing Nochlin’s work and what it means for me and for people who look like me.

Essentially, Nochlin posed a question that planted a seed of reflection within the reader. You might hear the question and immediately become defensive, dismiss it as a feminist complaint, or you may begin a line of questioning that leads you to an obvious answer. However you choose to investigate the argument the truth remains: Women are underrepresented in the mainstream art world. Instead of simply bringing awareness to the issue (which is also significant) or throwing money at the problem, we should endeavor to understand why this is. How can we as a collective consciousness of feminist thinkers, continue to bring even more communities of color and marginalized communities into the fold? That is where writing comes in to play. Jim Morrison famously said that, “he who controls the media controls the mind.” The way we archive information, record it and retell it, is the key to a changed future. We may not dhave to answer the question of where are the great women writers if we continue to become writers of art history.

Photo Courtesy of UC Santa Cruz

The work of art historian Margo Machida speaks to the deep inner life and community of Asian Americans. Her work also speaks to the times of where we are headed today. In her essay, ʻAe Kai Rising: Trans-Oceanic Communities of Cultural Imagination. Machida reflects on the Asian identity in America, and the role “active placemaking” takes. In Machida’s world identity is not defined by the mainstream narratives thrust upon people of color, but of the support of one’s community.

This type of convening and familiarity is what’s needed for the ongoing validation and amplification of women’s work. Additionally, I’ve noticed that there’s lots of overlap among the ways communities of color document and archive their traditional practices which should create an overall sense of belonging to be shared. For me, it’s exciting to find the similiarities in the craft and traditions of our work cross culturally.

Black Feminist Art History

In the 1990s, when the work of researching and presenting a more dynamic life of Black women artists within art history discourses was gaining traction, art historian Freida High W. Tesfagiorgis asserted that “the achievement of a Black feminist art history would require a radical rejection of existing material and aesthetic hierarchies, and instead recognize and interpret a diversity of cultural expressions, including craft practices, on their own terms.”
The same ideas have been true for decades yet today, we are fortunate to see the manifestation of those efforts with the expansive nature of Black writings in art history.

“The achievement of a Black feminist art history would require a radical rejection of existing material and aesthetic hierarchies, and instead recognize and interpret a diversity of cultural expressions, including craft practices, on their own terms.”

Freida High W. Tesfagiorgis

Evolutionary Expressions and What Women Want Today

Since the beginning of time, we know that women have always created, expressed ideas, written, painted, and organized. Therefore the absence of their literary and artistic criticism within mainstream historical cannons serves as an exploration into why.

Every art writer and artist leaving a rhetorical paper trail of ideas helps to create a blueprint for the future. Our role in today’s compendiums of evolutionary expression rests on documenting the views of women artists today. In this moment the story of how is more important than the story of who.

I was speaking with a White colleague about the women’s movement as a whole.

“Black women are too into their men!”

That can be true of all women that are into men, but being in relationship with a man does not mean one desires to be out of relationship with with women. You can also be in relationship with men, and desire equality and liberation fully in your wombmyn-hood.

I understand where my colleague was coming from with her lament but “standing with men” isn’t only a Black issue. It’s the sequitur for understanding how we bring more women into the fold.

If it is written, that woman came out of a man in the beginning, isn’t it also true that all men came out of the woman’s womb, making her the vessel, the nourishment, and the first teacher? Taking that simple truth into consideration, shouldn’t we all be feminists? Shouldn’t we all want to see women win?

Exposure and Access

Last summer, I spent eight weeks meeting with folks in my community to understand where people go for art and culture. I met with religious organizations, the youth, and mothers. Interestingly enough, people were excited to discover that the local government would be interested in funding their creative endeavors.
Many of those I met with felt their work was nothing special. They were simply doing something they’d always done, or learned from their mother or grandmothers. Yet, I wanted them to understand that what they were doing and dismissing as simply crafting–was actually an art. The intricate way my neighbor beads, her own Sari’s was not a decision she arrived at quickly. Each bead was a series of problems and decisions carefully made with each applique. After my praise, she was beginning to understand. I also hope she writes about her process, even if it’s only for her family.

There was also a language barrier stopping some of the folks from seeking access to cultural events or knowing who to look to for help or if they qualify. There was also skepticism and on the opposite end, a happiness in being separate from an involvement with anything mainstream. For them, there was an inherent freedom in flying under the radar and creating alone within one’s community. I consider those communities of makers content in their liberation and are validation non-seeking.

In the past, exposure was a real issue. People should have been exposed to more opportunities and/or information. It is arguable that today, we are over-exposed with information, which has a way of overwhelming people. The adverse effect would be people being driven back into their respective corners of the world and on the internet and not engaging at all.

One of the best ways to mitigate the issues of over-exposure to information and provide access to people who desire to take advantage of it, is by continuing to cultivate more young writers and cultural custodians who are representative of our diverse American life. While we are studying the giants of this world, we can continue to bring our young people under our wing alongside us. Undoubtedly, the answer is always in the ones that can be often overlooked–and that’s our young writer’s and artists entering the field. As a mother with two budding young arists’ my son (draws, sews, and wraps objects in yarn) and my daughter (paints and helps with my quilting) I was inspired to lean into my practice and include my kids from Betye Saar. Saar inspired me to find videos to help activate my young writers minds around art.

Here are my current top three favorite art historians whose work is visionary and apropos for our time:

Samella Lewis

Stern, Louis. Samella Lewis at Scripps College. 1995, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, CC-4.0.

“I don’t get proud. I just do what I have to do, and it happens, and then I go to the next thing. Compiling those books about Black artists and writing the art history of African American art wasn’t done for career objectives—it was a necessity.” Samella Sanders Lewis, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. 2017

In 1989, Samella Sanders Lewis (1923-2022) was awarded WCA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1951, she became the first African American woman to receive her Phd in art history.  Lewis harnesses a multi-faceted career that impacted so many areas of culture, she would prove that she was a visionary world builder who put her ideas into action. According to an article in the June 2022, issue of the New York Times,  Lewis “co-founded an arts journal, helped run galleries, made films about Black artists, taught at universities, and wrote well-regarded books, most notably “Art: African American,” first published in 1978.”  Amazingly, what she established still stands the test of time. As a scholar of the African Diaspora her well established legacy of artistic and institutional excellence serves as brilliant blueprint for the successful hybridization of Black Liberation ethos and cultural collaboration to advance women in the arts. Even more amazingly, she found time to do all of those things and balance her marriage and family life. 

The Samella Sanders Lewis Papers (1930-2010) are currently housed at Emory University. You can find them here

Mary Garrard 

Photo Courtesy of Women’s Caucus for Art, 2021.

“A Founder of Feminist Art Theory”

Pioneering art historian Mary Garrard served as the second national president of WCA from 1974-1978. She was interviewed by curator and art historian Marianne McGrath in March 2022 for ArtInsights where you can read her candid and thoughtful remarks on feminist art history, leadership, and CAA. Her work as a feminist writer began with her 1970 Art Journal article, Of Men, Women and Art: Some Historical Reflections and her 1978 introspections on feminism’s effect on art history were captured in the 1978 Heresies article,  Feminism: Has It Changed Art History?  

In Brunelleschi’s Egg: Nature, Art and Gender in Renaissance Italy,  Garrard explores the relationship between nature and art in the Italian Renaissance, by casting nature in a metaphorically female gendered role, and examining the rhetoric surrounding the impending “shift” in visual culture from organic to scientific as premeditated. Additionally, you can read a review of Garrard’s groundbreaking book, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Arthere.

Sarah Elizabeth Lewis

Photo Courtesy of YouTube

When I think of Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, the first thought that comes to mind is elegant. This same quality carries over into both her speech and writings. I was first introduced to The Rise author’s work on African Americans and photography during her Ted Talk entitled Embrace The Near Win. Lewis hails from a family of African American creatives —her mother was an actress and her grandfather a jazz musician—both provided a rich creative framework for Lewis to begin drawing connections between art and justice. In 2016, she was a guest editor for Aperture’s first Vision & Justice issue. In a 2019 interview for Forbes Magazine,  Lewis, stated her intention for the issues were not to have answers but to ask“How is representational democracy tied up with visual representation, but the image? How can our culture shift the narratives we have about who counts and who belongs in society? I’ve read the Vision & Justice issue and it served as the inspiration for this article and for investigating how women of color move the vision forward in art writing for this generation. Lewis has been busy this past year writing and we have three of her magnificent works to look forward to in 2024. How Race Changed Sight in America (Harvard University Press, 2024), Vision & Justice (One World/Random House, Fall 2024), Groundwork: Race and Aesthetics in the Era of Stand Your Ground Law. (Spring 2024) 

You can read more of Sarah’s work here

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