08.13.2020 Art

The Female Historical Contemporary Artists You Need to Know

Chelsea McCarthy
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Women were never missing from the stage of creation, they were excluded. They generated other means and mediums to share their experiences only then to be manipulated, buried, or burned so it couldn’t be destroyed by the patriarchy. These other means and mediums were a means of survival. These incredible people who were apostles, artists, poets, and former slaves reveal what has been hidden from us: that we are all worthy and capable of the power of love. 

What if we were raised in a culture where we all knew the legacies of Inanna, Enheduanna, Isis, Quan Yin, Miao Shan, Mary Magdalene, Thecla, Perpetua, Joan of Arc, and Marguerite Porete the same way we all know the general story of Jesus Christ and the Judeo Christian universe that has conditioned everyone and everything in Western culture? I often wonder what religion, spirituality, and the world would look and feel like if women weren’t removed from the podium since the Roman Empire. 

We would know the story of Thecla, the 17-year-old who baptized herself during the Roman Empire when Christianity was punishable by death. The most threatening part of her story (and the reason few people know her name) is that she freed herself from the illusion that any power resided outside of herself. Her disobedience and refusal to accept any authority outside of her own being starkly contrasts the Christianity many worship today. She held the power to save herself, so she did. She understood and believed in her connection to God, that the divine was within her and she was listening. There was no time to wait for Paul to welcome her to the holy waters to bless and validate her inner voice of knowing, of being… and we don’t have time to wait either. 

It is critical we begin to understand the nature of who we really are. 

Through the artistic expression of historic and contemporary artists such as Suzanne Cesaire, Harriet Powers, Hilma af Klint, and Corinne Bernard we can see the compulsory nature of their practices and how they cultivate a sense of self worth as part of the spiritual path. 

Suzanne Cesaire writes in her publication Tropiques in 1941, “It is now urgent to dare to know oneself, to dare to confess to oneself what one is, to dare to ask oneself what one wants to be.” Suzanne’s reverence for surrealism informed her writings of dissent and her questions remind me of the story of Thecla. Suzanne believed her surrealism, also known as Negritude, could transcend the contradictions of the colonial assimilation in the post slavery Caribbean. She believed surrealism gave back some possibilities to invent a new literature which calls on experimental cultural appropriation opposed to a return to assimilation. She undermines misogynist colonial fantasies by revealing her talons, sharp teeth, and venomous heart beneath the flesh of a seemingly obliging bourgeois woman of color.

Harriet Powers was born into slavery in rural Georgia in 1837. She combined traditional African applique techniques with European record keeping and biblical reference traditions to create quilts that retold bible stories and astronomical phenomena. Only two of her quilts are known to have survived, Bible Quilt and Pictorial Quilt. Likely used as tools to teach others, her quilts beckon the significance of oral traditions and storytelling in the enslaved American south. Freed in the 1880’s, she began to exhibit her quilts at craft fairs. There is not much known about the spiritual practices of Harriet herself, however, I imagine listening to her quilt sermons, her stories of the falling stars and dark sky. Her rendition of Adam and Eve, the creation of animals, and Jacob’s ladder. The sounds of loss and escape experienced through each stitch, an impressionistic portrait of her life told in 299 pieces of fabric. Her community of quilters huddled, learning from each other’s stories, carrying this ancient practice of wisdom and love with them, sewing it into the fabric of this country. Have we taken notice?

Hilma af Klint was holding seances with her friends and channelling Buddah’s beloved disciple, Ananda in 1896. Her community held sessions where they practiced automatic drawings and took meticulous notes of the mediumistic messages conveyed by the spirits. She communicated with spirits who led her to create her body of work, “The Paintings for the Temple.” 193 works divided into series and sub-groups, this is one of the first examples of abstract art in the West. From her website, “Hilma af Klint was convinced that reality was not confined to the physical world. Parallel to the material dimension there existed an inner realm the contents of which were as true and real as those of the outer world.” I had the honor to view her exhibition of this series at the Guggenheim in New York a few years ago and was immediately brought to tears. Finally, I felt washed with a relief and awe I was aching for and finding nowhere. Her use of color, size, symbols, letters, numbers, and space is a visual representation of her personal development. Her intrinsic trust in her body voice, this is a woman who is exploring herself, through her spirit. So fierce and unafraid, she instructed in her will that the world was unprepared to receive her work until 20 years after her death. Thousands of works held secret to her explicit wish.

Contemporary artist Corinne Bernard shares, “When the language of the spiritual is manipulated to reflect a socio-political perspective and the divine is expressed as male, my paintings participate in the history of women inventing and expressing their relationship with spirituality.” 

Women who paint as a way to explore and understand their spirituality are challenging the patriarchy. 

We have been tricked as women to think we are inherently nurturing, more gentle, and caring. What if we were raised in a culture that taught us women could be violent? We would be living in a very different world if the people who killed Jesus were a league of women. 

Spirituality and religion influence each other, it is peculiar how women are typically relegated to the world of spirit before the world of religion. Likely because the religious world is more defined while spirituality is understood as softer. If feminism doesn’t address spirituality and religion, there is no spiritual freedom, which in itself is the driving force to create. Corinne’s spiritual landscapes show us the harmony of a plane without a grounding horizon, unfixed perspectives, and equanimity. There is an elemental balance between motifs and symbols that both point to order and chaos, seen and unseen, abstract and recognizable, all without hierarchy. 

The works of these women teach us that the body does not determine what is possible for us, that we are a soul. Our body gives us a chance to be here, to be this bridge between the world of matter and the realm of spirit. Nothing is as we think it is and that in itself is shocking and full of freedom. 

There is no hierarchy in the spiritual world. Give what you need to yourself, you are the truth, the love, the awareness. You are your own authentic guiding system, it is empowerment, it is a love that is the opposite of power. 

Are we okay with the unknown? We need courage to know and create who we are, this is our gift, to create ourselves in this world. 

Chelsea McCarthy celebrates questions, challenges social conventions, and encourages the interdisciplinary nature of creativity. She maintains practices as a creative director, entrepreneur, and artist and lives between Los Angeles and Kaua’i. 

Artwork: “Sacred Heart” by Corinne Bernard

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