Celebrating Women in Visual Arts

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The Museum of Fine Arts’ exhibition “Elsa Dorfman: Me and My Camera” features a collection of 20 x 24 self-portraits portraying Dorfman’s relationship with photography. (Source: Elsa Dorfman)

By Penelope Meisel (IV), Contributing Writer

The underrepresentation of female artists in the world of visual arts is a significant problem. For years, men have dominated the industry and women have been left out of the rich history of art. The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), however, is looking to change that.

In 2019, the museum installed the Women Take the Floor exhibit to challenge gender bias in the art industry. The exhibit contains over 200 works across various media, all by female artists. It is a part of the MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing, which was originally dominated by white male artists. The museum’s website states, “This reinstallation — or ‘takeover’ — of Level 3 of the Art of the Americas Wing advocates for diversity, inclusion, and gender equity in museums, the art world, and beyond.”

The exhibit is split into seven galleries, from a collection of art of women created by women. Titled Women Depicting Women: Her Vision, Her Voice, to Women of Action, the collection gives credit to female artists in the male-dominated world of action art. Upon entering the exhibit, there is an exhibition statement, which is an explanation of its intent and goal. It describes the history of gender bias in museums and acknowledges the MFA’s past failures in supporting female artists.

The exhibit features works of all genres, many of which highlight the female experience in various cultures. For example, Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi’s Converging Territories #11 depicts three Muslim women applying henna calligraphy on themselves and their surroundings. The photograph’s description explains that in Islamic culture, “[Calligraphy is a] “sacred (and typically male) art form. In her photographs, Lalla Essaydi associates it with women’s bodies to suggest the complexity of gender roles within Islamic cultures.”

In addition to visual arts, the exhibit features a video and poem. Patty Chang’s Melons (At a Loss) loops and challenges the “ideal” female behavior, while Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola shares a powerful reading of her poem “what is the suffrage movement to a blk womyn?” Ruby Donovan (IV) describes the exhibit, saying, “I think it’s awesome that a museum as influential as the MFA is trying to give women [artists] more mainstream attention. The art itself is amazing and deserves more recognition.”

The exhibition statement details several shocking statistics about the underrepresentation of female artists. For example, although women make up 46 percent of visual artists in the United States, only four percent of art sold at auctions is by women. More specifically to the MFA, just five percent of all its art acquired over the past decade has been by female artists.

Lillian Butler (IV) says, “I found [these] statistics very shocking. It wasn’t surprising to me that women artists are under-appreciated and paid less [than their male counterparts], but what was more shocking was on how big of a scale it was.” Women Take the Floor is just the beginning of the museum’s call for equality, as solo exhibits over the past two years have increasingly spotlighted female artists.

The exhibit is available on Level 3 of the MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing until November 28, 2021, and is free for all Boston Public Schools students.