Labels such as outsider art and folk art make women artists less visible

Anyone who drove the State Highway through the small American town of Hazlehurst in the 1980s would have seen the remarkable billboards in Mary Tillman Smith’s garden. Through these self-made signs, Smith, for example, advised motorists on what to do with their money. Once in a while the signs changed text and picture.

Mary Tillman Smith (1905-1995) was born into a family of thirteen children. The African-American family worked as sharecroppers in rural Mississippi. Only later in life, when Smith has her own house, does she begin to paint. She makes figures and objects from scrap materials. She paints portraits of herself, her friends, neighbors or livestock on old corrugated iron, usually accompanied by texts in which God plays a prominent role. Her house and garden are slowly growing into a studio and exhibition space. The simple visual language is reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat. It is striking that both Smith and Basquiat were uneducated, but it is mainly Smith who is associated with art brut, or outsider art.

In recent years, women in the visual arts have gained a lot of ground. The book was published last year The history of art without men from Katy Hessel. The book shows a very comprehensive overview of female artists throughout the ages. In 2021, the project was The other half created by RKD, in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum and the University of Amsterdam, to make women in Dutch art history more visible. Female artists also dominated the main exhibition at the last Venice Biennale The milk of dreams.

Names like Mary Cassat, Judith Leyster or Artemisia Gentileschi are less and less unknown to people. The women artists who made work outside the established art movements are also becoming more and more visible. IN The history of art without men In the chapter ‘Art Beyond the mainstream’, Hessel describes the work of Aloïse Gorbaz and Sister Gertrude Morgan, women who are often associated with outsider art. Hessel deliberately chooses not to use the term outsider art in the chapter, to avoid exclusion. The title makes it clear that these women are by no means always seen as artists within mainstream art, but as a separate category.

Works of art outside established art are still often in the background

The term outsider art originates from the 1970s and is seen as the English equivalent of the term art brut. French painter Jean Dubuffet introduced the term in 1945. species brute seen as ‘spontaneous’ art, made by an unskilled artist who is indifferent to the established art world. Dubuffet referred to the established art as art culture. In his own work, he took an example from the expression of the art brut artists, which he considered pure. Many artists who are seen as art brut artists or outsider artists have psychological complaints. The sour thing about the term outsider art is that the word ‘outside’ automatically implies an ‘inside’, a status that the ‘outsider artist’ is therefore already deprived of in advance.

Classifying Smith’s work as outsider art today feels a bit naive. The proportion of women attending the art academy at the beginning of the twentieth century was low. In the late nineteenth century, women were allowed to pursue art education, but it was not immediately obvious that they would actually go to the art academy, let alone as a black woman. Smith made work because she wanted to make work and used her garden because it was the space she owned. She may not have been concerned with her position in art history, nor was she part of a prominent art movement. These are facets that play a role in the interpretation of her work.

Folk art

Like Smith, the African-American Clementine Hunter (1887-1988) is uneducated and works on a plantation. At night she has time to paint. Her paintings show everyday scenes where the same white church and a blue river repeatedly appear. The figures in her work are often busy, between colorful fields, washing lines, houses and cooking pots. It is not outsider art, but mainly folk art, with which Hunter’s work is associated.

The term folk art gains popularity in the early nineteenth century, when the life of rural people is glorified by Romanticism. Folk art is seen as art with a utilitarian character. Like outsider art, folk art is made by unskilled creators who are said to have no great artistic pretensions. A remarkable starting point when you consider that for a long time society did not offer much space for women’s artistic pretensions.

Take work, for example The woman’s right quilt, made around 1875 by the American Emma Civey Stahl, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The quilt shows how a man and a child show his wife the door. Over her shoulder hangs a banner with the text ‘women’s rights’. The same woman addresses the crowd in another image, the banner now planted next to her speaker’s chair. They are meticulous images made of textile, which can be read as a kind of cartoon. Now you could see the quilt as activist art. But in the nineteenth century quilting was generally seen not as an art form but as a craft. Girls from different walks of life learned the technique of quilting at an early age. Quilts were made for festive occasions where the images referred to social events or biblical stories. Not much is known about Emma Civey Stahl. Who she was and why she made this quilt we can now only guess. Although she advocated women’s rights, her identity probably disappeared behind the needle and thread, the trappings of the housewife.

Van Gogh

One of the best-known female artists associated with outsider art is the English Madge Gill (1882-1961). Impressive are her ink drawings, where figures are surrounded by many lines. The paper, sometimes gigantic, fills Gill to the brim. She herself declared to be driven by a higher power which she called Myrninerest. There are even works that Gill has signed as Myrninerest. In 1922 she was temporarily admitted to a psychiatric institution. However, it is striking that the criteria for the outsider art label are by no means always tenable. Artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch also struggled with mental health issues. Yet the works of these established artists do not appear in exhibitions or books about outsider art.

It is certainly not that there is no scene for folk art or outsider art. For example, the outsider art fair takes place every two years in New York (January) and in Paris (October). But museums and exhibitions almost always show the works in a context that is particularly dedicated to outsider art or folk art. The artists keep their distance from mainstream art.

Madge Gill at work, at home in East Ham, London on 19 August 1947. Photo Russell Westwood/Popperphoto via Getty Images

In 2020, The Drawing Center in New York exhibited work by the Chinese Guo Fengyi (1942-2010). The opening text of the exhibition asked why Guo Fengyi has been dismissed as an outsider artist for so long, especially since part of her oeuvre is based on Chinese spiritual theories such as I Ching. In it I Chingalso The Book of Changes, describes man’s relationship with the cosmos. In addition, Fengyi was engaged in qigong, a Chinese movement theory, through which she experienced visions. She translated these visions into her drawings. With energetic strokes of the pen, Fengyi drew many elongated creatures. The figures are a cross between gods, animals and humans. The question of whether Fengyi is an “outsider” or an “insider” shows that the line between recognized spiritual experiences and experiences that we dismiss as “crazy” or “uneducated” is thin.

Like Fengyi, Swiss Emma Kunz (1892-1963) made drawings with a spiritual purpose. Kunz performed healing sessions, telepathy and divination. She used her kaleidoscopic, tight drawings in these sessions. So art as an accessory, to serve a higher, spiritual purpose. Her work has been associated with outsider art on several occasions. On the other hand, it is compared to today’s Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), an artist who has gained increasing recognition in recent years. Kunz’s work also shows that art is often not as straightforward as the terms in which we try to categorize it.

Folk art condemns the artist to his limited education, outsider art places the artist outside society. Both terms therefore have a stigmatizing effect. Now that the attention for female artists is growing, it is time not to let the artist’s level of education and psychological well-being dominate in addition to gender, because only in this way can we create an overview of our art history that is as inclusive as possible.

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