Championing Women Through the Arts


Hundreds of thousands of women around the country are protesting for their rights, refusing to accept President Trump’s rhetoric about women and plans to change policies regarding women’s reproductive rights. The Washington, DC area is seeing women more than ever raise their voice to promote a feminist school of thought in attempt to integrate it with political policy.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts is determined to highlight the consistent progress made by women throughout history, spanning from the renaissance to the modern day. The museum consists of carefully crafted exhibits featuring sculptures, sketches and paintings created by famous female artists.

Ashley Harris, the museum’s assistant educator, selected five artists from the gallery’s collection to discuss with interested listeners. The small audience, composed of only women, were there to listen to details of specific works that made larger statements on society.

The artists Harris selected varied in aesthetic style, influence, time and technique. Each artist was vital not only in the art movement, but all facets of the women’s movement.

Harris carefully chose politically charged works that made declarations about fidelity and marriage, scientific discovery and black liberation within the United States. She picked among her favorite works that embodied nature, first ladies, and presidents.

Of the artists picked by Harris, one was an extremely important figure in the study of plant and insect life. Harris told the viewers that artist Maria Sibylla Merian was celebrated for her scientific discoveries in the 1600s. Once featured in the New York Times for her conclusions about zoology and botany, Merian is featured in the museum with prints she created as a close study of metamorphosis.

“Compositionally, they are interesting works,” Harris said.

The prints, extraordinarily detailed and naturalistic, were not only interesting compositions, Harris said. The prints showed Merian’s understanding of the importance of naturalistic portrayal. Considering Merian’s work as an artist and a scientist, she is a prominent figure in both realms. Her commitment to art correlated with her commitment to science, as her most important objective was to portray plant life realistically so it could be studied, not just admired as artwork.

“I think her art and interest in science went hand-in-hand,” Harris said. “She was interested in science from the time she was a little girl, and that interest came through her artwork.”

Harris continued to accentuate the influence nature had on artists in the museum, and how different women portrayed nature in opposite ways.

Alma Thomas, an abstract expressionist artist, created rhythmic, vibrant paintings inspired by her garden and other scenes in nature, almost opposite to the work of Merian. An African-American painter, Thomas is one example of an artist Harris chose to discuss that emulated black presence in the American art world.

Digging deeper into what Harris referred to as “black liberation and power,” she showed the work of Sonya Clark.

Harris showed the audience a five-dollar bill. It had hair stitched into it with thread in the shape of an afro.

“What does this look like?” Harris said. “And that’s not a trick question. This is a five-dollar bill with an afro.”

Harris said this work, created by Clark, was titled “Afro Abe.” The “Afro Abe” on display at the museum is what Harris described as a “series within a series.” Clark created many versions of “Afro Abe” where the afro she stiches onto President Lincolns head varies in width and height. Created before President Obama took office, Clark’s “Afro Abe” series is significant in black power, liberation, and unique originality. Her thread was created with real human hair, something Clark is notable for working with, according to Harris.

Harris emphasized one artist that notably created works inspired by textiles and titled after first ladies. The specific collection was titled “The Presidents Wives.” But Harris made sure to be clear about the collection despite the title.

“They were all more than just first ladies,” she said.

Artist Andrea Higgins created oil paintings that represented the clothing worn by first ladies in an abstractionist light.

“The artist ties her initial inspiration back to going to fabric stores with her grandmother,” Harris said.

Harris focused on the methodical process the artist went through when creating works for this collection. A long and detailed process resulted in unusual looks and colors, each meant to represent the first lady they are named after. This was to show the exceptional and varying personality of each first lady, and to show that they were complex individuals rather than only the wife of a president.

The museum’s main objective is to advocate for equality. This is achieved by carefully researching collections and precisely selecting works to be part of exhibitions that shine light on excellence in the female art realm. The museum has outreach communities intended to open a dialogue between museum curators and parties interested in starting a discourse about the progressive women’s movement.

Harris highlighted artists that were highly original in their work and not afraid to play their part in society, no matter what generation they were part of. Merian was a scientist, gaining recognition in a particularly male dominated field during the 17 century. African-American artists in the 1960s and early 2000s made strides by embodying black liberation and power in abstract ways.

“I don’t like abstract art, it isn’t something I would personally have in my home,” Harris said. “But when I look at this painting by Thomas, I think it would be the only exception to that.”




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