XXY in Conversation: Katy Hessel, Founder of The Great Women Artists

XXY in Conversation: Katy Hessel, Founder of The Great Women Artists

Katy Hessel started @thegreatwomenartists in 2015 and in two short years has amassed a loyal 10k following of keen art fanatics, feminists and intrepid art explorers.  Katy originally created the account upon visiting Frieze masters and noticing the lack of female artists represented in the massive art fair. Named after the iconic and groundbreaking 1971 essay by (the late, great) Linda Nochlin, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Katy picks up where Nochlin and the Guerilla Girls left off – continuing the cause and translating it into a visually edifying cyber gallery, which is palatable for our social-media driven era – providing a ‘daily dose’ of female art.

This week, Katy is presenting her first self-curated exhibition at Mother London, ‘The Great Women Artists: Women on Instagram’ made up of artists she has found and connected with via Instagram. We caught up on the eve of her opening to talk about how social media is affecting the art market, sisterhood and female camaraderie, and who she believes to be the current rising female talent in the art world.

Charlie Siddick: Do you think the art market is becoming more accepting of female talent?

Katy Hessel: If you look at auction prices, female artists are still undervalued in comparison to men, but part of the problem is education and the way in which the story of Art History was originally written. There are only a few female artists who really succeeded in achieving great critical acclaim and financial success. Feminism and representation are common topics in public discourse today, but still, the way in which group exhibitions are curated; men are clearly favoured. So part of it is about educating people that great women artists have always existed but more importantly – achieving visibility for the current female artistic talent practicing today.

Image by Dolly Brown

CS: What made you decide that now was the time for you to present an exhibition?

KH: Since starting the Instagram account two years ago I have connected and communicated with a wide variety of female artists. It seemed to make sense to expand the project from something 2-D on a screen into a physical exhibition. Seeing these works in an exhibition space will give the viewer a greater understanding of the technical processes involved and also some of the works are massive, compressing them onto a tiny screen doesn’t always do the art justice.

CS: Do you think Instagram is a legitimate platform for the arts?

KH: Absolutely; some of the world’s biggest artists (Ai Weiwei, etc) now have a huge online presence. I think to ignore the power of social media would be to ignore a major facet of modern life, and therefore artists use Instagram to participate in this mode of the digital age. The format of Instagram lends itself to the art world; visually the layout echoes a physical gallery space, making art easily consumable. Social media gives artists from disparate parts of the world the opportunity to be visible and represented in the art sphere, which historically has been seen to be elitist and non-inclusive – so in a way, Instagram is functioning to make the art world more democratic.

CS: What would you say to critics who argue that presenting artists in isolation with their gender, or perhaps race, is limiting rather than inclusive?

KH: I think that, due to the historic lack of representation for female artists over the centuries, the art world still needs to play catch up and therefore they are deserving of a separate space to bridge this gap. I think it’s dangerous when galleries try and group female artists as having ‘female themes.’ What I’ve tried to show in this exhibition is the diversity in subject matter, technique and visual codes explored by the artists. Yes, it’s all art created by women, but each artist has their own clear and unique voice and intention. It’s exciting because historically, female artists tend to garner success and appreciation retrospectively – after they’ve passed – but all of the artists here are at the beginning of their career; it’s really exciting to be present and a part of their journey.

Image by Alice Aedy

CS: What have you learned during the process of organising the exhibition?

KH: Practically, I’ve learnt the physical processes involved in curating an exhibition, deciding on the hang etc. I have a degree in Art History and currently work in marketing in a gallery, so I’ve translated some of that knowledge and skills. But most of all, I’ve been struck by the supportive nature of women, there’s been no competitiveness or bitchiness, just mutual admiration; watching this female network develop and grow is really beautiful to behold.

CS: Tell us a bit about the artists in your exhibition and why we should be following them on Instagram?   

KH: Juno Calypso (@junocalypso) and Maisie Cousins’ (@maisiecousins) photographs address the extreme sides of femininity, from Calypso’s highly stylised pictures depicting the effect of physical consumption on women to Cousins’ refreshingly real take on femininity with her almost erotic close-up imagery of female flesh, flowers and fruit. Alice Aedy’s (@aliceaedy) photojournalistic-style portraits document the women she meets in Iran and Somaliland.

Alice Joiner’s (@alicejoiner) intimate portraits explore women growing into their own body and sexuality. The phenomenal success of Unskilled Worker’s (@unskilledworker) paintings (having recently collaborated with Gucci) is due to her unabashedly beautiful, meticulously detailed and expressive take on portraiture.

Button Fruit (@buttonfruit) uses fleshy tones and expression in her small, animated portraits. Antonia Showering’s (@antoniashowering) texturally rich and layered paintings of people, and the classically-trained form and line that informs Kate Dunn (@bellissi.mama) and Venetia Berry’s (@venetiaberryart) studies of the body.

Alice Skinner (@whothefuckisalice) interweaves art historical context into her modern-day and politically driven digital artworks, while Charlotte Edey’s (@edey_) illustrations explore the nuances and hypocrisies of casual blame in the historical tapestry medium.

Fee Greening (@feegreening) creates modern-day icon images, playing on religious iconography and traditional printing techniques but updated with current and relevant role models for our modern times.  

‘The Great Women Artists: Women on Instagram’ opens Thursday 16th November with a private view from 6.30-10PM

Written by Charlie Siddick


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Images by:

Right Column: Dolly Brown, Alice Aedy Left Column: Manjit Thapp, Juno Calypso, Alice Skinner, Antonia Showering, The Great Women Artists, Venetia Berry, and Alice Joiner. Header image by Unskilled Worker.

Image by Manjit Thapp

Image by Juno Calypso

Image by Alice Skinner

Image by Antonia Showering

Image by The Great Women Artists

Image by Venetia Berry

Image by Alice Joiner