The Big Idea

The Other Art History: The Non-Western Women of Feminist Art

The Other Art History: The Non-Western Women of Feminist Art
Tomorrow Girls Troop. Image via Rafu Shimpo.

In this new monthly series, "The Other Art History," we bring you the Other artists who have largely been excluded from our understanding of movements throughout art history.

As International Women’s Day approaches, we've been thinking about the Feminist Art movement and how we might celebrate it—but also expand it to be more inclusive. For this edition of "The Other Art History," we're 're-writing' the history of Feminist Art to include artists who are postcolonial feminists. What exactly is postcolonial feminism you ask? Like much of history, feminism has largely been recounted by Euro-American voices, and postcolonial feminism—or global feminism, as it's sometimes refferred to—seeks to reconstruct this limited narrative to include the perspectives of people who are living in places that had been colonized and controlled, and thus are experiencing the legacy of oppression. But before we get into who these artists are and what they're all about, we'll give you a very brief break down of the history of feminism, and Feminist Art , for context.

Typically, feminism is discussed in waves. The first-wave began in the mid-19 th century with women’s suffrage movements that won women in the US the right to vote in 1920. This paved the way for the second wave, which is associated with the 1960s and '70s, when women combated issues of domesticity, feminine identity and notions of beauty, and equality in the workplace. According to the art history textbooks, Feminist Art started at this stage. Artists we repeatedly praise for creating canonical feminist artworks during this time include Judy Chicago ( The Dinner Party ), Miriam Schapiro ( Dollhouse ) or Cindy Sherman ( Untitled (Lucy) ). Later on—when the art world became slightly more "woke"—women of color were included in this mainstream artistic discourse. Artists like Carrie Mae Weems , Lorna Simpson , and Mickalene Thomas have been critically acclaimed for their work surrounding black female identity.

Mickalene Thomas, L'offre de fleur (2008)

But where is the list of avant-garde feminist artists from outside of this Western bubble, and why are they so rarely discussed? Feminism and women’s issues are discussed with such universal rhetoric, as if the Guerrilla Girls are protesting issues that apply to female artists globally. Postcolonial feminism reminds us that "equality" looks different for each woman, and can’t be discussed in terms of blanket Eurocentric issues. For example, the SlutWalk movement—where women proudly reclaim their sexuality and right to dress promiscuously—might not resonate to certain Muslim women who feel empowered through ritual modesty. As FEM Magazine puts it, “Postcolonial feminism embraces the potential for diverse, organic feminisms that seek to end the ramifications of sexism, racism, capitalism and imperialism in their totality. It reminds us the united front of ‘sisterhood’ is less in the spirit of feminism than are solidarity and awareness of the multitude of global experiences that comprise womanhood.” So now that we’re actually seeing the multifaceted, transnational, feminist big picture—let’s take a look at some fierce female artists creating work within this framework.


Rebellious Silence (1994). Image via Signs Journal. Rebellious Silence (1994). Image via Signs Journal.

Shirin Neshat was born and raised in Iran, and came to the U.S. in 1975 to study art. Lucky for her, this was around the time that the 1974 Iranian Revolution transpired, and Neshat got out just in time. In the mid-'90s she returned to her mother country for the first time, and was shocked by the radical transformation Iran had undergone while she was gone. The emotional visit resulted in a series of photographs titled "Women of Allah," which launched her career. The complex photo series juxtaposes imagery of both strength and inferiority, subverting the stereotypical depiction of Muslim women. For example, in the above photo, the veiled subject is armed and boldly staring at the viewer—while the written calligraphy invokes her silence and difficulty in having a voice under an Islamic fundamentalist regime. Further complicating the image is the fact that the text is poetry written by contemporary Iranian women about martyrdom and the role of women in the Revolution.

Contradicting the militant women who voluntarily sacrifice their lives for religion in Neshat’s first series, her 2012 series “The Book of Kings” depict young female activists risking their lives for a call to democracy. Her other works also explore issues of gender and female identity in contemporary Islamic culture. Neshat works in an array of mediums, but is best known for her photography. Since her first solo exhibition at Franklin Furnace in New York in 1993, Neshat has been featured in major solo shows including the Whitney Museum of American Art (1998), National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens (2001), and National Gallery of Iceland in Reykjavik (2008). Sadly, Neshat is banned from returning to Iran. She currently lives and works in New York.


Image via Dazed Magazine Image via Dazed Magazine

What’s cooler than fighting for equality of all sexualities and genders in East Asia? Doing it wearing a bunny mask. The social art collective known as Tomorrow Girls Troop wear rabbit masks to keep them anonymous—and subtly pay homage to the Guerrilla Girls . In an interview TGT told Dazed magazine, “The rabbit is smart but powerless, a lot of Japanese girls associate themselves with rabbits.” By wearing the masks while publicly combating sexism, the troop aims to reclaim the animal as a symbol of power. The group is made up of people of all genders and nationalities, and they are self-proclaimed fourth-wave feminists. Before you frantically scroll back through this article, wondering if you missed a wave, let me explain: Third-wave feminists emerged in the '90s, and sought to broaden feminism to include women of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, as well as reclaiming things previously identified with male oppression—like lipstick and high-heels. While third-wave strives to abolish this notion of “universal womanhood,” the fourth wave recognizes that oppression isn't universal. Instead, it takes an intersectional approach, meaning that fourth wave feminists factor in race, class, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation, and are inclusive of marginalized groups. They're also known for using technology and social media as a main form of resistance.

The troop focuses on gender issues in Japan and Korea, and in true fourth-wave feminist fashion, is based on the internet. According to the Global Gender Gap Index 2014 by the World Economic Forum, Korea and Japan are ranked last, and second-to-last in terms of women’s access to the economy, education, politics, and health—respective to other developed nations. TGT projects include the Wing Masks, which were part of the “Believe—I know it” campaign that highlighted devastating issues of sexual violence in Japan. They also protested a 2015 feature article in the monthly women’s fashion magazine ViVi titled “Be a Professional Girlfriend If You Can” through their parody series “Be a Happy Girlfriend If You Can.” We can’t wait to see what they do next!


From "Black Candy (iforgotmypenisathome)" (2010). Image via BOMB. From "Black Candy (iforgotmypenisathome)" (2010). Image via BOMB.

Artistically, Mithu Sen is a true Renaissance woman, impossible to categorize. Working in a never-ending variety of mediums, she actively avoids classification as a way to protest the domineering art market. (By defying a singular narrative, the art market cannot pressure her into creating works to fulfill supply and demand.) Sen was born in West Bengal, and currently lives and works in New Delhi. As an Indian artist, Sen is all too familiar with the expectation to create “Indian” art. For a group show in 2011 at the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Poland (titled “Generation in Transition: New Art from India”) Sen felt pressured by curators to play to the audience's expectation of cliché "Indian-ness." She decided to use the Taj Mahal as her subject, "a symbol of Indian architectural and cultural master, a symbol of love and identity," according to the artist. Sen drew fragments of the Taj Mahal in different parts of the gallery "to question the issue of cultural identity and exoticism"—the iconic structure was unrecognizable. The artist also handed out bits of marble as souvenirs during the exhibition as a critique of the idea that national identity can be branded.

Sen is constantly “un-doing” aspects of her identity through art, evident in her Unbelonging Series from the early 2000s and her current solo show UnMYthU at Chemould Prescott Road gallery in Mumbai. It’s not surprising that Sen doesn’t want to be labeled as a “feminist artist” although her work addresses issues of desire, sexuality, the body, and Indian womanhood in contemporary society. Regarding feminism, Sen told BOMB magazine, “I respect the legacy of feminist struggle that I have inherited. Feminism has a very personal definition to me. It is not an alternate or codified system. It is a way of life, to be able to make choices on our own, loving and respecting the self. It is crafting one’s own personal and immediate relationship to the world.”


Fear (2004). Image via Brooklyn Museum. Fear (2004). Image via Brooklyn Museum.

The French-Cree, Shoshone, Salish, New Mexican artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith makes art (mostly mixed media paintings and drawings) that repositions Native American culture within contemporary American life. Since the mid-1970s Smith has been a tireless activist for Native women artists. In a statement to the Brooklyn Museum, Smith describes her experience as a female artist: “My first year at a community college, the professor told me even though I could draw better than the men students, that a woman could not be an artist… In the mid-1970s in Santa Fe, I found that only Native men were able to exhibit in the galleries. I set about organizing Indian women to move out of the trading posts and into galleries and museums.” For over 30 years Smith has continued to give a voice to Native women, through her art and numerous exhibitions she’s curated. Today, Smith is one of the most acclaimed American Indian artists—she has been reviewed in all major art periodicals, has had over 90 solo exhibitions, and has lectured at over 185 universities, museums, and conferences internationally.


From the series La servidumbre (Servitude), 1978-1979. Image via the artist. From the series La servidumbre (Servitude), 1978-1979. Image via the artist.

If a photographer could ever truly capture the essence of a culture and period, it’s Panamanian photographer Sandra Eleta. Her documentary portraits during the ‘70s and ‘80s made some of the most significant socio-cultural commentary, as Eleta made visible with her camera lens Panamanian women who were largely ignored— like domestic workers and female farmers. The impact of U.S. colonialism on Panama is also evident in her work, as the Canal Zone where she photographed only welcomed Panamanians who were service workers. The above photo— from her Servitude series— was taken during the U.S. invasion of Panama, and as a means of self-defense the subject, Romi, grabbed a hunting rifle. Eleta describes the intensity she saw in Romi when she grasped the weapon— “As I photographed her, I remember thinking: Honestly, who would she really like to shoot?” Evidently, Eleta made a great effort to understand her subjects, who were often women, attempting to get inside their heads and see things from their point of view. She would befriend her subjects, living among them for months, gaining their trust and digging deep into their personal lives. The intense relationship Eleta had with each subject allowed her to capture them at their most vulnerable moments. As a result, their honest and complex selves are revealed in the image. Her work is important as it spotlighted the intricate and rich lives of a group of women largely overlooked. Today, her photographs still resonate, as they spark dialogues surrounding contemporary female migrant workers and domestic servants who continue to be excluded from certain social arenas.


Representation (2014). Image via the artist. Representation (2014). Image via the artist.

Alex Mawimbi (previously known as Ato Malinda) is one of the few Kenyan female artists who has gained widespread global recognition—exhibiting in countries from Germany and Denmark to Cameroon. In 2016 she was named a rising artist by The Wall Street Journal . Born in Kenya, Mawimbi has lived in Nairobi, Amsterdam, and the U.S., contributing to her transnational identity. Much of her works examine post-colonial politics in Africa, specifically in relation to queerness and gender identity. For example, Mshoga Mpya (2014)—which translates into The New Gay in Kiswahili—is a response to the outlawing of homosexuality in Kenya. In the above work Representation (2014) , Mawimbi reminds viewers that the rainbow flag, a symbol of pride for the LGBTQ community in the West, is difficult for her to identify with because of the illegality and stigma of homosexuality in Kenya. The flag doesn't offer her the same security and protection as others. In another piece, a 2013 two-channel video Mourning A Living Man shows two performers toggling between roles—father, wife, adult lesbian, child—to paint a picture of dysfunctional domesticity, tainted by miscommunication, incest, and adultery.


The Boss Lady's Chair (2017). Image via Galerie Seippel. The Boss Lady's Chair (2017). Image via Galerie Seippel.

Female Australian Aboriginal artists weren't even recognized by the global art scene until around the year 2000—when artists Emily Kam Kngwarray, Yvonne Koolmatrie, and Judy Watson attended the Venice Biennale. Clearly, Indigenous women were making art long before then, considering they're part of one of the oldest living cultures on the planet. While traditional Aboriginal art is often abstract, colorful dot painting, artist Julie Dowling works in a social realist style that draws on the dot painting tradition, but also includes Christian iconography and European portraiture practice—resulting in a truly unique artistic style.

Much of her art speaks to issues of gender and identity within both the Aboriginal, and larger Australian community. For example, a powerful work titled Goodbye Whitefella Religion (1992) depicts the historic Bathurst Island mission, where priests allegedly sexually abused Aboriginal children in the '90s. In a recent work, The Boss Lady’s Chair (2017), Dowling appropriated an image of an unknown teenage girl who was a member of the Stolen Generation (a generation of mixed-race children who were forcibly taken from their families by Australian government agencies and church missions between 1905 and at late as 1970).


Sarong Roots (2012), dress installation and performance. The dress Ali created was stitche Sarong Roots (2012), dress installation and performance. The dress Ali created was stitched together from sarongs she collected from her family members in Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia during her travels from 2003-2007. Image via Java Arts.

Born a first generation Muslim Khmer woman in Cambodia, Anida Yoeu Ali fled with her family at age five to Chicago, where she was raised. Almost 30 years later, Ali returned to Cambodia to study transnational identity in Phnom Penh as part of her Fulbright Fellowship. This research is quite evident in much of her art—most notably in her critically acclaimed performance piece I was born with Two Tongues (1998-2003), which is now archived with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. Another performance piece, 16 Minutes (2014), which Ali created during her FT5 Residency in Fukuoka, Japan, tackles gender inequality. For the piece, Ali held an open studio where she held conversations with women about motherhood in Japan. Many mothers vented about the places in Fukuoka where they feel unwelcome when traveling with their children—like subway stations, restaurants, and museums or galleries. In response, the artist staged a series of public interventions that they documented through photography and video. Each intervention lasted 16 minutes—a reference to the average length of time Japanese fathers spend with their children per day (as of 2014). Ali continues to work in Phnom Penh today, where she’s a founding partner of the independent artist collective Studio Revolt.


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