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Culture

4 women striving for equality in art, film, writing and music

Representation of women in the arts has advanced in recent years, but there is still a long way to go – just look at the lack of female nominees during 2020’s awards season. KATIE BERRINGTON speaks to four women breaking down barriers and using their creativity as a tool for change

Lifestyle
Katy Hessel

Katy Hessel, curator and art historian

Founder of The Great Women Artists – the Instagram account and podcast celebrating female-made art – Katy Hessel works to improve representation of women from all backgrounds in the art world. “Although there might be more and more female-artist exhibitions, we need to make sure museums are preserving women’s work for future generations,” she says, highlighting that less than one percent of the work held in the collection of the National Gallery in London is made by women.

On Instagram (@thegreatwomenartists), Hessel spotlights the works of female artists – from recent graduates to Old Masters – while the podcast of the same name features interviews with these creatives about their careers. While she believes that we can all do our bit in making progress happen, ultimately change “has to come from those in power”, she asserts.

“Change from the top down means that education, whether at university level or school, needs to have an equal-gendered syllabus. That applies to everything: English, philosophy, science,” says Hessel. “Let’s celebrate our differences and show future generations how to live in a balanced society.”

Change from the top down means that education, whether at university level or school, needs to have an equal-gendered syllabus

There have been recent improvements on the arts scene: Hessel believes the fact that three out of four of the Tate Gallery’s directors are now women will change its program and collection “enormously”. She has also noticed “a real change in consciousness” of women in art, including last year’s Serpentine Galleries’ dedicated year-long program of female artists and the Baltimore Museum of Art’s decision to collect art by women only in 2020.

Those wishing to break the barriers in art should “see as many shows as you can and research every artist on gallery websites,” she says. “For those entering the art world, speak to artists, get to know your generation, read and write for any arts publication you can to broaden your knowledge. For both artists and budding curators, use any space possible to put on shows. Be kind, helpful, enthusiastic, authentic, un-elitist and open to any opportunity.”

Haifaa al-Mansour

Haifaa al-Mansour, filmmaker

As the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia, Haifaa al-Mansour is “less concerned about being a pioneer, and more concerned about laying the groundwork for future filmmakers from my country,” she says. When she made her first feature, Wadjda, al-Mansour wanted it to be an “inspiring film not about how women in Saudi Arabia are victims, but how they can be leaders of change.”

There is a lack of infrastructure and some serious logistical challenges for those making movies in Saudi Arabia, all of which is compounded by gender segregation. While “there is still a skepticism about women in positions of leadership,” al-Mansour believes that on-the-ground changes are coming in the form of awareness and acknowledgement of the issues women face.

Across the global film industry, al-Mansour thinks this will “result in more opportunities for women, as producers now understand that they will be held accountable for productions that are not seen as inclusive.” This is bolstered by the box office “showing the successful results of giving women the opportunities to tell their own stories with strong, authentic voices,” she says. “The old paradigms that said female stories or protagonists wouldn’t find an audience have been proven false.”

The filmmaker feels “optimistic that the new generation of female filmmakers will come into the industry with the understanding that their voices not only matter, but that there are audiences out there eager to hear from them.” Speaking of her own experience, she says she has always tried to live by one rule: “Don’t just accept the limitations that anyone assumes you will be willing to take.”

Referencing long-awaited changes now taking place in Saudi Arabia and her desire to celebrate the country’s strong cultural legacy, al-Mansour says that “film is the best way to create both a dialog about these changes and a narrative that gives [them] context and accessibility.”

“I want to stress to the women of Saudi Arabia how important it is to go out there and take a chance, even if you don’t have any experience in doing so. It is still hard for Saudi women to put themselves out there,” she says. As for women working across the film industry, she recognizes that “it is still a very slow, difficult battle, and the opportunities are still few and far between, but it is up to us to push ahead and find them”.

Haifaa al-Mansour’s latest film, The Perfect Candidate, is released in the UK on March 27

Theresa Lola, poet and writer

Theresa Lola, the Young People’s Laureate for London, believes in the power of poetry to explore voices and stories on a personal level, and to push forward change on a societal scale. “Poetry allows us to articulate intense and complicated feelings into words,” she determines. “Poetry makes language sound new, which makes the call for change sound new. We, the audience, are curious to remain engaged with what we are being shown, making poetry a powerful tool.”

Despite this, female voices are often not raised up and heard, and when they are, it is easy for them to be misrepresented. “It is still viewed as shock value when women choose to push against the suppression of their experiences and center them instead,” believes Lola. “Women who write about women should not have to apologize or be patronizingly described as ranting.”

Lola teaches workshops for young women, offering them “the opportunity to use poetry as their microphone.” Recently she traveled to Abuja in her native Nigeria with the charity Save the Children, where writing sessions covered themes such as conflict and gender inequality. Not only are young women the biggest consumers of poetry, says Lola, but “they are also bravely telling and creating their own stories. It has been refreshing and inspiring to see the wave of women receiving recognition for their bold work and changing the lives of a new, varied and diverse audience.”

The advice she would offer to women embarking on a career in the creative arts now is to “not be afraid to knock on, or kick down, the doors you wish to enter.”

Theresa Lola
Only 14 percent of writers currently signed to UK music publishers are women
Vick Bain

Vick Bain, campaigner and consultant for #womeninmusic

Calling for equality and diversity across the music industry, Vick Bain has conducted research identifying 12 barriers faced by women working in it – from the motherhood penalty and the gender pay gap to sexism, harassment and unconscious bias.

“The result is that only 14 percent of writers currently signed to UK music publishers, and only 20 percent of those signed to UK music labels, are women,” she explains. “This is far lower than most people will imagine, but it is the reality for women working in music.”

Shining a light on the challenges and inequalities, Bain uses her platform within the industry to campaign for greater change (including touring universities and institutions to enable discussions around women in music) and to call on those in positions of power to sign more female musicians and composers, to support female-positive initiatives and to conduct audits of staff and rosters.

While it is an improvement to witness these statistics now being talked about – “as seen in the conversations around the diversity of the major award ceremonies and festival line-ups” – they still show an industry “that has yet to take women in music seriously”, Bain believes.

Aspiring artists should sign up for mentoring schemes that are available and join women in music organizations (such as shesaid.so, Girls I Rate and The Bechdel Sound Test), as well as applying for funding and grants, she says. Most importantly, everybody working across the industry should “know your rights and make the change” in driving progress forward.

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