fbpx
Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

Art Activist Barbie, When Playful Protests Indicate Gender Inequality in Art

"Refuse to be the Muse!", @BarbieReports.
ArtActivist Barbie. Image from the project’s Twitter account.

Art State of Mind

Art Activist Barbie, When Playful Protests Indicate Gender Inequality in Art

Art Activist Barbie has been showing up in museums and galleries for over three years, criticizing the male-dominated art world. Holding a lollipop stick, Art Activist Barbie uses small signs to ask big questions in fabulous outfits. That is actually her mantra. But who is she and how did this initiative begin? How did Barbie, a symbol of stereotypical beauty and capitalism, become a feminist and activist?

Who is Art Activist Barbie?

The person behind her is Sarah Williamson, a senior lecturer in education and professional development at the University of Huddersfield, in the UK. A few years ago, Williamson was trying to come up with ideas to engage her students with social justice matters. Specifically, she wanted to address the troublesome way in which women have been represented in art.

So, in 2018 she came up with the idea. She took a bunch of students to the local art gallery and gave each of them a Barbie doll. Their task was to intervene in the gallery by posing their doll with commentary on a placard. The feedback was very positive. Thus, Williamson realized she found the perfect way to engage people in gender politics. And so, Art Activist Barbie was born.

''ArtActivistBarbie is having to remind society of the reality of absence in many major galleries. The ‘very absence’ of female artists.'' @BarbieReports.
ArtActivist Barbie. Image from the project’s Twitter account.

But Why Barbie?

Barbie has been long criticized for her non-realistic looks. She is a symbol of unattainable western beauty standards that women are expected to fulfill; another means of female oppression. It was exactly this controversy that Williamson wanted to exploit. So, she reinvented Barbie: from a plastic bimbo, she became a feminist activist. Williamson uses the doll’s popularity to draw attention to gender inequality in art galleries and institutions.

Art Activist Barbie’s outfits are also an important part of her cause. She wears handmade clothes from the 1970s that Williamson’s mother created. Nowadays, her older sister sews them. The concept is that one can be both stylish and a feminist. It reminds me of what Roxane Gay stated in her book Bad Feminist. Besides, one of the things that feminism stands for is self-determination. It shakes off conscious and unconscious patriarchal beliefs in all shapes and forms. In this case, one should be free to dress however they want without being excluded from a group or a cause because of it.

Art Activist Barbie. 'Mutti : the greatest supporter of AAB’s campaign and maker of the fabulous AAB vintage wardrobe. The coat worn in this, AAB’s banner photograph, was made by Mutti in the 1970s.' @BarbieReports.
ArtActivist Barbie. Image from the project’s Twitter account.

Thus Barbie puts on her couture and takes on the art world. All the dolls are curated in such a way to reverberate the artworks. Sometimes they do so in a mocking way. Other times, they celebrate positive female representation. Barbie became a thinker, a woman that stands for feminism.

Art Activist Barbie in Art Galleries and Museums

In the 1970s, Linda Nochlin wrote her famous essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists. According to some, it is the first major work of feminist history. The essay explains the reasons why female artists of the past couldn’t work or gain recognition in their profession due to the lack of art history education. Then, in the 1980s, the Guerilla Girls used clever short messages on huge billboards to highlight white, male, and Eurocentric art history.

Yet decades later, the problem still persists. Galleries and museums are supposed to be neutral. They are not the typical place for political or social protest. However, Art Activist Barbie has proved the exact opposite. Through her Twitter account, BarbieReports, she visits galleries and museums and points out that they are everything but neutral. Their displays are full of works commissioned, produced, and collected by men. Therefore, they represent centuries of male power.

Female Representation

Artworks depict women from a male gaze, objectified. As Williamson states:

“Silently beautiful muses with no name…bathing or charmingly engaged in the joys of domestic, reading, and sewing […] fashionable and beautiful trophies of society and marriage and examples of motherhood.”

Sarah Williamson, Meet ArtActivistBarbie, the fearless funny feminist taking on a white male art worldThe Conversation, 2020.

However, the false representation of women is not the only issue. There is gigantic gender inequality in the art world. For example, black people are shown (if they are shown) mostly as slaves and in humiliating depictions. Let’s not even talk about the representation of black artists in galleries. That’s dismal. The thing is that museums and galleries, especially those with historical collections, show a male-dominated view of the world. That is, artworks that are considered historically the most important, are also the ones that present the male perspective.

Art Activist Barbie. ''Shocking. In #Tate’s #BritishBaroque exhibition, dogs & black slave children in silver collars surround a white female aristocrat. Dehumanising. Degrading. Disturbing.''
@BarbieReports.
ArtActivist Barbie. Image from the project’s Twitter account.
"Another visual disruption... making people think about what they see. And don’t see...", @BarbieReports.
ArtActivist Barbie. Image from the project’s Twitter account.

Art Activist Barbie acknowledges the influential role that these places have in the shaping of a society’s identity. So, she tries to make them have more balance “by reflecting the lives and experience of women, ethnic minorities, and other under-represented groups”. Nevertheless, she doesn’t miss a chance to pay her respects or show her enthusiasm when she finally comes across a female artist.

"Just thrilled to see this by Artemisia Gentileschi", @BarbieReports.
ArtActivist Barbie. Image from the project’s Twitter account.

The Reactions

The overall reactions to Art Activist Barbie are positive and encouraging. Many spot her in a crowded room and take photos. Viewers are delighted by the feminist messages, and the discussion of gender issues not only in art, but in society in general. Complete strangers start talking to each other about the artworks. However, there are also those who are shocked by the placards. As for the staff, sometimes the observe approvingly, sometimes they call security.

Art Activist Barbie. ''Let's get back to the Patriarchal Palace of Painting, aka #NationalGallery #London''. @BarbieReports.
ArtActivist Barbie. Image from the project’s Twitter account.
Art Activist Barbie's placard. Detail. @BarbieReports.
ArtActivist Barbie. Image from the project’s Twitter account. Detail.

The art world has interesting reactions too. In 2019, the National Gallery in London promised to change its perspective. In May, they created the initiative Curator: Missing Narratives of Women. They also asked Art Activist Barbie to guest curate an exhibition in North England. In April 2019, Waldemar Januszak apologized for not showing enough women artists in his Sunday Times History of Art.

“The voices are growing and big institutions are realizing they can no longer blame history, It’s time to redress the balance. Stylishly, of course.”

Sarah Williamson, Meet ArtActivistBarbie, the fearless funny feminist taking on a white male art world, The Conversation, 2020.

Art Activist Barbie During COVID

Nowadays, Art Activist Barbie stays inside due to the lockdown measures. However, she continues her work online: she shares archives, re-contextualizes herself in alternative settings. Moreover, she celebrates other forgotten leading women, such as geologist Mary Annings. She also comments on relevant news. For example, she congratulated Kamala Harris for her election as the new American Vice-President.

'Statues are in the news again, but please note, civic statues are nearly always of men, yes indeedy. As @helenpidd
reports, the UK is estimated to have ONLY 25 public statues of women who are not queens or princesses.' @BarbieReports.
ArtActivist Barbie. Image from the project’s Twitter account.
Art Activist Barbie. “You voted for hope, unity, decency, science, and truth” #KamalaHarris @KamalaHarris. @BarbieReports.
ArtActivist Barbie. Image from the project’s Twitter account.

Read more about activism and gender inequality in art:

Errika has a master’s degree in Modern and Contemporary History and dreams of becoming a curator. She writes articles about modern and contemporary art, fashion, and cinema. In her free time, she sculpts and paints miniatures and reads books.

Comments

More in Art State of Mind

  • 21st century

    London Mall Galleries: An Interview on Covid-19 and Reopening

    By

    The evening of the 4th January united the residents of the UK once again. Everyone’s attention was focused on the third national lockdown announcement that came from the prime minister. With the order of stay-at-home, art galleries once again had to close their physical spaces where...

  • 21st century

    The Landscape Paintings of Maki Na Kamura

    By

    My first encounter with Maki Na Kamura‘s art left me perplexed with what exactly the German-based, Japanese artist was intending to show her viewers in her paintings. Although I was confused by the subject matter of her paintings, her cosmopolitan color palette and spontaneity of her...

  • 21st century

    Paula Rego and Other Strong Women

    By

    A couple of years ago, I wrote a very short article about Paula Rego’s fairy tale-like works. Yet, only recently I found out that we were born in the same month just a few days apart, which makes her somehow special to me. As she turned...

  • Javier Pérez, Carroña, 2011, Murano glass, stuffed crows, Corning Museum of Glass, New York, USA. Javier Pérez, Carroña, 2011, Murano glass, stuffed crows, Corning Museum of Glass, New York, USA.

    21st century

    Celebrating Beauty and Horror: The Sculptures of Javier Pérez

    By

    Javier Pérez is a postwar contemporary multimedia artist. He does performance art, photography, and sculpture. His ideas move in a circular motive, reflecting on mortality, light, and darkness, metamorphosis, stability and fragility. Specifically, his sculptures are quite haunting and morbid. Beauty and horror are concepts that...

  • 21st century

    Lace on the Wall – NeSpoon’s Street Art

    By

    NeSpoon is a street artist who combines ceramics, lace, and graffiti in her work. She travels the world and decorates old buildings or run-down street corners with her characteristic crochet-patterned murals and pottery panels. But what does NeSpoon‘s street art have to do with The Matrix?...

To Top