Artworks London: To begin could you tell us a bit about how you came to start your account, @thegreatwomenartists? And what you were hoping to achieve with it?
Katy Hessel: I started @thegreatwomenartists after visiting an art fair in October 2015, when I realised that I hadn’t seen an artwork by a female artist. I was simultaneously shocked and also embarrassed that I wasn’t really able to name more than twenty women artists off the top of my head at that time, so I set myself the challenge of finding out about a new woman artist every day. I had also just finished University where I had studied and written about Alice Neel's place as a woman working throughout the 20th century.
Named in reaction to Linda Nochlin’s infamous essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, what I try to achieve with my site is writing about female artists in a fun, easily accessible manner. I want people who know nothing about art to follow my Instagram as well as PHD-level art scholars, and make it a destination where people can learn about brilliant artists that they may have never known about before that can also be easily interwoven into their daily feed.
AL: We’re interested in your particular use of Instagram as a publishing platform. As you use Instagram as your chosen platform and also work with women who have used it to launch their careers, can we ask what it offers that is unique and advantageous?
KH: Just looking at the Guerrilla Girls’ statistics highlights the massive imbalance in male and female artists in major US and European institutions. 3 - 5% of artworks in these major U.S. and European institutions are by women, and in London’s National Gallery less than 20 out of their 2,300+ works are by women. Instagram is a site that offers no prejudices - you can even hide your identity if you choose - meaning that everyone has a level playing field when using the app as a platform to showcase their works. All galleries and many of the biggest names in the art world are on Instagram, therefore you can use it as a portfolio to showcase and present your work that could potentially lead to further opportunities. As a writer/curator it has also allowed me to write for publications I might never have been able to write for before.
AL: Leading on from our previous question, we also wonder how you feel about some of Instagram’s censorship policies. Their policy banning the portrayal of women’s nipples, comes to mind as an example. Do you find these policies are limiting?
KH: Of course, but then there is also a reason for this. The censorship policy is limiting as it doesn’t allow artists to upload works that focus on the female gaze or works of the body that are desexualised. Many artists work with their bodies, so it’s extremely frustrating that they can’t just be appreciated as artworks. One of my favourite artists to follow is Betty Tompkins, whose art often depicts female genitalia, and I’m often seeing that her art is being reported. It’s very unfair. However, on the other hand, the censorship policies save a lot of objectifying work and images from going up.
AL: How do you decide which artists to work with?
KH: It’s interesting, since I started over two years ago I feel as though I am developing a certain taste for art. I get very easily drawn to particular artists and artworks and instantly know that I want their work to be put out to the masses. It’s also brilliant, as they are often London-based, I will contact them and develop a relationship with them. I know full well that Instagram is purely an artistic platform and that works displayed on the site are not the real artwork itself, hence my recent exhibition’s aim of physically presenting art that is popular online.
AL: We’d like to congratulate you on your recent exhibition at Mother London which highlighted the work of 15 women who primarily used Instagram to launch their careers. What were you hoping to address with this show?
KH: Thank you so much! To show that women can be any age, background and use completely different artistic mediums for their work and still be able to use Instagram as a platform for their work. Also, as mentioned, I often meet with artists in real life after connecting with them online. Inevitably seeing their work in real life completely transforms the way you would see it when they essentially immortalise the work into a fleeting digital image on a smartphone. All artworks are designed and created for people to interact with, and I was shocked that despite having a huge following some of the artists had never exhibited in real life. People are hungry for these artists’ work and they deserved to be seen.
AL: Was it exciting to exhibit the physical works which you had previously reproduced digitally? And how do you feel about the relationship between digital reproduction and physical work?
KH: Definitely exciting. We are in an age where it isn’t just grads or younger artists using the app as a platform, Cindy Sherman experiments with it, as does Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei. Amalia Ulman made a name for herself using Instagram and many more artists are doing the same. It has become a genuine destination for artists of all kinds to exhibit their work. As mentioned, I had met up with all the artists before and the reason for putting on the show was because I thought they deserved to be seen, especially amongst other artists who often exhibit online.
AL: How did you find the public response to the exhibition?
KH: Really good - over 800 people came to the opening night and there were queues round the block! It’s not as though there have never been female artists, but now is a time when people really want to explore the work of artists who before may have been shunned away. It was a very exciting night.
AL: What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned through working on the account?
KH: Having access to all these brilliant artists who I have met along the way and giving artists who I strongly believe are the voices of this technological age a platform to showcase their work.
AL: What’s next for The Great Women Artists?
KH: I would love to put on another Women on Instagram show, but on a bigger scale and with sculptures and ceramics too and make the exhibition more immersive. I also have ideas to put on exhibitions that exhibit women in a different light to any show before by working in interesting spaces. I have lots of ideas, so I am really hoping they will all happen. Always discovering new artists is an ongoing aim as is the promotion and engagement with as many as people as possible for the blog and the shows.
AL: Finally, we love to hear what people are engaging with. Have you seen any particularly great exhibitions recently?
KH: I have just returned from an art-filled trip to NYC where I was completely blown away by Toyin Ojih Odutola at The Whitney and Cecily Brown at Paula Cooper. There were so many brilliant exhibitions such as Nina Chanel Abney at Mary Boone Gallery, Laura Owens at The Whitney, Rita McBride at DIA, but I also visited the artist Naudline Pierre (@cluvie) who I have been a huge fan of for ages, and she is definitely someone to watch. It was really brilliant to be able to finally see her work in real life. As for London, I have just discovered the work of Flora Yukhnovich, a recent City and Guilds MA grad who currently has a really brilliant show on at Brocket Gallery. Also, anyone looking to discover more female artists should check out every artist who exhibited in The Great Women Artists: Women on Instagram show, as they are all particularly brilliant!