5 Woman Artivists Breaking Biases
by Anjali Seegobin (ARTE Intern)
Although Women’s History Month has passed, we continue to reflect on the contributions of women-identifying artists who have significantly amplified women's rights. About the 2022 WHM month theme, #BreakTheBias, the United Nations says that, “Whether deliberate or unconscious, bias makes it difficult for women to move ahead. Knowing that bias exists isn’t enough, action is needed to level the playing field.” The violation of women's rights goes against Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The harmful biases enacted against women violate their right to equality while suppressing their freedom. It's important to dismantle these biases that contribute to the oppression of women and minimize their collective power. Through their artistic practices, the following artists uncover and challenge biases that disenfranchise women in their daily lives, workplace and homes.
Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya (she/her is a multidisciplinary artist, activist, and educator based in Brooklyn, New York. Phingbodhipakkiya’s art was widely distributed throughout the streets and subways of New York City in 2020 in an effort to denounce anti-Asian hate crimes. Her powerful art showcases illustrations of the Asian-American women who remain vulnerable to these crimes. The campaign vocalized messages like, “This Is Our Home Too, I Am Not Your Scapegoat,” which aimed to dismantle biases against the Asian American community during the pandemic.
Her art also focuses on empowering women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields and ending biases that prevent women from succeeding in their careers. Her design project, Beyond Curie, highlights groundbreaking women in STEM who have progressed humankind with their discoveries. Phingbodhipakkiya currently serves as a public artist in residence for the New York City Commission on Human Rights.
Gisela McDaniel (she/her) is an Indigenous Chamorro artist whose anti-colonial artwork highlights the healing and sexual trauma of women and non-binary people. Biases that surmount against women create environments where gender-based violence is present. This includes biases around what women should wear, which is rooted in the objectification of their bodies and results in experiences of sexual harassment. Through McDaniel's art, she aims to end the objectification of women's bodies and amplify the voices of survivors. She hopes that her art cultivates spaces for healing and conversation around trauma.
In her most recent exhibit, Manhaga Fu’una, McDaniel focuses on the relationship between the artist and femme-bodied sitters (sitter: individual subjects in portraits), in a western colonial context. These hierarchical dynamics, that of the maker and subject, translate the suppression of autonomy experienced by female-bodied sitters. This hierarchical dilemma has been created in the past by artists like Picasso or Gaugin. However, in her large-scale mixed media portraits, she focuses on transforming this relationship into that of safety and empowerment for women.
Baltimore-based painter Amy Sherald’s (she/her) art focuses on issues of race, womanism and colorism. One of Sherald’s exhibits, Womanist is to Feminist as Purple is to Lavender, includes five, small-scale portraits of Black women enjoying rest and leisure. Her figures have gray skin tones, which allows the viewer to look beyond race. Her art also considers the concept of “womanism,” a branch of feminism that focuses on the experiences of women of color without the saturation of white narratives associated with feminism. From this intersectional perspective, she depicts confident Black women rightfully taking up space.
In a powerful depiction, Sherald breaks biases against Black women and encourages joyful rest by placing them at the center of the “American story,” from which Black men and women have often been excluded. In her latest exhibit, The Great American Fact, Sherald celebrates Black bodies at rest and reveals her subjects' entire humanity. She counters biases that Black individuals are only associated with societal issues and instead shows that simple leisure is an equally powerful act of resistance.
As a first-generation Canadian from a traditional South Asian family, Maria Qamar’s (she/her) art focuses on breaking stereotypes associated with Brown women. Her art fuses influences from Roy Lichenstein’s art with Desi culture. She touches upon themes of classism, patriarchy, body shaming and gender roles in the household. One of her pieces features a saying, “I don’t want to Shaadi (marry), I just want to party.” This verse examines the pressure by society on women to get married and empowers a message of resilience.
Her other art pieces feature sayings like, “What would society say? Your daughter’s getting a little moti (big) in the arms, no?” These phrases uncover experiences of body shaming targeted at South Asian women and the societal pressure of perfectionism. Her art was also a way to fight against racist bullying she experienced growing up. Through her art, she aims to embrace her culture while also exploring the biases placed on women. Qamar published a book in 2017, Trust no Aunty, inspired by her art with a humorous twist on cultural values.
Hangama Amiri is an Afghani-Canadian feminist artist whose art explores the refugee crisis, violence against Afghani women, and reflections on her childhood. When Amiri was in the first grade, her family escaped the Taliban and lived as refugees in Pakistan and Tajikistan. Inspired by her experiences and love for painting as a child, Amiri attended the Yale School of Art to further her passion.
Amiri’s art highlights the violence against Afghani women and underscores the concept of Afghan feminism. This term is distinct from Western feminism and instead focuses on the unique oppressions faced by Afghani women. This is distinctly seen through her piece, Raining Stones, created in response to the public murder executed by the Taliban of a woman accused of adultery. These biases that depict women as objects for control result in the violations of their basic human rights. Through Amiri’s art, she brings awareness to these issues and its impact on Afghani women.
These women artists have collectively uplifted issues and dismantled biases that reproduce systems of harm against women. As stated by the UDHR, all human beings are born free and equal. For women, the ability to thrive equally is not a radical concept, but one that ARTE and artists around the world continue to advocate for and explore.