11 Feb 2021
We explore how Feminists have used collage to depict gender inequality and address historical oppression, with a focus on the 1960s and 1970s
For the most part, feminist collage has been hugely prevalent amongst women for longer than we think. As a medium, it was always connected to women’s reassembling of cultural fragments, in order to create artworks. Collage or more commonly used ‘decoupage’ have been hugely popular as a past time for women throughout history. During the 1960s and 1970s, collage was used by the feminist movement to evoke change and highlight gender inequality amongst artists. In many ways, as a medium it was used to portray a rethinking of the illusion of domestic bliss and gender stereotypes at the time. Collage art lead by feminism is a hugely powerful form and due to it’s basis in popular culture, is inherently politicised.
This article is an exploration into feminist collage artists raising awareness of gender inequality and importantly addressing historical oppression. We will look at the work of Hannah Wilke, Martha Rosler, Mary Beth Edelson & Ana Mendieta, to name just a few…
Collage to invoke change
Historically the medium of collage was said to be coined in 1912 by visionary artists Pablo Picasso and George Braques, during a time of great unrest in the art world. However, the meticulous technique has been practised in domestic settings by women for centuries. At the time, collage seemed to be a revered and primarily female past time for mother’s, daughters, wives and the elderly. These unheralded practitioners paved the way for collage’s surge to success within a restrictive and male dominated art world. Soon after, collage became widely used within the feminist arts scene to enact change and awareness.
Many revolutionary art movements have laid claim to collage, yet none have radicalised the medium as much as the feminist movement. Within the contemporary art world, the media of collage is often considered synonymous with post-modernism. Significantly, many feminist collage artists have been attracted to and predominantly used collage as their aesthetic. However, there is often critique surrounding the medium, questioning it’s roots in contemporary culture. The combination of feminist arts and collage raises the question of whether an inherently politicised art form can be based in cultural fragmentation.
To begin with, Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta works in performance, video and sculpture. She often explores the female body in relation to nature, often using photographs and videos of herself camouflaged in natural environments. As an artist, during her studies Mendieta developed a passion for performance and land art which she eventually named ‘earth-body work’. Within her ‘earth body work’, in particular Mendieta often becomes ‘at one’ with nature, drawing connections between humans and the natural world.
Her work often depicts landscape interventions of an ephemeral quality, mostly she intends these to only survive as photographs. Within Mendieta’s work, she does not follow a traditional route in her collage pieces. Instead, she uses collage to collate and piece together her performance, video and photography. She always roots her collage in imagery of the female body, she is often elevating the female form to one of grandeur.
“I have been carrying on a dialogue between the landscape and the female body (based on my own silhouette) I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). Through my earth/body sculptures I become one with the earth I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body.” Ana Mendieta
During this time, Mendieta made her work in a time of uprise and power in amongst women, due to the rising prominence of the feminist movement. For her 1972 series ‘Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants’, Mendieta portrays and activates cultural conceptions of the body. In particular, within this series of collated images, Mendieta glues a male friend’s beard onto herself. By doing this, she highlights the social conventions that define gender classification. In this example, she stages a new identity for a woman, crucially she powerfully disrupts the normal ideals of beauty dictated by society.
Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT created radical photography, performance and collage work. In 1967, she chose to rename herself VALIE EXPORT as an artistic idea, from then on she required her name to always appear in capital letters. In her work, generally Export enters the audience into a feminist discourse, in relation to the male gaze on the female body. As well as this, a number of Export’s past performances have been hugely influential, and in line with feminist ideals. For her 1968 performance piece ‘Action Pants’, Export roams around the audience wearing crotchless pants, exposing herself to viewers at close proximity. Through performance, Export challenges gender bias and condemns the longstanding oppression of women in her ability to shock.
“The female body has always been a construction. Even feminist art of the 1970s fashioned a body in accordance with its own ideas, and in this regard it was a form of manipulation too” Valie Export
Export was born Waltraud Lehner in 1940, as mentioned the artist changed her name to Valie Export after marrying. In many ways, changing her name meant she took back ownership of her own body. Consequently, she stood herself against the Vienna Actionists, who were a group of impetuous male artists including Hermann Nitsch and Otto Muehl. In her feminist collage ‘Die Geburtenmadonna (The Birth Madonna)’, she depicts feminine social stereotypes in a witty and ironic portrayal of a ‘washing machine birth’. She often uses self-portraits and self staging as her way of addressing these issues.
American artist Martha Rosler predominantly works with video, installation and performance. However, crucially some of her most important pieces are her collages and photomontages. Although she addresses a number of themes and topics in her work, she challenges gender ‘rules’ in her feminist work. In her feminist collage, Rosler uses cultural references from every day life and the media to approach issues from a female perspective. She deconstructs and questions women’s place in mass media, as well as the unrealistic expectations put on them. Rosler primarily uses magazine cuttings of ideal homes, ideal bodies and domestic bliss, she then adds conflicting imagery.
Conflict & Feminism
More than anything, she portrays how she felt during the 1960s and 1970s, and how she was perceived by the world. As well as this, Rosler’s collage work centres itself around war, often focusing on the contrasting American dream with startling images of conflict. She often pairs glamorous women in elegant domestic surroundings with opposing war imagery.
“I want to open a space in people’s minds where they see that they can be active, intellectually and personally, rather than passive recipients of received ideas and prevailing world views. It is not answers I hope to provide but questions, questions for people to take home and think about.” Martha Rosler
In Hannah Wilke’s ‘S.O.S. Starification Object Series’ , she harks to the celebrated glamour of fashion and films of the time, yet she adorns each image with blemishes. In these powerful self portraits, Wilke poses satirically with the elegance of a model. However, she covers herself in discarded gum, a nod to ritual scarring. In particular, these works link to her performances, where in which she would stick chewed gum onto visitors. Simultaneously, she would undress and re-stick these pieces of gum onto her body, moulding them into women’s genitalia.
For the most part, Wilke created sensitive portrayals and made intimate gestures in her pieces. Her works do not have the ‘loud-ness’ that feminist collages often embody. In much of her work, Wilke often sculpted with chewing gum, in particular she created shapes and forms often suggestive of women’s genitals. As well as this, through watercolours Wilke documented the deterioration of her body from cancer treatments. In a similar way to Ana Mendieta, she uses the medium of collage to compile her performative and sculpture works. She then portrays these individual images as a whole.
“If women have failed to make ‘universal’ art because we’re trapped within the ‘personal’, why not universalise the ‘personal’ and make it the subject of our art?” Hannah Wilke
Mary Beth Edelson
American artist Mary Beth Edelson was a prominent feminist artist whilst being hugely active in the civil rights movement. During her life, she worked to increase the inclusion of works of art by women in museums and galleries. As well as this she was the founder of the Heresies collective; a group of feminist political artists examining art from a feminist and political perspective. In particular, Edelson based her artistic practice in feminist issues, especially evident in her feminist collage work.
As an artist, Edelson created works hugely inspired by male artists Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne and Edouard Manet. This was specifically for her 1960s paintings of mother and children. However, during the 1970s she began to make performance works amongst other mediums. She often uses representations of goddesses in her feminist collage work, in contrast to patriarchal viewpoints of women in society. In her piece ‘Some Living American Women Artists / Last Supper‘, Edelson replaces religious figures and disciples with female artists. She uses Leonardo da Vinci’s famous ‘Last Supper’ to highlight women’s lack of place in artistic history. Instead, she writes them into this historical context by including their faces in the line up.
Contemporary Feminist Collage
Without reduction, cutting and pasting popular culture in form of collage making has been a crucial aspect of feminism. Beginning in the 1960s, feminist artists created work which reflected how they felt, using cultural references around them. Consequently, collage became a medium which was accessible to all. Artists used collage to radically address women’s place in the world, and still do today. To conclude, the early collage works of feminist artists have been hugely influential on issues women are still addressing today in contemporary art.