An activist Barbie subverts stereotypes to draw attention to gender inequality in art

STIR speaks with British academic Sarah Williamson on her Twitter project conceptualised to bring glaring focus to the prejudice against female western artists.

by Priyanka Sacheti Published on : Jan 07, 2021

A Barbie in a pink dress sits in London's National Gallery, holding a sign proclaiming '2,300 works by men, 21 by women’. Another Barbie in yet another pink dress and pointe shoes holds a banner proclaiming the protesting of the male bias of many curatorial statements in a British gallery: “Why does the description of her painting not describe anything about her painting, but only frame the artist as someone’s daughter, sister or wife? Descriptions of male artists never begin with ‘son of’ or ‘husband to’...”

ArtActivistBarbie in pointe shoes | Sarah Williamson | STIRworld
ArtActivistBarbie in pointe shoes Image: Sarah Williamson

A Twitter project conceptualised by British academic Sarah Williamson, ArtActivistBarbie, is an unique in-situ art intervention, which draws attention to the unequal representation of women artists and problematic depiction of women through the medium of a Barbie doll wearing hand-sewn dresses and posing in British art institutions since 2018. “I am an academic who researches the potential of art galleries and museums to be places which can both challenge and educate for social justice and change,” says Williamson, a senior lecturer in education and professional development at the University of Huddersfield, United Kingdom. While museums and galleries authoritatively present narratives of culture, art, and history to the viewers, Williamson points out they are not as neutral as they appear to be. “They are patriarchal and represent centuries of male power and privilege and a male dominated art world,” she says.

Linda Nachlin's canonical 1971 essay, Why There Have Been No Great Women Artists, is widely considered to be the first major work of feminist history, explicating as to why women in the past faced obstacles in their artistic journey such as lack of art history education and eventually led to rediscovery of many women artists. And yet, decades later, women's art continues to exist on unequal terms. Last year, in the United States, for instance, only 11 per cent of the art acquired by museums in the last decade was by women. According to an essay by sociologist Taylor Whitten Brown for The Art Market 2019 report, women artists' work not only constitute a small percentage of major permanent collections in States and Europe but also sell for a significant discount compared with that of men. Interestingly, even though only two women have broken into the top 100 auction sales for paintings, women nevertheless constitute the subject matter for half of the top 25 paintings.

ArtActivistBarbie at London National Gallery | Sarah Williamson | STIRworld
ArtActivistBarbie at London National Gallery Image: Sarah Williamson

Williamson was striving to address both the skewed representation of women artists in galleries and museums along with the contentious nature of the way women are depicted in the art. Art history has traditionally been white, male, and Eurocentric, literally encoding white his-stories, women's perspectives, experiences, and voices buried in those of men's narratives. “The lack of female artists in most historical collections simply can’t be reversed as the works by women don’t exist. But this is an important point as it demonstrates the story of women and how they have been denied and excluded from the opportunities and power of men for centuries,” Williamson remarks, adding that the male bias, sexism and discrimination of the art world is reflected in wider society. The troubling intersection between sexism and racism also manifests in the form of a poignant tweet depicting merely a Barbie dress, alluding to the non-representation of non-white women's voices in galleries.

In that case, what made Williamson choose Barbie as a figurehead for her project considering how the doll is often considered to be a symbol of unrealistic beauty and impossible body standards and more? “While working in galleries and museums to engage my students with social justice issues in society, I had the idea of using Barbie dolls one day,” she recalls, elaborating that she wished to subvert the stereotypes (associated with her). “Barbie is both loved and troubling: we often hold contradictory ideas about her. I use her for those very same reasons”. After one such experiment where she asked her students to introduce Barbie dolls interventions in a local art gallery and receiving positive, engaged responses from viewers, Williamson decided to continue using the Barbie as an instrument of change and created the character of ArtActivistBarbie (AAB), which questions cultural institutions about gender-stereotyping, exclusion and representation.

Admiration for Artemisia Gentileschi | Sarah Williamson | STIRworld
Admiration for Artemisia Gentileschi Image: Sarah Williamson

The  ArtactivistBarbie Twitter account banner photo shows Barbie defiantly declaring, 'Refuse to be a muse’. Williamson says that she wishes that the project makes the viewers aware of the problematic representation of the women as well. She outlines the various kinds of representations they are found in, being '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’. AAB, for example, pertinently points out in a tweet that scenes from supposed antiquity and mythology  show “how captive women just happen to be naked when being rescued by fully clothed/armored men. Notions of female vulnerability and helplessness reinforced”. However, if not of good character (in other words, in subdued and supporting roles), women are depicted as strong, powerful and dangerous sirens and seductresses, luring men into danger, dangerous waters, temptation, and death. These depictions of women often rooted in the dichotomy of purity and sin also significantly highlight that they are the product of a male gaze, reinforcing the gendered nature of both the production and viewing of the art.

Refuse To Be The Muse | Sarah Williamson | STIRworld
Refuse To Be The Muse Image: Sarah Williamson

Williamson has performed many interventions in both the leading and smaller institutions. “The reaction of gallery visitors has been incredible, really positive. It's so wonderful when I feel I have opened people's eyes to something they might not have thought about before, or helped them to realise that art, culture and heritage has such a male bias,” she says. It's important to note that AAB crucially celebrates and pays homage to great women artists too, such as Artemisia Gentileschi, a celebrated Italian Baroque woman artist who was known for her powerful, often uncomfortable depiction of women figures among others, giving a historical window into women's agency in representing themselves and their experience.

The impact of UK lockdowns (including the one currently going on) on the project is that Barbie has not been able to carry on with her work in-situ. AAB has nevertheless continued its campaign in the public eye by sharing archives, re-contextualising AAB in alternative settings and celebrating other forgotten leading women personalities such as geologist Mary Annings, and commenting on relevant news, for example, congratulating the new American Vice-President elect, Kamala Harris for her pathbreaking achievement and correlating it to the project's larger goal. “It's important for us to realise that if we never see women in positions and roles that have always been held by men, girls (the women of the future) will never think 'that could be me’,” Williamson concludes. “It's the same with the lack of female artists in art galleries: their representation is important”.

Twitter account of ArtActivistBarbie | Sarah Williamson | STIRworld
Twitter account of ArtActivistBarbie Image: Sarah Williamson

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