How making life easier for the art world’s women can make it easier for all

A solid step towards making it easier for women to have flourishing art careers is to discard the idea that artists and people who work in the art world are “not committed enough” if they do not put their work ahead of everything else in their life.

Ensuring that women, and anyone who brings a different perspective to how art is conceptualised, made and displayed, are better represented at all levels of the art world makes it richer. Surely that is the point of art, to encourage new ways of viewing?

Dr Sian Tiley-Nel, head of University of Pretoria Museums, says that easing the pressure on women who work in art is of pivotal importance. Shenaz Mahomed, curatorial assistant at Javett-UP, agrees.

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Shenaz Mahomed, curatorial assistant at Javett-UP, believes people who work in the art world should have multidimensional lives. Image: Courtesy Shenaz Mahomed

“There’s this idea that you’re only a true artist or curator if you make your profession your main focus, and you are seen as ‘not committed’ if you take up other responsibilities and tasks,” says Mahomed. “It puts a lot of pressure on artists and curators, especially women, who feel they have no chance of making it if they don’t give up other aspects of their life.”

Good progress, but work still to be done

Things are looking up, however. Women are better represented in the art world than ever before, although Tiley-Nel says that there are still only a few women in management and executive positions.

“The South African art and cultural sector needs to empower more women into management careers. There are many women in positions at lower levels and curatorial levels, but few in the decision-making ranks,” she says.

“Many programmes encourage art disciplines to nurture careers in art for women, yet do not address how to manage or serve as a director of an art museum or gallery, how to raise funds, and how to think strategically about the long-term benefits and priorities of what is done and why. There are also issues of sustainability, inclusivity and encouraging partnerships with people beyond art and in the business sector that are crucial areas for development and for futurising our female youth,” she says.

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The South African art and cultural sector needs to take steps to ensure it has more women in leadership positions, says Dr Sian Tiley-Nel, head of University of Pretoria Museums. Image: Courtesy Dr Sian Tiley-Nel

Her colleague, Lelani Nicolaisen, curator of the university’s Sculpture Gallery, says South African women fought hard to be noticed in the art world, as artists and as curators, and have made significant strides in the last few years.

“I think independent women curators in South Africa are becoming more noticed and the field is also being more explored by women currently. There is definitely still a lack of artworks made by women artists in more male-dominant collections such as sculpture, and therefore more female artists should be supported within these fields,” she says.

Other steps that must be taken are to recognise equal status, pay and rights for women, says Tiley-Nel. This is important not only at the lower levels of the art world, but at the top too.

Another, from Nicolaisen, is to invest more in women artists by buying or commissioning artworks from contemporary female artists, and – importantly – to listen to what woman artists are saying through their works and think about how this relates to society in general.

Curators are storytellers

Mahomed says her work is very rewarding and she most enjoys the knowledge she gains when composing an exhibition, through her interactions with artists and with other curators.

This is what inspires Nicolaisen too. “I can contextualise and create narratives between the different artworks on display … [and] curate the audience’s interaction within the exhibition space and how the artwork would be perceived when viewing the works within the space.”

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Lelani Nicolaisen, curator of the University of Pretoria’s Sculpture Gallery, says she enjoys the collaborative nature of her work. Image: Courtesy Lelani Nicolaisen

Tiley-Nel, in contrast, enjoys coming up with a leading vision for University of Pretoria Museums, as a seasoned curator and a keen strategic thinker.

“Research is a creative process, not just an output of new knowledge,” she says. “The job also requires ethics, creativity, improvisation and altruistic approaches such as moral views for the curated collections and archives as locations of memory, not just knowledge.”

Encouraging women artists to relax into their work and share their creative vision with everyone is vital, says Tiley-Nel. “There is no individual artist who can be singled out for their own sake, but rather the collective of women in art that has the ability to change perceptions, to rise above the challenges of inequality and to empower womenkind is an undertaking in principle and moral practice that will strengthen women in both the art [world] and wider cultural sector.”

We agree.