Work / Opinion

How has Instagram enabled female artists globally to thrive?

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Alice Skinner: how I sleep at night knowing that strange men on the internet hate me for existing

Katy Hessel is the woman behind @thegreatwomenartists Instagram account which chronicles the stories of female artists across the world through time. As she prepares to take the account IRL with a new free exhibition at Mother London on November 16, Katy asks how Instagram has contributed to the successful careers of female artists across the world as fourth wave feminism continues to boom.

Work by female artists in major public collections in Europe and the US stands at a lowly 3-5%. Out of the 2,300+ works at London’s National Gallery less than 20 are by women. So where can we look to find work by women artists, and where can artists look to exhibit their work without any gender, race or age prejudice? Instagram. 

Despite the perfectly curated photo-sharing app being solely measured on followers and likes, a strong, supportive female-artist network of all types is slowly growing and changing the face and future of art.

At first, art might seem a surprising medium to post or view online as an artist’s work is a means of self-expression and requires physical interaction. Why then would artists upload their sacred creations onto an app that simply reduces the work to a fleeting digital image on a small screen?

Instagram is not that dissimilar to a gallery. Art has traditionally been presented in a clean and celestial-like environment, particularly in terms of the advent of the white cube, where exhibition-goers can reflect. Instagram is also able to provide this with its pristinely proportioned grid. However, the main difference between the two platforms is the content. Galleries contain art that is predominantly by Western, male, educated artists whereas Instagram sets no rules or boundaries except the size of the image (and yes, the outrageous body-part ban).

Instagram attracts artists of all types, and it is altering how we are viewing and discovering art, educating users, connecting artists, and giving a platform to the underrepresented. But the app isn’t just for unknown artists. The likes of Ai Weiwei, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons and Guerrilla Girls are all dedicated users who experiment with the app. Young artist Amalia Ulman famously used the site to trick thousands by documenting the life of a fake LA-rich-girl protagonist obsessed with perfectionism, as an art performance. Major institutions such as The Met or National Gallery also use it as an alternative platform to exhibit their historic collections.

When it comes to fourth wave feminism, Instagram has afforded the rise of the previously overlooked female artist who is able to exhibit her work freely to a much broader audience while preserving the ability to remain relatively anonymous, and therefore shielded from society’s inherent bias.  

Art is supposed to reflect culture in the digital age we live in, and artists who use the app as a portfolio exemplify this by often creating work in immediate reaction to current events. The women featured in my upcoming exhibition, _The Great Women Artists: Women on Instagram_ demonstrate exactly this. Illustrator Alice Skinner’s work brings about political change through social commentary that humorously reflects the goings on in a post-Brexit, tampon-taxed UK, whilst simultaneously referencing art history, providing work that sits nicely on the Instagram screen but is also relatable. 

Digital illustrator Manjit Thapp, who has over 75,000 followers, but has never exhibited her work in a gallery space, reflects on why people respond to her work: “I illustrate a lot of Asian women in my work and I know people like that they see themselves represented, that’s very important to me”. 

Alice Joiner’s photography documents “a very intimate and raw diary of her life’s experiences” from which she has “focussed on healing from mental health issues”. Rather than seeing the experience after it has happened, she chooses to document her recovery in real time. 

Photo-journalist Alice Aedy’s work focusses on the intimate relationships between women who are living in extreme circumstances and whose story is unlikely to be shown in a present institutional exhibition. “By taking empowering portraits I ultimately try to encourage a greater sense of connection and intimacy between the subject and viewer in the hope of creating empathy. That way, it may capture someone’s attention and raise awareness for the issue at hand.”

Art inevitably gives people a voice, but art displayed on Instagram gives women an even bigger, broader and more diverse voice that people, who may not have access to often fee-paying galleries, can relate to. With this digital gallery anyone can be exposed to life experiences and social commentary in the form of art.

Instagram is also a tool for exposure, and even with a lack of traditional training, artists have proven to be very successful. Painter Unskilled Worker took up painting later on in her life without any formal training and has since exhibited internationally, as well as collaborating with Gucci. Since the early and more London-based stages of her career, portraitist Gill Button has been contacted by clients and art collectors from all around the world.

Although art users may constitute a small fraction of the 800-million strong Instagram community, they arguably have the potential to change the way we view art, and also prompt us to reconsider art’s impact on fourth wave feminism, educating the younger generation by providing a vast and accessible pool of knowledge. With the lack of government funding, Instagram proves a key tool for both artistic promotion and education. It can already be said that without the rise of Instagram, some of these artists who have since exhibited all over the world might have never gained recognition or a means of sharing their work to the masses, and art might have a different look and depth altogether.