Fifty per cent feminist

When we set out to create a TV series about the transition of Asian art from traditional to contemporary I said to the presenter that I had one condition: fifty per cent of the artists interviewed must be women. Initially she was worried about this – like everyone else, she wanted to choose the ‘best’. But what does ‘best’ really mean?

We were making a ‘history’ of the art of Asia in the twentieth century – which is exactly the kind of situation when it is important to work against the sexist grain in our thinking. To make sure that we look for women, rather then forget them. It is at points like this – the creation of history – that women disappear, as if they had never been there at all. As a documentary maker that trained as an historian, I am very aware that histories reflect as much about the time in which they are written as the period they depict. I was determined that our project would not add to the sexist view of art history by expunging women and promoting only men.

In the end, we filmed seven male and five female interviews. I had suspected this skew would happen, which is why I set the initial agenda at a bold 50 per cent.

I didn’t set the same conditions for the artworks shown in the episodes, and a gender analysis of the artists whose works are presented in the series would probably be as high as 90 per cent male.

And yet, even aiming for half the interviewed artists to be women has created episodes that feel incredibly feminist. As an audience, we are simply not used to having women and the ideas of women fill ‘important’ public spaces.

In a history documentary like the one we’ve made, audiences and makers expect to flash by a few key points and zoom in occasionally for a bit of character or detail.  But it is the choice of where to zoom that highlights to the viewer what is important.  If I zoom in on a woman, Amanda Heng for example, and flash by the men, Tetsugoro Yorozu or Liu Haisu, then it feels odd. And if, as in this case, the male artists were painting images of young women as a way of challenging the hierarchy of Confucianism, the episode can feel completely dominated by female energy. But that isn’t the case – it just feels that way because the focus was not entirely on men.

We are so unused to featuring women artists in the history of art that it feels overtly feminist when their work and influence is examined, precisely because it is not the normal state of things. This feeling is no doubt reinforced by the fact that Amanda Heng creates images of herself and her mother, promoting the relationship between women within her Confucian family. Her gaze is on women.

To give an opposing example, in episode four of the series we interview the artist Nune Alvarado (a man), and all of the artworks in that entire episode are by men. Watching that episode feels like what we expect from an art history documentary. It feels right.

Alvarado focuses his gaze on male workers, farmers and soldiers. Just as men are incidental to the work we show by Heng, women are incidental to the work we show by Alvarado. We might view his art as masculine. But even though Alvarado has focused his gaze on men, and all the other art in the episode is by men, we don’t perceive the episode as masculinist.

That is to say, Heng’s episode feels feminist because her art focuses on women, and Alvarado’s male-focused episode feels normal. Men’s art and their gaze is natural, whereas focusing on women whose art looks at woman feels like deviation.

I find it both fascinating and scary that in the twenty-first century we still live in such a sexist world, one in which even I, as a woman, feel that an episode that includes a woman who makes art about women is feminist, and that episodes featuring no women artists at all is correct.

So, like you I thought the above statement is where this article ends, all neatly wrapped up in the horror of my own normalising of a sexist world. But of course it doesn’t end there, because, as much as I cannot see my own acceptance of sexism, I can also see sexism in the world very clearly.

After writing this article, I went onto Facebook, where a man told me that I was wrong to be horrified by the lack of women in the feature film industry, because I should not try to understand the world through statistics and ideology – implying that my worry about my own normalising of sexism is unfounded. That the current ideological parameters that statistically advantage subsets of society should be seen as normal and any attempt to counter them as incorrect use of ‘ideology’. He didn’t see his perspective as an ideological stance.

But as we all know, it’s just a plain lie that pretends the status quo isn’t already an ideology.

In reality, the only way that we can counter sexism is to be constantly on the lookout for it, even in ourselves. We must counter ideology with ideology, and statistics with statistics. This isn’t a call to arms, but an everyday fact. We can’t do it all the time – it’s simply too tiring to constantly question the status quo – but we must do it at key points, like the creation of a history, a time when we can stop and think about what we are doing and ask, are we forgetting women?

So okay, this article doesn’t have an end, not yet, and probably not for many years. But we will chip away at it and add to narrative. I’m confident we will eventually reach an ending.

The first five episodes of A Journey Through Asian Art begin broadcasting on ABC TV 1 on July 25 at 11.20am.



  1. Art describes from seemingly acute accuracy to loose translated description. Gender in art is a subject and is only a relative portion of what others see in a work of art. If an artwork alows a person to see more in life or for a moment, mentally or visually, the gender of the artist is irrelivent. We all have limited choice in what affects us. The use of art is so varied, talk around art is endless so the education derived from art should be varied, interesting and mind widening. It’s a huge concept to gather, sexism is a choice not nessisarilly a constant reality, issues which invade the individual path of an artist, male or female are often not the concern of an intended artwork. Art will always open the minds to the ideas described within the artworks. From an artist’s point of view after an artwork is viewed, other people do as they choose, see what they will see, use what they will use. An open mind is all that is required with most general confrontations. If the documentary is true to it’s concept, how important is it to involve too many diverging ideas? Often the most treasured parts of art documentaries link art across gender and culture into informative educational interest for anyone concerned. I enjoyed reading the article.

  2. Hi Tom,
    Thanks for your kind comments. They are interesting.

    I would like pick up on your comment,’Art will always open the minds to the ideas described within the artworks.’ This is because it goes to the heart of the series. I wish it was true, but i don’t think it is.

    I think we have the ability to ‘look’, but we do that from within our cultural perspective, which deadens our ability to see the full range of ideas, and therefore to open our mind. I think it helps to understand more about the culture in which an artwork was made so that we can understand the ideas within the work itself.

    What i hope this series does is to provide a small amount of cultural framework so that the viewer can now look at those artworks in a new way, understanding aspects of the work that had not even occurred to them beforehand.

    I know when i started out making the series i thought i might discover some new artists, what i didn’t expect was to discover a whole new set of ways of looking at the world. It has been a fascinating journey for me in that sense.

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