This year Wywood Walls turned five and to mark the special occasion curator Jeffrey Deitch called on on the finest ladies in the field for Women on the Walls. International artists Aiko, Miss Van, Fafi, Maya Hayuk, Lady Pink, Faith47, Lakwena, Kashink, Sheryo, Olek, Toofly, Claw Money, Jessie & Katey, Myla, and Shamsia Hassani all created murals or showed in the adjacent exhibition space. The participating artists have come from cities such as Cape Town, Paris, New York, and London. Part gallery part mural exhibition, the project acts as a history guide to the great presence of women muralists.
Women on the Walls is a dream come true and also a proverbial screw you to people who say that the reason women artists are often overshadowed in the media is due to a dearth in street art. That, to be blunt, is bullshit. Older artists and the younger generation they inspired came together in the Wynwood district of Miami this Art Basel to prove their stronghold in the public art community. The scope of media alone proves their mastery of the craft as spray paint, yarn, text, stencils, and free handed characters all co-mingle to form a variety that has something to please most tastes.
Not only is the perfect storm of artists curated in this year’s Wynwood Walls enough to be in awe of, additionally Martha Cooper has shared some breathtaking progress photos. As artfully as the walls are decorated, each image thoughtfully reveals the personas behind the iconography. Each picture displays the strength of these women, whether unveiling the sheer amount of effort behind a production to those who stand boldly in front of completed pieces. Cooper shows that these women are heroes, or warriors as Toofly depicts, taking on whatever challenges lay in their wake and simply killing it.
So here’s the deal. Complex asked Vandalog founder-leader RJ Rushmore to create a list for them, “50 Greatest Street Artists Right Now,” and that list came out this month. When I saw it I was surprised. Out of 50 names, the only women to make the cut were Faith47 and Swoon (and a few who make art with male partners).
Yes, I know that any person who makes up a list like that would come up with a different list. But the intro to the list read, “Public art has a whole new set of powerful voices. We’re celebrating those.” And 48 of the 50 entries on a list designed to celebrate powerful new voices were men’s voices. That’s not a lot of diversity. It’s not even a little diversity. I called out RJ for his selections, via Twitter.
We volleyed some names back and forth but ultimately my argument was not with his exclusion of any particular artist. In exchanges with RJ and others, the questions came up–as they tend to when women are breaking into boys’ clubs (politics, business, race-car driving, etc.): Should there be a separate list for women? (No.) Should there be a quota for women even if they’re “not as talented” as men? (No, but, false question.)
If I were RJ and knew the work of as many street artists as he does, I would start with my favorites, and probably run out of room just listing those artists. So I wouldn’t have to go looking under rocks to find artists I had never heard of before. If I were RJ, I might think that if there were any women (or men) doing truly great work, I would have heard about them by now. Except that’s not necessarily true, especially with women. For instance, RJ mentioned a few female artists he considered…but he didn’t put them on the list.
Consider that the most powerful and the most personal work is not necessarily going to resonate as strongly once it crosses gender lines, which is not a minor point. For instance, RJ said he’s not a fan of Olek. And I’m not a fan of Lush. And that’s how it works: women don’t end up on too many “greatest” lists, if the guys are the gatekeepers. And if they’re not on the lists, how does anyone hear about them? It’s a little like the axiom about getting a job: you can’t get hired till you have experience, but if you can’t get hired, where do you get experience?
The work they are making reflects their communities, it beautifies blighted areas, it makes us laugh, it breaks down gender barriers and smashes stereotypes and speaks out on behalf of women and children and parents and humanity. It is sensual and funny and simple and complex and symbolic and speaks of rights and wrongs and freedom. And these women have these strong, powerful, fierce, witty voices that we all need to hear. Why? Because they make images to express what we as viewers can’t articulate until we see their work. And then as it pierces our hearts and minds we say, simply: yes, that is exactly how I feel, too. But this is not because they are women. It is because they are artists.