Art history is hardly “herstory”—that is, women are rarely given the attention and value we deserve, despite the fact that we have always, like our male counterparts, not only contributed to, but also caused significant shifts in the direction art takes.
This deep engagement of women in the arts, whether as creators, collectors, or critics, merits recognition not only from scholars, but also from ordinary citizens who ought to have an understanding of history and society that is genuine and free from gender bias.
Such gender bias has lamentably tainted art history since its early days, when women were largely excluded from the study and practice of art for various reasons.
For one, there was the prevailing view that in art, women are more suitable as objects and not subjects. In other words, they are perceived to be more appropriate as passive receivers of the artistic genius of male artists, as sources of inspiration rather than as active creators of objects of art.
Women were also limited by educational opportunities. Male artists were allowed access into formal art training institutions and associated with fine arts such as painting, sculpture, or architecture. On the other hand, female artists were denied entry into these institutions early on, and were associated with crafts or practical arts such as embroidery or basket-making, which were not given as high a regard as the fine arts.
Male artists today still dominate art galleries and exhibitions across the globe, according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Women artists today are also generally paid less than male artists for their work, the same source states.
In art classes, few women make it to the list of artists considered as the greatest in history.
Meantime, many ordinary citizens would be hard-pressed to name even a handful of women artists, as compared to male artists.
These factors are further complicated by issues on class and race, which women in the margins have to confront in addition to the gender issue.
At any rate, what is clear is that the invisibility of women artists in history is not due to her lack of skill or artistic vision; it is the repercussion of complex historical issues that both deliberately and inadvertently privileged the male over the female artist.
In the Philippines, there is no dearth of brilliant women artists, many of whom Prof. Patrick Flores honors in his essay “Birthing Women Artists” on the website of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.
Flores cites the sculptor Pelagia Mendoza y Gotianquin, the first woman student of the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura, a coed school during the Spanish time in the Philippines.
There was also the painter Carmen Zaragoza y Rojas; and Paz Paterno, who painted portraits, still lifes, and landscapes.
Other notable Filipina women artists are:
Anita Magsaysay-Ho, a modernist painter who was hailed in 1958 as one of the six major painters of the country;
Pacita Abad, an Ivatan who focuses on socio-political works of people and primitive masks;
Virginia Ty Navarro, who is known for her sculpture Our Lady Queen of Peace at EDSA;
Rosario “Charito” Bitanga, the nation’s first women abstract artist;
Geraldine Javier, a contemporary artist who blends painting with various media, and said to be one of the most celebrated Southeast Asian artists both in the academic world and in the art market;
Gini Cruz Santos, an animator who worked on numerous Pixar films such as Finding Nemo, Brave, Toy Story 2 and 3, Up, Monsters, Inc., among others;
Yasmin Sison-Ching, known for her abstract expressionist paintings, sculptures, and installations;
Whang Od, a celebrated traditional tattoo artist from Kalinga;
and Helena Alegre, a sculptural jewelry designer from Daet, Camarines Norte.
The good news is that there remains plenty of space for women artists in our society. Institutions are now recognizing their value, albeit the progress is arguably slow.
There is yet no woman, for instance, in the list of National Artists for the Visual Arts as of this writing.
Many women are still discouraged to pursue a career in the arts, even if the art market is booming here and abroad.
It is only proper that we give proper tribute to these women artists by knowing their names and studying how their works not only reflect our society, but also, and more importantly, represent us—our struggles and victories as women and as Filipinos.
After all, their story as women is also our story, and so should it be everyone else’s.
Melissa Villa-Real Basmayor is a writer and visual artist based in Naga City, Philippines.
A member of Salingoy Art Group, her works in watercolor, acrylic, and mixed media, have been part of local and international exhibits.
Her literary works have also seen print in the Philippines and abroad.
A graduate of the University of the Philippines Diliman, she taught Humanities and Creative Writing to university students in Naga City, and continues to give lectures on art appreciation to learners of all ages.
She is co-owner of Lakaw Shoe Design, which offers customized handpainted designs on canvas shoes and other canvas-based products.
She is also one of the founders of ArtSikrap, an online platform for selling arts and crafts.
Presently, she works as Editor-in-Chief of Bicol Standard newspaper, while exploring other media and themes in art.