Brown Girls in the Art World

Words by Ellen Atlanta

The ‘We are Not Surprised’ letter exposed the vast scale of discrimination and abuse in the art world at the end of last year. Here, female artists of colour discuss their experiences with representation, micro-aggressions and explicit abuse of power.

“Do you remember that feeling of losing your mum in the supermarket? Being six years old, alone down the cereal aisle in Aldi is how it feels for me, to be alone in a room of white people. Actually, that’s a good way to describe the art world: a room of white people.”

Rene Matic, a 20-year-old conceptual artist from Peterborough, created her series of work ‘Brown Girl in the Art World’ in response to the racist and sexist comments she received from a white, male curator in Liverpool. When asked why he didn’t have any female artists in his gallery, he said:

“I don’t show girls, especially not black girls; they’re witches,” Matic reads from the screenshots saved to her wife’s phone.

An image of her doing a handstand; her brown body naked in his white gallery space became her protest. She showed the piece at the Black Blossoms exhibition this summer.

“There is not a space that I could take up that doesn’t already belong to you and so I will dig my palms into the floor, body on top of my arms, legs on top of my body. A flag post. A warning.”

 Rene Matic, Brown Girl in the Art World II, Digital Image

At the end of last year, over 9,500 creatives signed the ‘We Are Not Surprised’ letter, condemning ‘unequal and inappropriate treatment’ in art institutions across the world. In the UK, discrimination and abuse against female artists and specifically, female artists of colour is endemic, from a total lack of representation in gallery spaces to sexist and racist abuse from gallery owners, curators and sponsors. 

In 2010, UK Feminista found that 83% of artists in the Tate Modern and 70% of artists in the Saatchi Gallery were male. In Scotland’s National Gallery, only 4% of artists were female, and in Whitworth’s Manchester, the figure stands at 20%. The statistics for female artists of colour in the art world simply don’t exist.

“As a black woman, I am erased in so many different situations. We’ve all become so used to it that you just keep going without thinking about the effects that it has on your psyche,” says Enam Gbewonyo, artist and founder of the Black British Female Art Collective (BBFA). “All of these things keep chipping away at you and your identity as a person, you’re always being made to feel other or lesser.”

Gbewonyo set up the collective in response to the discrimination she encountered in the art world, as a way of finding solidarity and “levelling the playing field”. 

As a black woman, I am erased in so many different situations. We’ve all become so used to it that you just keep going without thinking about the effects that it has on your psyche.

Enam Gbewonyo

“How can we make it so that when you ask someone to name a black female artist, they can name at least two or three?” she says. “It’s so important to see ourselves represented. We’re working with institutions both within education and the arts spaces to see how we can help to change that conversation.”

The lack of representation is just the tip of the iceberg; this disregard for female artists of colour trickles down from commercial galleries, to smaller artist-led spaces and into our education system. 

“I went to a diversity panel at a UK University hosted by their Head of Art,” Gbewonyo says. “Afterwards, in conversation she said, ‘well luckily I’ve only got two people of colour on my course so I don’t really need to worry about their inclusion’. I just looked at her in shock. You’re leading the diversity panel, and yet this is the reality, you actually don’t care.”

The discrimination is not always so blatant, but fuelled by micro-aggressions; casual degradations of someone’s identity and self-worth.

“I’ve thought many times about changing my name to an alias that’s non-gendered and not attributable to being black,” says Cherelle Sappleton, a visual artist based in London. “That’s how you end up trying to survive, you try to trick people into seeing your work, devising ways of slipping under the radar, just to be seen. I often feel like ivy, trying to crawl up the wall, finding any kind of purchase and trying to stick there, holding on for dear life.”

That position of vulnerability adds another complex layer to the issue. Adelaide Damoah, a British artist of Ghanaian descent experienced abuse when those in a position of power tried to take advantage.

“A few years ago, an older white guy offered to sponsor my exhibition. We met to buy the materials and he looked at me and said, ‘Adelaide, what are you prepared to do for this money?” she pauses and looks down, the weight of her story hangs heavy in the air. 

“I pressed him to specify what he meant. He said, ‘look, there was another lady I helped, she needed £20,000 and I gave her the money, and in exchange she slept with me. So, what are you prepared to do for this money?’. I told him to stick his money up his arse, I said I didn’t need it or want it, and I left,” she says. “There’s probably a lot of black girls who will tell you the same thing, that there’s lots of powerful white men who try and put them in this compromising position. I have so many stories like that,” says Damoah, shaking her head. “I don’t even know why I pretend to be surprised anymore.”

Whilst the ‘We Are Not Surprised’ letter gained almost ten thousand signatures, organisations such as Arts Council England are pushing the sector to make substantial change. The organisation, which invests public funding into arts and culture across the country, has now adopted a diversity rating system for the galleries and projects it supports. Those who fail to evidence their progress and rate as ‘strong’ by October 2021, risk having their funding suspended. For artists like Rene Matic, Adelaide Damoah and Enam Gbewonyo, change can’t come soon enough.

“It’s exhausting and it hurts,” says Matic. “To women and to artists like myself, you are not weak for struggling. This stuff is real hard. And to Basquiat, I apologise, as we are still tired of seeing white walls, with white people. We will get there one day.”