Gunning for equality
All-female group Herspective hopes to change perspectives of women artists
Working in a male-dominated field like art, modern surrealist Pang Torsuwan established a group called Herspective in 2019 with two other female artists to help female artists gain recognition and exhibit their works easily.
"I wanted to exhibit my work, but as a self-taught female artist, I thought it probably was not enough to gain interest. So, I formed Herspective and invited other female artists to contribute their work. At the 2019 Hotel Art Fair, the three female co-founders of Herspective exhibited their paintings. Now, the group has 10 female members who support each other. Our artwork has unique feminine characteristics," said Pang.
Herspective is another attempt by female artists to survive in the art industry. Although women now play a major role in many industries, their works are still undervalued in many fields, including the art world which has been dominated by men for centuries. Pang pointed out that Freelands Foundation (freelandsfoundation.co.uk) reported that in a recent survey in the UK, 64% of female undergraduates and 65% of female postgraduates were enrolled in creative arts and design programmes. Despite the higher number of women than men in art education, 68% of the artists showcased in prominent commercial galleries in London are men.
"We can understand that in the past, the art industry was dominated by male artists because at that time, there were not many female artists. However, even now, when we look at the rank of the most expensive paintings by living artists, male artists still dominate the list. The painting Flag by Jasper Johns sold for US$110 million in 2010, which was the highest price ever paid for a painting by a male living artist. In contrast, Propped by Jenny Saville became the most expensive painting by a female living artist when it was sold at auction for only US$12.5 million (428 million baht) in 2022," said Pang.
Pang Torsuwan and members of Herspective. (Photos: Pang Torsuwan)
"Last year, Cecilia Aleman became the first woman to curate and direct the 59th Venice Biennale, which is the world's oldest international art exhibition. This news made me happy, but when I learned that the Biennale has been around since 1895 and has never had a female curator before, it made me think that there may be gender bias in the art industry. When Aleman curated work at the 59th Venice Biennale, 90% of the artists featured at the event were women. In the past, over 80% to 90% of the showpieces at the Venice Biennale came from male artists. It was probably because the curator was always a male," Pang added.
While Pang said she is not sure why art collectors are willing to pay a lot more for male artists, Pannaphan Yodmanee, the first winner of the UOB Painting of the Year (Thailand) in 2010 and the winner of the Benesse Prize at the Singapore Biennale in 2017, believes that some art collectors feel that female artists are not as committed to their careers as male artists.
"Art collectors may see promising futures for male artists more than female artists possibly because they assume that female artists may quit their job unexpectedly to get married and start a family. I also know that there are many female artists who suddenly quit their job for various reasons," said Pannaphan.
Pang Torsuwan, a modern surrealist.
Even though there is gender bias in the art industry, Pang said she didn't experience any difficulties because she is a woman. Instead, she felt that her difficulties stemmed from the fact that she was a self-taught artist with no formal art education and connections. On the other hand, Pannaphan, who is known for her giant installations mixed with many artistic techniques, admitted that as a woman, she cannot create an art piece by herself.
"I do not have enough energy to create a giant installation by myself, so I work with a male crew who handle the heavy equipment. I am in charge of planning and arranging things," said Pannaphan.
Another challenge for Pannaphan as a female artist was when she participated in the artist-in-residence programme in Indonesia for a month.
"It was an excellent opportunity to gain experiences and connections, but it was a challenge to travel abroad alone. I tried to overcome my fears and felt proud that I could do what male artists do. At that time, there were protests in Jakarta, so I had to be careful," said Pannaphan.
While most art pieces created by female artists look feminine, Pannaphan's installations look more like the handy work of a male artist, which she believes is the reason why her work has been well accepted.
"My installations are based on cement, which is a heavy material to work with. They also criticise and question religions, which is more commonly seen in artwork created by male artists. When people see my work, they assume that it was created by a male artist. They walk past me and approach my male crew," said Pannaphan.
Herspective's artwork has unique feminine characteristics.
Pannaphan recently had a newborn baby, and she admitted that it affected her work schedule. "When I was pregnant, I thought I wouldn't be able to do the work, but I was still able to arrange everything myself like before. Now, I have to focus on my infant daughter and spend time with her instead of travelling to work in other countries. I am currently researching ancient paintings related to mothers and children. In the past, women played major roles and were key figures in rituals, but after religions were established, men became religious leaders. My future work will focus more on women, motherhood and children," said Pannaphan.
Both female artists agree that although more women work in the art industry, it will take time to achieve gender equality. They believe that special events like International Women's Day on March 8 should be recognised to promote the importance of gender equality.
"Many people still don't understand the importance of gender equality. Art exhibitions can promote the humanity and dignity of women while also highlighting the oppression that women face," Pannaphan said.
"Thailand may seem like an open country for people of different genders, but it is not. Society still has a male-dominated attitude. LGBTI people have to fight for marriage equality, and women are not equal to men. Not only men have this attitude, but also women and LGBTI people. That's why special days should be observed to recognise women's rights," said Pang.
Pannaphan Yodmanee, the first winner of the UOB Painting of the Year (Thailand) in 2010 and winner of the Benesse Prize at Singapore Biennale in 2017.
This article is part of a 20-part series that explores what it takes to create and secure a sustainable future. In collaboration with UOB. You can view the whole series here.