Essay Series 2018 #04
Reiko Kokatsu / “Are Women Artists Represented in European, American, or Asian Art Museum Collections and Exhibitions?”

Yun Suknam, Pink Room 5 1995‐2012 Installation view: "Women In-Between: Asian Women Artists 1984–2012" Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Photo: Road Izumiyama Yun Suknam, Pink Room 5 1995‐2012 Installation view: "Women In-Between: Asian Women Artists 1984–2012" Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Photo: Road Izumiyama

The fourth in our essay series is written by the art critic Reiko Kokatsu, an expert on modern and contemporary art and gender.

About the Essay Series:
Kyoto Experiment 2018 focuses on women artists or artists and companies that identify as female. Bringing the words “woman” or “female” to the fore in this way encourages us to realize a wide variety of perspectives that offer a cross section of contemporary society, from the unease we feel from everyday conversations and customs to broader issues of gender seen in social and historical contexts. This relay-style series of essays presents texts by specialists from different fields that problematize feminism not as an issue only for women but for society as a whole. We hope that they will provide opportunities for audiences to gain deeper insights into the festival programs. (The articles will be published approximately once every two weeks.)


Are Women Artists Represented in European, American, or Asian Art Museum Collections and Exhibitions?

It started with a question first asked in 1971 by the American art historian Linda Nochlin (1931–2017), who passed away last October, in her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (ARTnews, Vol. 69, No.9, January 1971), which then developed into the vibrant field of feminist art criticism in the 1970s and 1980s through the work of Nochlin, Griselda Pollock, and others mainly in the Anglosphere. This wave of art criticism and art history through the perspective of feminism and gender eventually reached Japan and seemed to produce results from the 1990s. Pioneered by Midori Wakakuwa (1935–2007) and her 1985 book Biographies of Women Artists (Iwanami Shinsho), it was in the 1990s and 2000s that many (almost entirely female) art historians took up the subject of images of women (that is, female representation) by the small number of women artists that left their mark in history from the Renaissance to wartime Japan, and applied extensive gender theory analysis, developing art history and art criticism through the framework of gender according to their respective specialists fields or eras, from medieval or modern Japan to Western art history, contemporary art, photography, and more.

Has the work of these feminist art historians boosted the activities of contemporary women artists, raised appreciation for the artworks, and contributed to increasing a female presence in the art world? Even in the leading feminist nation of the United States, it seems we cannot necessarily claim this. Since it was formed in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls group has continued to fight now for over 30 years against the imbalance in numbers of work by women artists (later expanded to include LGBTQ and non-white races) in the collections or exhibitions of art museums in comparison to those of white, heterosexual, or male artists. Indeed, America in the 1980s and 1990s can be regarded as a period of backlash against feminism, and the proportion of women artists who receive recognition and whose work is added to the collection or permanent exhibition of art museums still remains low.

Against this backdrop, the exhibition “WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution” that toured across America, starting in 2007 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and then later traveling to Washington, New York, and Vancouver, and the exhibition “Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art” at the Brooklyn Museum and Wellesley College attracted much attention and discussion as the much-awaited climax of feminist art in America, marking 35 years since the 1970s feminist movement and the formation of certain groups. Both exhibitions were significant in that they incentivized the long-stagnant feminist art and broadened historical prospects and global perspectives in America, though it was pointed out even with these exhibitions that feminism remains a privilege of white middle-class women and that its practice constantly runs up against the problems of racial and class disparity.

On the other hand, in France, which had fallen behind the times in terms of feminism and gender criticism, the exhibition “elles@centrepompidou” at the Centre Georges Pompidou featuring only women artists from architecture, art, design, and photography in the museum collection opened in May 2009 for a yearlong run, but was extended by popular demand to February 2011. I was also able to visit the exhibition and witness how it filled the entire fourth and part of the fifth floors of the Centre Georges Pompidou with only women’s work—some 500 pieces by over 200 women artists. Being restricted just to works in the museum collection, there were failings to the show, not least the few works by prewar avant-garde artists and lack of important women artists active outside Europe, and particularly scant in terms of Asian artists, but I hope that it will prove a turning point in regards to the question of women artists’ work in museum collections. The “elles@centrepompidou” curator, Camille Morineau, later left the Centre Georges Pompidou, though has continued to organize exhibitions of women artists through the framework of gender, such as a Niki de Saint Phalle retrospective at Grand Palais, Paris (later touring to the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, in 2015) and “Women House” (at La Monnaie de Paris, 2017–18, touring to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.)

So what about the situation in terms of the appraisal and exhibiting of work by Japanese or Asian women artists? The exhibition “Women In-Between: Asian Women Artists 1984–2012” was organized with an awareness of this issue. Jointly curated by myself in conjunction with the curators from the partner museums, it toured to four venues in Japan (Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Okinawan Prefectural Museum and Art Museum, Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts, and Mie Prefectural Art Museum) from 2012 to 2013, introducing around 400 works by 50 women artists from 16 regions and nations in Asia. Of course, there were many areas where this exhibition was unable to respond fully, such as the question of where one defines the boundaries of “Asia,” the problem of economic disparity between different Asian nations, the various differences that cannot be contained within the label of “women,” and the issue of expression for LGBTQ and other sexual minorities, but we can nonetheless claim that it was the first large-scale retrospective exhibition focused on female Asian artists and held at an art museum.

Ha Cha-Youn, Balade dans Paris, 2006 Video(4 minutes 42 seconds)”Women In-Between: Asian Women Artists 1984–2012″ Collection: Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts


Hiroko Inoue, Mori : Forest, 2011-12 Installation view: “Women In-Between: Asian Women Artists 1984–2012” Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Photo: Road Izumiyama

And then in 2017, the National Art Center, Tokyo and Mori Art Museum jointly organized the “SUNSHOWER: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now,” commemorating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with the largest ever exhibition of Asia contemporary art that featured 19 women artists out of the 86 individual and group exhibitors—a sign that, little by little, the situation where the creative acts of women are hidden is continuing to improve. I had the opportunity to conduct a research survey in Indonesia last year and, while it is not this kind of large exhibition on a national scale, I can tell that self-organized group exhibitions and so on of women artists independent of commercial platforms are steadily and regularly appearing in Japan and all over Asia. And now art viewers, too, are being asked to listen to these women’s polyphonic voices and respond sensitively to social and historical shifts.

Recommended Reading

Megumi Kitahara, ed., Depictions of the Asian Female Body: Visual Representation and War Memory (Tokyo: Seikyusha, 2013)

Michiko Kasahara, Gender Photography Theory 1991–2017 (Kawasaki: Satoyamasha, 2018)

Women In-Between: Asian Women Artists 1984–2012, exhibition catalogue (Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Okinawan Prefectural Museum and Art Museum, Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts, Mie Prefectural Art Museum, 2012)

Now on sale from the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum


Reiko Kokatsu
Born in Saitama Prefecture in 1955, Reiko Kokatsu is a specialist in modern and contemporary art history as well as gender theory. She is an adjunct professor at Jissen Women’s University, Kyoto University of Art and Design, and Meiji Gakuin University. She served as a curator at Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts from 1984 until March 2016. She is a member of the Image and Gender Research Society, Japan Art History Society, and Gender History Association of Japan. Major exhibitions she planned and organized at Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts include “Shaking Women / Swaying Images” (1997), “Japanese Women Artists Before and After World War 2, 1930s–1950s” (2001), “Japanese Women Artists in Avant-garde Movements, 1950–1975” (2005), “Women In-Between: Asian Women Artists 1984–2012” (also at Fukuoka Asian Art Museum and other venues, 2012–13), and “70th Anniversary of the End of WWII: Alternative Stories in 1940’s Art” (2015). Her writings include Hauling in the Memory Net: Conversations on Art and Gender (Tokyo: Saikisha, 2007) with Mayumi Kagawa and Depictions of the Asian Female Body: Visual Expression and War Memory (Tokyo: Seikyusha, 2013), edited by Megumi Kitahara.
“Mitsuko Tabe: Beyond Kyushuha” ( translated and edited by Midori Yoshimoto), Women’s Work, n.paradoxa, international feminist art journal , vol.27, Jan.2011, pp.38-46.
“Yun Suknam: Pink Room, Expand the Place for Women to The World”, Yun Suknam/Heart (Exh.Cat.), Seoul Museum of Art, 2015.4.21-6.28,pp.80-91