Roberta Barros

Roberta Barros: “art can invite us to meditate on inequality”

Roberta Barros, PhD in Art and Gender Studies, talks about the issue of women in art, feminist protests, the fight against harassment and the cultural market

Historically, the cultural and artistic production has its major reference on works developed by men. However, the 20th century has been marked by an intense – and much needed – increase on the visibility of women in art. Now, part of the society demands, quite rightly, gender equality in all fields: socially, economically and regarding art and culture. 

Gender equality is crucial for the sustainable development and it is the main motivation of Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), established by the UN. The search for equity is also related to the search for recognition in all fields of society.

We are still far from the goal, though. According to the project A História da Arte (History of the Art), from 2,443 artists cataloged in 11 books used in undergraduate courses in visual arts in Brazil, only 215 (8.8%) are women.

Roberta Barros knows the subject very well. She has a PhD and works at the Department of Arts at Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF). She is also an art director, professor and cultural producer, as well as the author of the book “Elogio ao toque: ou como falar de arte feminista à brasileira,” (A book about feminist art and how to approach it).

In an interview to bluevision, Roberta explains conceptual differences between the art produced by the feminine, the impact of feminist works and the space of action that women find to create culture.

Read the interview below.

Is there art created, essentially, by women?

The main idea is to understand the diversity: there is not only one type of woman artist, there is a variety. It is important to be aware of the differences, whether they are geographic or generational, and understand that there isn’t a universal essence of the feminine. 

As (the French philosopher) Simone de Beauvoir said: “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” due to social, economic and cultural conditions. Therefore, when there’s a search for universalism in the feminine essence, it’s impossible to accomplish that. Not even in art. 

(American art historian) Linda Nochlin, in her article “Why have there been no great women artists?”, makes it clear that it is risky to think of a feminine essence: the women artists of each time were more like men, at the same period, than like women from another generation. 

These days, when women create art, their work turns into a feminist work. Therefore, it is important to deconstruct the essentialism and universalism of what a woman artist is – and detach the adjective “feminist” from the work. 

Is there a clearly feminist art?

Yes, there is a feminist and engaged art. And it goes way back. This is a subject that has always been around, and the fight for gender equality is nonstop. However, in the 70’s the second wave of feminism was the most accurate, regarding political and artistic protests.

Many works produced at that time were filled with criticism and sharpness and were rejected as militant and activist discourses. The art critique built a discourse to discredit this work, and it contributed to the disqualification and invalidation of many works of art, which weren’t even feminists. Sometimes, just the fact that the art piece had a vagina was enough for the work to be considered feminist. 

(Brazilian artist) Lygia Pape worked the signs that infer the objectification and sexualization of women during her exhibit at MAM-SP (Modern Art Museum of São Paulo). She even hid feminist texts in her pieces, but she couldn’t say it was a criticism to the patriarchal society. 

Do you think art should be engaged – in this case, feminist – or politically free?

There are critical conceptual positionings about the role of art in society. The core of the modernist critique is to emphasize how unique the work is and that it values its own essence. From this perspective, every work of art must be conceived outside of time and space and detached from the world – a type of separation, of apolitical bias, between art and life.

But denying politics is a political act.

We are embodied bodies, we can’t separate the construction from what we are. In addition, we are gender, race, place, history and more elements that are firmly stablished in our art. 

On the other hand, I don’t think artists necessarily need to manifest their political view verbally, publicly and openly. I see some female artists developing a big phobia of the term “feminism”, and I understand where they’re coming from, because art and the institution of art in Brazil are refractory to the subject. 

I know that it’s necessary to negotiate with the market and it is up to each one to understand its margin of openness. However, it’s important to remember that an apolitical attitude is political, and the need to abstain is perverse. 

And how do the market and the art institutions receive women artists and feminist artists?

Along with the democratic opening in the 80’s, many female artists graduated, had a faster insertion in the market and didn’t take on feminist agendas. Perhaps this hasn’t made clear how misogynist and sexist this market is.

Feminism and gender equality are not only about insertion in the job market, because we already have many examples of success in Brazil such as Tarsila do Amaral, Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, among others. I find it interesting when female artists negotiate with the market, but I do not think this solves the problem.

There are two ways to look at it. Some artists don’t take on feminism so that they continue being part of the art institution. Others believe that, the more you speak up, the more you gain ground. I’ve always chosen to approach the subject without negotiating with the market, and I see a new generation that is no longer afraid of speaking their minds and is eager to talk about feminism.

How does sexism interfere with the artistic production of women?

I’ve seen and heard from everyday problems to the most extreme cases of harassment, but I’m going to speak based on my experience. When I was interviewed for my PhD, the board was composed of 4 men and 1 woman. The procedure lasted 2 and a half hours, whereas my male colleague’s interview took 30 minutes.

Two from those 2 and a half hours were spent on questions about how I would deal with pregnancy and motherhood, because I was pregnant. The interviewers used the remaining time to explain that it was not a problem to be a woman, but that it could be uncomfortable talking about feminist art in Brazil.

Motherhood is a taboo. Many feminist women even avoid getting into this role because it is an extra layer of difficulty for their careers. Society doesn’t understand that mothering is not exclusively to women, as well as housework.

In general, a priori, there are no barriers to female artists, but if you think about the gender ratio, we’ll see a drastic distortion. Well-evaluated works of art made by women are the formalists, while gender identity works are rejected.

How do you see the feminist movements of great repercussion, such as #MeToo?

They are important movements for the recoding of events. Often women are victims of domestic violence and situations we might not understand as violence – actions disguised as jokes or something common, natural. 

These behaviors and attitudes happen from men to women and even from women to women. They blame themselves for the violence they suffer, and are even criticized because of clothing they use which is, supposedly, “too revealing”, making it easier for them to be harassed.

The most important thing is that these situations have new codes. We know the blame is on the offender, and now women can raise their voices and say that the jokes are mean, and that humor can also be violent. It is an important moment to discuss difficult subjects and reach more people.

What about from the audience’s point of view: Is art consumption different between genders?

There is a construction; the view that one art is better than the other by the market. This is built by a power speech. It depends on the formation of the observer's look on what is beautiful or not - or whether the art needs to be beautiful or not. In this sense, the art institution is another line of power structured by the patriarchal logic.

All the feminist theories state that: [art] is another place of exclusion of the women’s voice, as well as black people’s voice and other minority groups. In activist productions, in critical vanguards, there are resistance movements in the structural lines of the patriarchal culture. Within these frontiers or out of them, there are people looking for loopholes to pierce these perversions and violence.

Can art be the channel for dialogue on issues such as gender violence?

The artist produces a speech, and this speech can invite to meditation. In this sense, it can present or propose more pluralistic, complex and respectful debates - such as more space to position issues of human rights.

There are several lines of knowledge to build someone’s world, and art is one of these dimensions. It is complex to say that art can do this, but within this epistemic field the artist can propose more complex debates. I personally see no difference between my position in the world and my position as an artist: in both cases, I build a speech committed to human rights and feminism.

We can discuss the role of art, but in other cultural dimensions, it has this place of being able to draw attention to structural inequalities.