By BYRON ARMSTRONG October 11, 2023
By now, we’ve all heard the stats about the limited representation of women artists in museums, galleries and private collections. Between 2008 and 2019, women artists accounted for a mere 2% of total global art market sales. In Canada, where 54% of its artists identify as women — 65% of that including painters, sculptors, craftspeople and other visual artists — and where stats show an almost 20% median income disparity in favor of men artists, even though women artists tend to be higher educated, the disparity appears even greater. Broken down further into IBPOC (Indigenous, Black and People of Color) women artists, who make up 15% of all artists in Canada and tend to have more education (50% vs. 46%) than their non-racialized counterparts, an income disparity of 33% reveals an even greater inequity. The aptly titled “She Work Hard For It” group show features the artwork of Canadian women artists HateCopy (Maria Qamar), Lido Pimienta, and Miss Me at Cultural Goods Gallery, a newly opened exhibition space created by the first family of Canadian fashion’s Joe and Kim-Newport Mimran. Joe Mimran is the founder of the eponymous clothing retailer Club Monaco and Joe Fresh. His wife Kim is the designer and founder behind the coveted women’s line Pink Tartan, but on the night of the vernissage, the look was entirely Hatecopy inspired. As is becoming more and more the case with art shows in Toronto, co-branding with the private sector — in the form of a partnership with Johnnie Walker — kept whiskey cocktails flowing. As a guestlist as curated by PR as exhibition curator Ashley Mackenzie Barnes's choice of diverse women artists filled the gallery, the theme of women in the arts and the potential for making change is hard to ignore.
Alongside the installation work, there’s a room entirely dedicated to retail, which shouldn’t seem odd considering who owns the gallery. The retail here, however, are offshoot brands related to the artists. Clothing, books, plates, and curtains are some of the items on show here, etchings and digital works courtesy of the artists hanging from walls, clothing racks, or lining shelves. There was a time, which arguably still exists for some, when artists took a lot of shit for turning themselves into brands outside of what could be purchased in a gallery. From what I can tell at the opening night party, we’ve officially jumped that shark. Whether women or men, artists have to eat, and She Work Hard For It demonstrates the various avenues discovered by a new generation of artists to do so — whether you like it or not. As such, there are modelesque people displaying clothing bearing the artwork of the artists on display, which is either a brilliant performance piece about the incessant nature of marketing being seamlessly weaved into every aspect of our modern culture, or a brilliant form of guerrilla marketing seamlessly weaving modern culture into every aspect of this exhibition. By this point, I’ve had one old-fashioned too many to tell the difference.
The vision for all of the installations was for them to be connected as one tunnel-like, walk-through experience for Toronto’s overnight, all-city public art exhibition, Nuit Blanche. What we see in the gallery is a deconstructed version of the full installation, which allows for each of the artists' contributions to be considered on their own merits. HateCopy’s eye-catching South-Asian pop art installation “No Fear, Persevere” appears as a life size corrugated, double-sided billboard with the image of a woman. At first glance, the corrugation seems like a misstep, since the mural’s image feels broken up by the jutting edges protruding from the work. However, this is work that requires you to step back and really look at it to see the true magic, which comes from an optical illusion of sorts revealing the evolution of four different women. The installation serves to illustrate different levels of maturing womanhood created through adversity, and the initial perception of a single woman broken into segments becomes representative of a collective community. Here is the perseverance alluded to in the title, that in a moment of reverse psychology at a crowded gallery, only comes into focus when given enough open space to show you the details.
Lido Pimienta is probably better known as a singer-songwriter and accomplished musician with 2020 and 2021 Latin Grammy nominations. She is also a visual artist with an entire room of the gallery dedicated to “The Maze of Abundance”, tapestries of silk and felt faces meant to be seen as part of the whole installation versus the divided wall hanging here. According to her artist statement, this was meant to be experienced as a labyrinth. Of course, it’s understandable that space limitations within the gallery wouldn’t allow for a viewing of everything in the way it was meant to be seen. Her commentary on how unaffordable housing in the city affects women specifically — Pimienta is herself a single mother, and wasn’t present perhaps due to the responsibility that comes from that — is both timely and commendable in a supposedly broke city questioning if we’re even getting what we’re paying for anymore. With demo-evictions, renovictions, million-dollar condos replacing rentals, and the creeping sense of dread citizens feel taking the subway and navigating the underserved mentally ill and homeless, Toronto is marching closer to 1980s New York every day sans affordable housing. Whether the intent lands the way Pimienta would have wanted due to the limitations of gallery space is almost beside the point. The scary issues being confronted by the soft materiality of work meant to evoke the comfort of a maternal embrace, are relevant.
Last but not least, Miss Me’s “Corridor of Sisterhood” fares a little better in the space since it hangs in a way I believe might be closer to the artist’s intention. A row of drapes adorned with the female figure in various stages of undress is presented. With empowering statements like ‘good girls don’t make a fuss’, ‘speak out’, and ‘women don’t owe you shit’, the idea isn’t about exploiting the sexuality of women so much as stealing power from a male gaze that would prefer to objectify them. A subversion of patriarchal perversion takes place through the placement of eyes placed strategically over sexualized body parts (breasts, vaginas, faces) where Miss Me stares back knowingly at the voyeur, who in this instance, is me. This is an interactive installation meant to be journeyed through and carefully considered, with the artist’s innermost thoughts inscribed on the figures like tattoos bearing hidden messages. It comes as no surprise that the artist is a favorite of predecessor Madonna, an artist who frightened protectors of a patriarchal status quo in the 80s and 90s through the subversive empowerment of women’s sexuality.
Analogue interactivity before the age of 3D holographics and AI still works if you can focus long enough to pay attention to the details. She Works Hard For It shows there’s still a place for depth in art, and women artists deserve more attention since they’re still having to work so hard for it.
Byron Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist and writer who investigates the intersections between arts and culture, lifestyle, and politics. Find him on Instagram @thebyproduct and on Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/byron-armstrongview all articles from this author