10 Powerful Women Artists Breaking Social Taboos—And Loving It

Women artists are finding power in extreme exhibitionism.


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Darja Bajagić, I'm Invisible Just Assholes Can See Me (detail) (2014).Photo: Courtesy of Room East and the artist.
Darja Bajagić, I'm Invisible Just Assholes Can See Me(detail) (2014).
Photo: Courtesy of Room East and the artist.
Emma Sulkowicz Photo: Via YouTube.
Andra Ursuta, Natural Born Artist (2012).
Photo: Francois Ghebaly Gallery.
Jamian Juliano-Villani, Animal Proverb (2015).
Jamian Juliano-Villani, Animal Proverb (2015).
Ann Hirsch, video still.
Photo: Arcade gallery.
Deborah de Robertis performing Mirror of Origin (2014).
Photo: Video still via DailyMotion.
Megumi Igarashi.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Natali Cohen VaxbergPhoto via: news.com.au
Natali Cohen Vaxberg.
Photo via: news.com.au.

Patricia Arquette made a real public issue of her movie (Boyhood) character’s private struggles at the 87th Academy Awards, as we all know. But it also brought something to our attention: It isn’t just women in Hollywood that are using their star power for a larger cause, it’s also women in art.

To honor this we decided to take a look at 10 female artists shaking up our ideas and ideals of femininity. These are women who have made headlines this past year by taking images and subject matter that is, well, traditionally private, and putting it out there into the public realm. It is often controversial.


Megumi Igarashi

The Japanese artist is fighting misogyny with 3-D printed vagina kayaks. It may sound silly, but she brewed up enough controversy that she was arrested twice for “obscene” art (see Japanese Artist Arrested Over 3D-Scanned Vagina Boat Project). The artist was later released from prison when an online petition garnered more than 21,000 signatures. On her campaign site, Igarashi wrote, “Manko, pussy, has been such a taboo in the Japanese society. Penis, on the other hand, has been used in illustrations and signed as a part of pop culture.”

Darja Bajagić

While earning her MFA from Yale University, Montenegro-born, New York-based Darja Bagagić made explicit use of Eastern European pornography in her artwork (see Why Darja Bajagić Appropriates Porn and Serial Killer Art). Her work provoked the head of the department, Robert Storr, to call her crazy and suggest she see a psychiatrist on Yale’s budget. Then for her first solo show, the artist exhibited layered, collaged, and framed art, made by serial killers, that she bought online. Despite Storr’s objection to her art, Jerry Saltz dubbed her “hands down the most promising young artist” in his review of a Lower East Side gallery show this past September. Her “ex axe” works, for which she takes purchased axes (the tool lumberjacks use to cut trees) and covers the blade with images of Eastern European women posing with “axes,” are also on the cover of Mousse magazine this month.

Tania Bruguera

After staging a performance in Havana’s Revolution Square that invited people to come to the podium and speak freely for one minute, artist Tania Bruguera was arrested—three times—on charges of fostering a “public disturbance.” Her performance (on December 30) was a re-staging of her 2009 performance Taitlin’s Whisper #6. In the wake of the announcement of the resumption of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, the artist said that she hoped that the work would “generate a moment of reflection” at this crucial point in Cuba’s history (see Tania Brugera’s Arrest Slows the US—Cuba Thaw).

Jamian Juliano-Villani

Artist Jamian Juliano-Villani was recently accused by another artist, Scott Teplin, of stealing typeface imagery from a mural he had painted at Brooklyn’s public school PS130 (see When Is Artist-on-Artist Theft Okay? Jamian Juliano-Villani and Scott Teplin Duke it Out). Until recently, Juliano-Villani’s painting could be seen hanging in a group show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. In an interview with artnet News, Juliano-Villani responded by saying, “Everything is a reference. Everything is sourced.”

Emma Sulkowicz

Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz vowed to haul her mattress with her everywhere she goes until the man she says raped her leaves Columbia. Aimed at drawing attention to the way universities mishandle and ignore problems of sexual assault on campus, her performance-turned-activism piece, Carry That Weight, garnered Sulkowicz much media attention and an invitation to President Obama’s State of the Union address. artnet News’ Ben Davis called her piece “one of the most important artworks of the year” (see Columbia Student’s Striking Mattress Performance).

Pussy Riot

The Russian punk feminist protest collective may seem so 2012, but they did make some major news by being ballsy. The band’s members have served 21-month sentences in prison following a performance at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, and they also sued the Russian government for violating the European Convention on Human Rights (see Pussy Riot Sues Russia). The group is known for staging guerrilla style performances in public locations, video-taping them, and then posting them onto the Internet. The group recently released their first English song dedicated to Eric Garner, titled I Cant’ Breathe (see Pussy Riot Release Haunting New Song in Honor of Eric Garner).

Ann Hirsch

Best-known for her video and performance pieces exploring sexuality and gender in pop culture in the digital age, Ann Hirsch has posed as a YouTube “camwhore,” a character which has got more than 2 million views, and was an actual contestant on a VH1 reality TV dating contest. Taking her personal experience as a prepubescent teen trolling the Internet in the late 1990s, Hirsch’s first solo show debuted at Brooklyn’s American Medium this past spring.

Andra Ursuta

Romanian artist Andra Ursuta endeavors to grapple with dark issues such as domestic violence, nuclear bombing, and ethnic cleansing, but thankfully in a non-moralizing way. Ursuta’s art, starkly impersonal, is inspired by news she reads about, which she then translates into sculpture. Taking traditionally taboo subjects, Ursuta injects subtle humor into her work. For example, she created a “silly execution device” using a baseball pitching machine which she exhibited at Venus Over Manhattan.

Natali Cohen Vaxberg

A few days after Israel’s government launched its military incursion into Gaza, the artist posted an explicit video of herself defecating on several national flags (see Israeli Artist Placed Under House Arrest for Defecating on National Flag). Titled Shit instead of blood, the work had her sullying the national flags of Israel, Palestine, France, the US, and the UK, all to a tune by Frederic Chopin. It may not have been the prettiest work we’ve seen, but it certainly made its point.

Deborah de Robertis

In May last year, the Luxembourgian performance artist Deborah de Robertis visited the Musee d’Orsay, sat down in front of Gustave Courbet’s Origine du Monde, his famed picture of a woman’s nether regions, and proceeded to pose in the manner of the iconic image (see Artist Enacts Origin of the World at Musée d’Orsay—And, Yes, That Means What You Think). The artist was eventually escorted out by the police and the museum filed complaints against the artist for sexual exhibitionism.

For more on powerful women in art check out The 100 Most Powerful Women in Art series here, Part One, Two, and Three.

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