The struggle for gender equality has made great strides in recent years, thanks in no small part to the successes of the #metoo movement. But like so many other fields, visual art has a long way to go to achieve true equality for women. According to recent studies highlighted  by the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., 46 percent of visual artists in the U.S. are women, but 87 percent of artists found in the permanent collections of 18 leading art museums in the U.S are men. And compensation for female artists and art industry professionals falls far short of that enjoyed by their male counterparts.

But as anyone paying attention to today’s visual art world can attest, there’s no shortage of women-identified artists pushing their own artistic boundaries and moving the needle slowly forward for gender equality in visual art. To celebrate that fact, and in recognition of Women’s Equality Day, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite examples of innovative contemporary art by (and often about) women. Read on for some true creative inspiration!                          

Now 90 years old, Faith Ringgold is an African American painter, mixed-media sculptor, writer, and activist. She is best known for her narrative quilts, a medium she adopted to put some distance between her artworks and the Western European, male-dominated traditions associated with painting –and to challenge that history. 

Her  iconic 1996 color lithograph, entitled The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles, makes direct reference to Ringgold’s journey as an artist. Included in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the piece takes inspiration from Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (and actually places the artist himself in the rear right of the painting). In the foreground are women who have shaped African American culture and history, reimagined as circle of quilters.

In the summer of 2019, a major retrospective of Ringgold’s work is showing at the Serpentine Galleries in London, England.

A Native American artist from New Mexico and a member of the Navajo Nation, Emmi Whitehorse incorporates the stories and symbols of her childhood into her mostly oil-on-canvas paintings. Her intentionally apolitical art is deeply connected to the natural surroundings of the land as experienced over time, to Navajo concepts of life, and to the world in which we live. She describes her work as “purposefully meditative” and says the works are meant “to be seen slowly.” This painting is included in a solo show now on view at the Chiaroscuro Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the artist currently resides.                    

Born in Ethiopia and raised in Michigan, Julie Mehretu creates often large-scale, abstract works of art that draw from maps, charts, technical drawings and architectural renderings to illuminate and comment on complex and rapidly changing urban landscapes. Mehretu often begins with layers of acrylic paint before marking them with pen, pencil, ink, and additional thick streams of paint. Though her work often addresses specific places, she has described it as “story maps of no location” that should live primarily in the viewer’s imagination. 

The first full-scale traveling exhibition of Mehretu’s works will begin in late 2019 and continue through 2020, with stops at New York City’s Whitney Museum, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. 

Portland, Maine-based artist Sascha Braunig is a surrealist painter whose work often features deconstructed human figures covered with a variety of surprising textures. Tending toward the use of yellows, greys, and violets, Braunig’s work references fashion by exploring the ways we decorate ourselves, but it’s also represents an exercise in self-portraiture. “They’re all about me,” she told Modern Painter magazine, referring to her figures as “stand-ins” for herself. 

Bruanig’s paintings often begin as clay sculptures of figures or faces, a process she says brings physical, three-dimensional presence to her work — as evidenced by her 2015 painting Hilt, pictured above.  

African American painter and collage artist Nina Chanel Abney uses bright colors and inviting shapes and symbols to draw viewers into dense, multi-faceted works that often feature provocative, racially-charged subject matter and satire. Abney draws from news clippings, vintage advertising, cartoons, and anything else that catches her eye, and her intuitive, improvisational style and process have brought regular comparisons to Keith Haring. 

The painting above exhibits the wit, humor, and grasp of current events and popular culture for which Abney is known, while remaining open to subjective interpretation.              

It has been less than five years since thirty-year-old Swiss graphic designer Louisa Gagliardi created her first works of fine art. But Gagliardi’s haunting, “post-internet” brand of digital portraiture is rapidly taking her to the top of the fine art world with a series of prestigious gallery showings and artist residencies. The artist’s instantly recognizable digital paintings seem born to be embraced in our screen-focused world. 

Gagliardi finds inspiration in social media, recreating her friends’ posts as dark and mysterious imagery. Her surrealist work’s unmistakable screen-like sheen also manages to recall old-school photographic negatives, as seen in the haunting image above.        

Brooklyn-based artist Emily Mae Smith’s Medusa typifies the artist’s pop-art-inspired work (the snake eyes actually glow in the dark!). Sharp lines and bright colors bring extra life to the artist’s incisive social and political commentary on topics including gender, sexuality, and violence. A knack for injecting humor into her paintings allows her to address difficult subjects with a relatively light touch. A recurring broomstick avatar inspired by Disney’s Fantasia frequently finds its way into Smith’s paintings where it “claims space for feminine subjectivity,” she says. 

Want to learn to make art that drives social change? Design icon Mirko Illic has a class on Skillshare to help you learn the basics. Click here for more.

Written by:

Ken Korman