While I was writing our artists’ biographies for the exhibition catalogue, I got to thinking about the convention of referring to artists by their surname. As a woman writing about women for a largely female audience (and certainly feminist, whatever their gender), referring to the She Performs artists by their surname felt somewhat inauthentic – not something a woman would instinctively do. This train of thought took me to the Internet – hardly a reliable barometer of societal norms, but the only one immediately available, it being the middle of the night – and I came across a post on the blog, Girling, in which blogger Ashley Gerling called herself out on her own ‘accidental sexism’ when she found herself referring to a female artist by her forename while working on a social media campaign on women in art during Women’s History Month in 2016, concluding that:
"If we want female artists to be acknowledged as Artists, we need to redefine the way we speak about artists in general or at least start referring to women in the same way we refer to male artists."
As Gerling suggests latterly, perhaps it is easiest to simply refer to all artists by their surname, whatever their gender, but I found myself wondering if we are serving equality well by unilaterally observing a convention that in all likelihood – and I confess to not having empirical evidence of this fact – came about in the first place because the traditional canon of Western history of art was largely written BY men (public school educated men who grew up being called almost exclusively by their surname), ABOUT men (because surely only men have ever achieved anything worthy of inclusion in a history), FOR men (because reading isn’t women’s business – husbands to catch, households to run, children to rear). As Mary Beard wrote in her manifesto, Women & Power, referring in this instance to female politicians lowering the pitch of their voice (Margaret Thatcher) and donning trouser suits (Hillary Rodham Clinton and Angele Merkel, to name but two):
"Putting it bluntly, having women pretend to be men may be a quick fix, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem."
So, what’s to be done? Well, the suggestion Gerling led with won’t happen overnight, but as there is much to be said for being the change you want to see, we contacted our artists and asked them: use your surnames, or in the spirit of changing ‘the art world itself to best accommodate its artists’ (as one of them so eloquently put it), exercise our absolute right to use our forenames, very deliberately, with intent and without diminishing the seriousness of our purpose?
As you will see, the answer was emphatically the latter, and so it only remains for us to introduce you to Pauline, Henna, Holly Daizy, Emily, Yvonne, Madelynn Mae, Minjoo, Jocelyn, Clare, Susanne, Flavia, and Rosamund – the artists of this inaugural She Performs.
She Performs Curator of Interpretation