Georgia O’Keefe at the Tate Modern: on being fed


Today I went with my parents to see the Georgia O’Keefe exhibition at the Tate Gallery.

First, I will say this is definitely worth seeing. O’Keefe was one of the first abstract artists, exploring different forms and ways of painting well before many of the male painters who are now famous in the genre. For me what is possibly more important is that she was open about her attempts to translate emotion or experience into paint, colour, and shape. A little note by one painting explains how she thought ‘it may be a kiss’. Her work has some the most beautiful lines and uses of colour in it that I have seen. These are emotionally provoking, sensual and bold works. Many people have written more elegantly about her than I am able to, and if you want to know more about her life and work there is a great BBC documentary about her on i-player at the moment as part of the Imagine series, so do watch that.

I really enjoyed seeing these paintings and will probably take a second trip before the exhibition closes. But something happened today that I wanted to write about. My mother is an artist. I don’t actually really remember a day where she hasn’t spent at least a little bit of time in her studio, painting. She’s in her sixties and rather than winding down, she has started experimenting with different types of medium and doing more work in drawing than I remember her doing when I was young. Today my mum want commenting on how powerful it was to see such a body of work by a woman, all in one place. She was really struck by how unashamedly feminine O’Keefe’s work is, and how brilliant she is as a painter. I felt this way after seeing Mary Dumas in the Tate Modern last year. We had a little discussion about how men seem to make all the decisions abut who gets to be seen as a great painter and who does not, and how their decision making, frankly, is rather limited. I was really struck by how powerful it was for my mum, who had been an artist all her life, to see a woman painter given such a platform.

Now here’s the thing. I have more than once said to people that if you are a creative person that you need to feed that creativity, you need to see other creative works by other people and draw energy from that. But I don’t think my thinking had gone far enough into what we are being fed. For such a long time the arts world, across writing, performing, visual arts and music has dedicated such a large proportion of it’s platform to the middle or upper class white male that we seem to have got used to only ever eating egg and chips. Our palate is narrowed by what it is exposed to. To see this body of work by a woman is powerful not just because she is a brilliant painter, but also because her success feels transgressive. It’s water-mellon and mango and sashimi. I know I’m not the first person to write about this, Virginia Wolfe was writing about the exact same thing in ‘A room of one’s own’.

But sometimes things need to be said over and over before they are actually listened to. We are not being fed. Women are hungry. People of colour must be ravenous. Disabled artists are surely absolutely starving. Frankly when did anyone who was working class last get a good meal? The Tate Modern has been making efforts for several years now to really give a platform to artists who represent a much more diverse perspective, and I think this is can only applauded. Let’s hope that they continue to do more and more of this, and to create a great buffet that many more people can appreciate. But it’s not just up to the Tate Modern. We need to demand more diversity from all of our cultural institutes. And we need to keep demanding it until egg and chips is just one item on a splendid, mouth-watering menu.

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