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Women in the Arts: Anicka Yi

‘I could be the President of the United States, and still half the people in the room would question my authority’

Continuing our series celebrating women in the arts, the New York-based artist shares her experiences in the field, her thoughts on what has changed in the art world, and what still needs to happen.

As you were starting out in the arts, what were the possibilities for mentorship, collaboration and cross-generational engagement among women?

When I was starting out in the arts there weren't many possibilities for mentorship, collaboration or cross-generational engagement among women in my orbit, with the exception of 179 Canal, a project space which was a grass roots, community-based, call-and-response to what was severely lacking in the New York arts community at the time: an ethnically diverse, female artist-heavy and female-run programme. Most of the artists showing there didn't go to graduate school, and some like me didn't even have a formal undergraduate art education. 

I didn’t go to art school, so it could be that I didn’t have the outlets that other artists had, or the pedigree to warrant the support and the backing from other women in the community. But in general, I learned fairly early on that cisgender, straight-identifying females tend to not help other women. It’s not even a conscious malicious act, in most instances. It’s a deep conditioning that somehow distancing yourself from the perceived ‘weaker pack’, with all its attendant baggage, might advance your uniqueness as an individual, making you less prone to be judged as a ‘vulnerable woman’. This is of course impossible, but we heterosexual women often act against our best interests. It’s analogous to the psychology of voting Republican. This fact is a crushing heartache that one never gets over, and over time it becomes an organizing principle for how not to be. 

What, if any, were the difficulties of embarking on a career in the arts as a woman? 

The only real difficulty in embarking on a career in the arts as a woman is having to acknowledge the reality that very few women achieve market validation on the level of their male artist peers. Hopefully this will change. 

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Anicka Yi. Courtesy: the artist, 47 Canal, New York, and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Photograph: David Heald

What specific experiences have you had that shaped your understanding of gender in the workplace, the media and the arts?

The primary experiences that shaped my understanding of gender in the workplace, the media and the arts is centred around authority. People tend not to take women as seriously as they do men. I could be the President of the United States, and still half the people in the room would question my authority. There is an irrational conditioning that authority is attributable to men due to their perceived superior size and stature. 

What has changed today? 

The most significant change I witness today are the younger generations who aren’t performing the mold of gender conformity and its baggage any longer. They are not here for the dominant patriarchal culture. It’s utterly inspiring to me. Their agency hacks away at the layers of repressed gender politics in me. 

What are your thoughts about #Metoo and other initiatives to call attention to sexual harassment?

We absolutely need to address this toxic patriarchal culture embedded in our society, and I for one am thrilled that #metoo and WANS (We Are Not Surprised) have stepped up in response to sexual harassment. Specifically, in the art world, how can we claim to be a space for diverse creative exchange when we have this culture of ‘shut up and put up’? 

Anicka Yi is an artist who lives and works in New York City. Recent institutional solo exhibitions of her work include the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Fridericianum, Kassel; Kunsthalle Basel; List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts; The Kitchen, New York; and The Cleveland Museum of Art. In 2016, she was awarded the Hugo Boss Prize.

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