Female Artists for IWD 2019: Alexandra Gallagher and Maria Rivans

On the eve of International Women’s Day 2019, our last double bill interview is with artists Alexandra Gallagher and Maria Rivans. We hope that these #BalanceforBetter features have left you feeling galvanised, encouraged and inspired. Reach out to these incredible artists and let’s keep the conversation going.

Alexandra Gallagher and Maria Rivans

Alexandra Gallagher [left] and Maria Rivans [right]

What do womanhood and femininity mean to you?

Alexandra Gallagher: The word femininity to me doesn't really go hand-in-hand with womanhood or being a woman. It gives the impression that to be a woman or to be female you have to behave a certain way to be feminine. That if I'm not feminine, then I'm less of a woman, which is bollocks.

I have mixed feelings towards the word womanhood. I love being a woman, but then that's all I know. I don't know what it's like to be a man. I'm just me regardless of gender. But my gender to the outside world seems to mean that I should be treated or viewed in a certain way and I don't like that.

Maria Rivans: Gender qualities seem to be blurring in my world and to define femininity is very much down to the individual. I tend to see people as humans, everyone with different qualities, strengths, weaknesses, beliefs. So in answer to this question, on a personal note, femininity means freedom to be who I want to be. Womanhood equates to strength and nurture.

Who do you consider to be your female role models and how do they influence your work?

Alexandra Gallagher: I meet women all the time and have many friends, all with their own stories, and they are all role models to me. I think we're influenced in some way by everyone we meet. I find my eldest daughter to be one of the most inspiring. She has grown into one of the strongest women I know. She is autistic and also hears voices. Watching her grow up in a world that is not very forgiving and to see her still have so much enthusiasm and compassion is truly inspiring to me. The challenges she has met so far have influenced some of the narratives of my work. I have my own history, my own story, but to raise two girls and watch them face some of the same challenges a lot of women go through just because they are female is heartbreaking. I put this into my work as a voice for them, myself and other women.

Maria Rivans: As a teenager, I grew up admiring Vivienne Westwood. She was very much of my era. I loved the punk ethic and how she managed to bring that into mainstream fashion. She is a creative talent, force and ahead of her time. I love the way that she has always followed her heart, lived her life by rebelling against the establishment and followed exactly what she believes in. I also admire the fact that she is a very successful businesswoman. I have also been influenced by Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas for what they have brought to the art world, both very strong individuals, great artists and both standing up for what they believe in. And let's not forget my Hollywood favourites, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who shaped my childhood into believing that women were strong and could achieve anything they wanted in life.


Alexandra Gallagher: 'Many a True Word' [left], 'Heart of Glass' [centre] 'Don't Speak What the Heart Flutters' [right]

| Click the image above for Heart of Glass by Alexandra Gallagher |

Is feminism still relevant in the 21st century or is it an outdated movement?

Alexandra Gallagher: Feminism is very much needed in the 21st century. There is still so far to go in reaching equality. It certainly isn't an outdated movement. As a society, and just in the western part of the world, we still treat women in a way that is unacceptable. Women are paid less, victim blamed, do the largest share of domestic duties, are objectified, slut-shamed, told what to wear, careers are affected if they want to have children, face tough decisions balancing career and children, become invisible with age and are taken less seriously. The list goes on and the inequality is stark. 

Maria Rivans: I think the word feminist has never really lost its relevance and I see it as more of an attitude towards life. It is an empowering, confident and beneficial word that is for everyone, women and men. There is still huge inequality which radically needs to change. We still have a long way to go, but it's heading in the right direction.

In recent times, there has been a fierce debate over the exclusion of transgender women from women-only spaces in the name of feminism. What are your thoughts about it?

Alexandra Gallagher: I don't understand why you would exclude transgender women from women-only places - they are women! To define someone who identifies as a woman, who in their soul and total being is a woman, simply on the basis of the genitals they were born with, is kind of keeping those stereotypes of gender alive. I know the argument is that transwomen are thought to be born with male privilege and that they can't possibly know what it's truly like to be a woman, but that is a totally weak argument. So is the argument that transwomen could be dangerous in female-only spaces, that they may sexually attack someone. With that argument, you're just re-enforcing the misconception that trans people are a perversion or that all men are predators - which in both cases is totally untrue.

Maria Rivans: I want to live in an all-inclusive society, with no discrimination against anyone. I see transgender women very much as women and excluding them from women-only spaces is unnecessary. As for exclusion in the name of feminism, that doesn't work for me; life for trans people is an incredible challenge, let's not make things any harder and encourage compassion and acceptance for everyone.


Maria Rivans: 'Eliza' [left] and 'Freya' [right]

'Eliza' and 'Freya' by Maria Rivans


In the last decade, galleries and museums worldwide have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to address the gender imbalance of artists exhibited in their spaces. As we all know, not only women are shown less than men, but their works sell for far less money too. Have you experienced situations where you feel you were treated as a lesser artist simply because of your gender?

Alexandra Gallagher: As a rule no, most of the galleries I work with are run by women. Although the only times I have had awful experiences working with galleries, they have been owned and run by men. In one occasion a gallery damaged my work, so I asked for the work to be reprinted and then I sent them an invoice to cover costs. The man who owned the gallery was extremely aggressive to me verbally, so much so that I was left shaking. Had I been a man, he wouldn't have spoken to me like that. I have had that experience a few times where men have tried to intimidate me by being aggressive or insinuating that I'm stupid.

Maria Rivans: I don't notice this within my galleries but I do feel there is inequality running through everything, including the art world.

There seems to be also an increasing number of all-women shows. Do they give female artists visibility or are they just perpetuating the divide?

Alexandra Gallagher: I think it depends on the show itself and the context. But to be honest, I do see it as perpetuating the divide. It shouldn't matter if I'm male or female to whether my work is good. Although after centuries and decades of female artists not being allowed to show their work, go to certain art schools unless they only painted flowers, not being taken seriously by critics, galleries and museums and even male artists taking credit for a female artist's work - which also happened a lot - I can see why there may still be a need for all female shows. There is still a huge hangover from it all.

Maria Rivans: Personally I think these shows perpetuate the divide. Men are rarely referred to as male artists, but women are often referred to as female artists. If I visit a show or an exhibition I just want to see amazing art, the gender of the artist is not something I find terribly interesting or important unless it is relevant to the work.

Alexandra Gallagher: 'His Egyptian Queen, He Gave Black Pearls for Eyes

His Egyptian Queen by Alexandra Gallagher


And finally, if you were to interview yourself as a woman and an artist, what question would you like to be asked and why?

Alexandra Gallagher: Any question that's about my artwork, my process, my concepts, rather than focussing on my gender.

Maria Rivans: Part of my art practice looks at gender issues, so I always enjoy being asked questions that have no direct relevance to my work whatsoever - something like 'What music are you listening to right now?'. I would find the answer intriguing about any artist, whether male or female, as music preferences speak volumes about someone's character and give more depth and meaning to how their mind works.

Maria Rivans: 'James Jean'

James Jean by Maria Rivans


Other articles in this series:

Female artists for IWD 2019 Shuby and Sara Pope

Female artists for IWD 2019 Lucy Bryant and Pam Glew

Female artists for IWD 2019 Emma Elliott and Ange Bell