Emma Elliott [left] and Ange Bell [right]
What do womanhood and femininity mean to you?
Emma Elliott: What force is greater or more giving than our Mother Nature!
Ange Bell: The Ireland where I grew up was male-dominated with women viewed as lesser. As I got older I understood that there were strong women, but they expressed their views, ideas and desires in a more subtle and strategic manner because they weren't given licence to take their rightful place. As a parent to both a son and a daughter, I want them to have equality in all aspects of their lives and feel empowered to strive for what they want to achieve. I see both womanhood and manhood as being equal elements of humanity and primarily see myself as human.
Who do you consider to be your female role models and how do they influence your work?
Emma Elliott: When I moved back to London from Florence I got a scholarship at a school called LARA and studied under a fantastic figurative sculptor called Valentina Zlatarova for a year. She inspired me with her work ethic, keen eye and ability to effortlessly keep her work fresh. A large part of my motivation and practice is to not be afraid to make work that might be perceived as awkward, uncomfortable or challenging.
There are a lot of females in my family who inspire me, and one distant ancestor in particular. Mary Spring Rice was a prominent Irish nationalist activist during the early 20th century despite coming from a privileged Anglo-Protestant background and her story inspires me to keep plugging on and be brave in my work.
Ange Bell: When Katherine Hepburn was dubbed box office poison for bucking the standard definitions of acceptable Hollywood femininity, she created her own opportunities and charted her own career. Dolly Parton used the standard idea of femininity as a platform to achieve a business empire on her own terms. Louise Bourgeois only really achieved recognition in later life. Previous to this she had continuously created, whether the art world was interested or not, because art was her passion. Maya Angelou taught, shared, and believed in our capacity to create a good life. All these women have taught me to take my own path and create my own opportunities, not to be afraid to be passionate or strive for what I want, but never at the expense of others, instead to take others with me.
Emma Elliott: 'The Sacred and the Profane I' [left] and 'L'Origine du Monde' [right]
Is feminism still relevant in the 21st century or is it an outdated movement?
Emma Elliott: I feel grateful to have grown up in London and to have benefited from the feminist movements that preceded my generation. It was only when I was an art student that it really struck me how little women have been regarded in art history, and it's very disheartening that even today women are so under-represented by galleries and undervalued in art collections. I am however encouraged by this relatively new movement towards gender fluidity, which by default means that the gender gap is closing and that's got to be a good thing for women artists!
Ange Bell: While there is inequality and women are still treated in many respects as second class citizens, there is a need for the movement. Feminism should be about raising women without putting down men. We need to celebrate International Women's Day on behalf of all women on the planet, particularly those who are not in as fortunate a position as me and aren't given the opportunity to have their voice heard.
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?
Emma Elliott: I think the initial issue was on whether the Government is right to be reforming the Gender Recognition Act to make it easier for trans women to self identify as women without having to provide medical proof. I feel lucky to have been assigned the gender at birth that I identify with and as a cis woman consider it my duty to embrace trans women. Perpetuating the idea that gender is binary is not realistic or conducive to the current understanding of gender fluidity.
Ange Bell: I think we need to accept that we all have different needs and sometimes those needs will conflict. It won’t always be possible to make everyone feel safe and protected in shared spaces. I think the important thing is that we handle this with respect and include everyone's voices in the dialogue.
Ange Bell: 'Longing' [left] and 'Joy' [right]
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?
Emma Elliott: At art school, the female students were often teased that history proved that male artists were superior. Thankfully I have not received any obvious discrimination since.
Ange Bell: Yes. Even on social media platforms, men are regarded as the professionals while women are often seen as hobby painters who also have to deal with a family and a number of other commitments. Historically it has been male-dominated and it continues to be so, and this is disappointingly the case because as creatives surely we should understand that the value is in the work and not in the gender of who painted it.
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?
Emma Elliott: There are plenty of shows that my work could be excluded from for some reason or another, so I have no problem with curators wanting to occasionally champion female artists in that way. Saying that, I've personally never exhibited in an all-women show and prefer to be selected on the strength of my work rather than based on my gender.
Ange Bell: I've been to plenty of all-male shows, but people rarely comment on this because they are just seen as shows. Whether the decision to exclude women is conscious or not, the end result is that it is seen as normal for people to go to shows that only show men's work. Until there is more of a balance, we need to counteract this decision-making by galleries and curators. All women shows are a crucial part of this. I've shown with the Society of Women Artists at the Mall Galleries on a number of occasions. As an artist, I see this as another opportunity to showcase my work.
Ange Bell: 'Gulp' [left] and 'Bound' [right]
And finally, if you were to interview yourself as a woman and an artist, what question would you like to be asked and why?
Emma Elliott: I would ask myself as a person, what exciting project are you working on, how will you make it, how will you pay for it, when will you get it done and where on earth will you show it? These are the questions I ask myself daily.
Ange Bell: As an artist, I want to be asked about my art. Women are often asked about their personal lives, responsibilities and gender in a way that male artists aren’t. The question I would like to be asked is ‘what are you currently working on and when are you next showing?’
ManMaid, sculpture by Ian Wolter and Emma Elliott
More articles in this series: