8 Subversive Women Artists To Know

by Kate Harveston

Women’s History Month is drawing to a close. However, there is still time to celebrate women in the arts throughout the year. Many  pioneers have brought attention to feminist issues through their artwork. Read on to learn more about some of the most celebrated and controversial artists.

Emma Sulkowitz

emmasulkowicz b6d32Emma Sulkowicz, Mattress Performance, 19 May 2015, by Adam Sherman via Wikimedia Commons

Emma Sulkowitz says she was in her fourth year at Columbia University in New York when she was raped by Paul Nungesser in her dorm room. Sulkowitz filed a complaint with the university, requesting that Nungesser be expelled. Though the university investigated the matter, they concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the allegations.

In protest, Sulkowitz produced one of this decade’s most memorable works of performance art: “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight).” Sulkowitz carried a 50-lb dorm mattress all around campus. The mattress signified the burden that rape victims carry with them always following an attack, turning the sanctuary of their bed into an experience fraught with terror and shame. Sulkowitz’s performance art piece hit the New York Times front page, and brought new awareness to the problem of sexual assault on college campuses.

Diane Arbus

diane arbus identical twins roselle n. j 6983eIDENTICAL TWINS, ROSELLE, N. J, by Diane Arbus via artnet

Diane Arbus photographed those margnialized by society, including mentally ill people, transgender folks and dwarfs.  Best known for her black and white photographs, Arbus used the camera to tell the true life story of those often only known for their eccentricities.


Marina Abramovic

marina 7e376Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present, photo by Andrew Russeth via Wikimedia Commons

Seeing the body as “the point of departure for any spiritual development,” Marina Abramovic eschews the pen and paintbrush and instead uses her body to create incredible performance art. Born in Communist Yugoslavia, Abramovic creates performance art that rebels against the existing power structure and regime in her native country.

Abramovic also explores the connection between nature and humanity, culture and the individual, and more through her creative performance art. She is best known for exploring the relationship between the audience and the performer in her enactments.


Wangechi Mutu

wangechi 31a56Wangechi Mutu – Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tummors (2004) via CEA/Flickr Creative Commons

Born in Nairobi, Kenya, artist Wangechi Mutu now makes her home in Brooklyn, New York. She is best known for her exploration of the female body through her art, seeing the female body as a canvas on which all of society have written. Her paintings utilize the female body to explore how femininity is perceived by culture and society.

As an environmentalist, Mutu connects the oppression of women in much of society with the destruction of the planet, a theme often explored in her work. A shout against oppression and destruction, Muto’s paintings offer a carthartic release from twisted societal mores where money and masculinity rule.

Li Xinmo

lixinmo 16bfcSelf Portrait by Li Xinmo, via li-xinmo.com

Bejing-based artist Li Xinmo doesn’t restrict herself to one type of media. Xinmo utilizes a combination of video, photography, paintings, and performance art to create her unique vision of the world. Xinmo’s work captures the loneliness and bleakness of a society in which millions of people live and work in despair and isolation from one another. Her paintings, in particular, evoke deep feelings of melancholy which stem from the disconnect of individuals from each other.

Casey Jenkins

Ever heard of vaginal knitting? Casey Jenkins is the woman behind this controversial art form, in which she knitted a long passage of yarn which she then inserted in her vagina. Through the 28 day piece, she menstruated, turning the knitted yarn from white to red, then back to white again. Jenkins created this artistic performance to intimately explore the connection between time, the human body, and the complexity of nature found in the female form.

Her piece drew considerable criticism, with many describing the act as gross. However, the piece accurately reflects the phases of the menstrual cycle as a thing to be celebrated, not as something too disgusting to discuss.

Ewa Partum

ewapartum cb730Ewa Partum, Self-Identification, 1980, via Wikimedia Commons

A poet as well as filmmaker and performance artist, Ewa Partum explores the misogyny inherent in our patriarchal society through her art. In her piece, “Self-Identification,” Partum features a scene of a crowded city street in Warsaw with her naked body superimposed, symbolizing the female search for identity in a world that either defines their bodies as a Madonna to be worshiped or a whore to be shamed. Openly feminist, her work explores what it is to be a woman in what is still very much a man’s world.


Juliana Huxtable
huxtable 834b1
“Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm)” by Juliana Huxtable via Guggenheim.org

Juliana Huxtable is an American artist, performer and writer. Her art explores a number of unique themes, including the essence of the human body, the internet, and the history and meanings behind various forms of text.  Huxtable was born intersex and assigned male at birth, and she began transitioning in college. She often explores gender and identity in her work.


Art allows women to express their experiences in a way that transcends words. Their messages relating to women’s rights resonate through their work and creative endeavors and should be paid attention to during Women’s History Month and every month.

top photo: Emma Sulkowicz via Wikimedia Commons

More from BUST

Emma Sulkowicz Talks Art And Rape Culture: BUST Interview

Artist Shedia Soleimani Creates Petroleum Pin-Ups To Fetishize The World’s Reliance On Oil: BUST Interview

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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