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The art world can be a boys club, even today.

That underscores the significance of Time to Pretend, the one-night group exhibition happening tomorrow. All eight of the artists showing their work are women. All either live in the area or have Philly ties. The show opens tomorrow at Open Space Gallery (near 7th and Girard); admission is $12.

In 2015, ARTnews magazine published a sweeping analysis of gender in the art world. The magazine found that underrepresentation persisted across major exhibitions, within works on display in museums and galleries, and among museum professionals. A closer look at some of the top museums and exhibitions revealed gross disparities; for example, only 14 percent of of the Guggenheim’s solo exhibitions in 2014 came from women artists.

Billy Penn reached out to many of the artists— who work in media including painting, photography and digital prints— to ask how they got started, and how they navigate as women in their fields. Their individual responses are below.

Julie Mallis, 27, digital print artist, @juliemallisart

I would doodle a lot as a way to fight boredom, concentrate in school and as a creative outlet that helped me to feel empowered in expressing myself.

Phobymo, 26, photographer, @phobymo, creator of Time to Pretend

I’ve honestly always felt like I’d like photography, so two and half years ago (with the help of American Express) I splurged on a DSLR and never looked back.

Taylor Brady, 20, photographer, @taylorbradyphoto

Growing up, both my parents had backgrounds in the arts so I was always encouraged to drawing as a young girl. When I turned 12 I began looking at photo sharing sites like Photobucket, Tiny Pics, etc., and became so inspired that I started taking photos with my phone camera.  A year later, I received my first digital camera and from there I began to experiment and find my own style.

Kimber Beck, 26, photographer, @bimberkeck_

I started my journey with photography after a 6 year, on and off, all consuming relationship in 2013ish. I came out of that relationship lost and insecure and feeling like I had spent so much time being hushed and kept. I needed an outlet. I needed to discover who I was, what I was made of. Sometimes I felt like I didn’t even know what I looked like or what I wanted and my self portraits somehow helped me show myself that.

Mina Lee, 22, photographer, @minadelphia

As my technical knowledge grew shooting for [JUMP] magazine, so did my desire to create more personal work that not only served as documentation, but also as a way to journal my progress and growth as a person.

My work as a photographer comes from the female gaze, and is intended as such. So many spaces are male-dominated, but opposition is not my underlying statement. It is inherently coming from a femme, and there’s no way to really change that in perception when all of my work is a first person view straight from the lens.

[pullquote content=”People always assume I’m a dude… which is why I started posting selfies on my photography page. ” align=”right” credit=”Phobymo”]

Incorrect assumptions proliferate

Mallis: I think there is a certain level of believed “incompetency” or lack of faith in the skill ability of women. As an artist who primarily works in electronic time-based media, men are still seen as more technically advanced. I have been entirely ignored for producing live visuals while men nearby are praised, because they are mistaken for being the artist behind the work.

Phobymo: I think that the photography world is just completely dominated by white males. People always assume I’m a dude (Morgan/Mo are pretty unisex names) which is why I started posting selfies on my photography page. That way people know a black woman is behind the images they’re seeing.

Brady: I feel that we have to prove we are more than our looks, and that we have as much creative input to offer as anyone else does.

Mallis: In professional environments, which are often male dominated, I have also been subject to sexual harassment, sexism, and tokenism.

Credit: Julie Mallis

Lee: Women all over in the art scene struggle to fight sexist tropes about the type of art we create, while still being true and following our own desires, even if some may say that leads to unoriginal, or “try hard” work. There’s some delicate balance when it comes to avoiding a stereotype– you don’t want to let the fear of falling into it absolutely dictate steering the direction of your work.

The subject matters

Beck: I’m currently working on a series where the female models pick a fruit and rip it open and hold it in front of their crotch. It’s meant to represent that we are women, and we are ripped apart on the inside in order to be a woman, and that while we are the same, we are all different, and while we are different, we are all the same.

Now, I didn’t explain this in the caption. I titled it “hers”, which is what the series will be called, and left it at that. Well, at least 5 guys responded to the image stating that “they had wanted to do a similar concept.” And, to be fair, they don’t know what my concept of this image truly was but, also to be fair, that’s annoying. To me that says that their idea of a concept is simply a visual experience backed by no reasoning, but that’s beside the point.

My point is, I don’t think a man could do that shoot. I won’t go as far to say that they shouldn’t, but just to give an example for the question that relates to me personally, that’s what I’ve got.

[pullquote content=”There’s some delicate balance when it comes to avoiding a stereotype— you don’t want to let the fear of falling into it absolutely dictate steering the direction of your work.” align=”left” credit=”Mina Lee”]

Phobymo: So many men like to take nude photos of women and pass it off as “art.” That’s not to say it can’t be or isn’t, but if that’s all a photographer is doing…I feel like it takes the humanity out of the women they’re shooting. It’s almost as if they become props.

Like when a male photographer states that they shoot nude women to showcase that the nude form is okay, that to me feels like a man is saying it’s okay for women to be naked, but only because they’re saying it is.

That’s why when I shoot, I do a lot of portraits focusing on the face and the eyes of a model. I want to tell a story with my photos and really convey who the model is as a person. I feel like women are more comfortable modeling for women than they might be for a male photographer, so it really allows for me to capture who they are as well.

Beck: As a female artist on social media I have experienced issues:

  • My account was deleted at 62k and I was not given my account back when I have had multiple male friends that shoot full nude, sometimes uncensored, photography that have been deleted and given their accounts back.
  • I have multiple men hitting on me through my DMs when I bet half of them couldn’t even tell you which woman I am on my page… So, they are not only unsure who they are hitting on but they are also basing it solely on the body parts seen in my photos.

Phobymo: I’m actually a full time accountant (another white male dominated field). I’m very fortunate to work at an awesome company with a super diverse finance department and am super lucky to have a wide variety of friends in the photography world, so I honestly think what’s been best for me is to just be myself.

Lessons for flourishing

Mallis: If you do not share your own narrative, someone else will try to shape it for you. Contrary to some populist belief, art is extremely important in pushing forward ideas and progress. Art is both a reflection of, a reaction to, and an answer for our political climate. We must resist traditional systems in place and push for an equitable, sustainable future where everybody has access to basic services, human rights, dignity and respect.

Phobymo: My lesson would be to not compromise. Don’t change who you are in order to fit in with everyone else. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s seriously so important. You’ll get lost in a sea of average, boring people if you just try to be like everyone else. Live your truth.

Credit: Taylor Brady

Brady: Don’t be so afraid! Put yourself out there and the universe will take care of the rest.

Mallis: My advice is to seek out mentors, diversify your funding streams, collaborate, keep making work, enjoy the breaks you take from making, and keep on pushing yourself to be free flowing in your creative expression.

Lee: You make it work by surrounding yourself with other powerful, motivated, and expressive femmes. There’s no way to always keep your head up, but surrounding yourself with living inspiration will do miracles when you’re at a loss for your own personal inspiration…

Make friends with anyone who is passionate about expression in any medium. Don’t be scared to challenge thoughts and feelings, and have open conversations about whatever matters to you.

Cassie Owens is a reporter/curator for BillyPenn.com. She was assistant editor at Next City and has contributed to Philadelphia City Paper, Metro, the Jewish Daily Forward, The Islamic...