by Noemi Ehrat
Less than 5% of Zurich's famous public sculptures are made by women, yet 85% of the nudes are female. In the midst of nationwide women's strikes in Switzerland, anonymous activists have taken to Instagram to demand change.
“Do women in Zurich have to be naked to get into the public space?” a handwritten cardboard sign in front of the statue of two women – naked, of course – reads.
The “Mädchengruppe”, or group of girls, by Swiss artist Arthur Tigram Abeljanz, on Basteiplatz in Zurich, is one of several artworks featured on the anonymous group Hulda Zwingli’s Instagram feed. Swiping to the post’s next picture, the statue is wrapped in red barrier tape reading “as long as no art by female artists is being displayed here, I’m a feminist”. The taped statue is part of the Zurich based collective’s endeavour to draw attention to the underrepresentation of female artist’s in Zurich’s public space and museums.
In a nod to the US feminist group Guerrilla Girls, another post’s caption reads “less than 5% of the artists in public spaces in Zurich are women but 85% of the nudes are female”. The Instagram account publishes such photographic commentary on artworks every few days, along with screenshots of newspaper articles covering the topic of female representation in art and museum programmes, visually highlighting the absence of female artists.
However, while the Guerrilla Girls started their campaign to bring gender and racial inequalities in the art world into focus in the 1980s, Hulda Zwingli only became active on social media last year. The first few photos were posted on June 14th, 2020 – the anniversary of the second nationwide women’s strike, where over 500,000 women protested the slow advancement of gender equality in Switzerland.
The strike was held on the same date as the first one in 1991 which was only twenty years after women had been granted the right to vote. Protesters wanted to draw attention to the slow implementation of the constitutional article on gender equality that had been introduced ten years earlier. It was the biggest political mobilisation in Swiss history since the general strike in 1918.
Yet not much - or not enough - had changed since then. Switzerland still lags behind when it comes to gender equality, with the country ranking 18th worldwide in the global gender gap index, the penultimate rank in Western Europe, in that year.
More Powerful as a Collective
“Hulda came into being after the strike in 2019”, one of the collective’s members confirms. The Zurich-based group chooses to remain anonymous – “we cannot be attacked as individuals if we appear as an anonymous collective” the member – henceforth referred to as Hulda – explains.
Hulda’s members have experienced that little to nothing changes fighting on their own. “We’re respected as a collective and receive more attention” Hulda says.
Hulda’s bio reads “native of Zurich, born June 14th, multiple personality, will burn at the stake”. Her multiple personality refers to the different members who contribute to the fictive figure. “It’s not only fun to be part of a collective, this way we can also gather more information" Hulda explains. It would be too much work for one person to update the feed every single day: “It takes so much time to do all the research and fact check everything”. She describes the collective as a “loose network of around a dozen people from 25 to over 60”. Most have professions somehow connected to the art world “but not everyone is employed in the arts”.
Yet the multiple personality also refers to the fictitious composition of Hulda’s name. She’s not based on one but, rather, several historical figures who shaped Zurich, such as Hulda Zumsteg, a prominent Swiss restaurateur and art collector, and reformer Huldrych Zwingli’s wife, Anna Reinhart.
Hulda owes her portrait and logo, a painting from the Reformation period, to the latter – although the collective has appropriated the painting by adding glasses in the form of Venus symbols to the stern-looking portrait. “We wanted to create a persona who appears a bit outdated to reflect the backwardness of the situation in Zurich” Hulda explains.
Blocked by Kunsthaus Zürich
Why try to bring about change by running an anonymous Instagram account? “It’s convenient to have this virtual exhibition space during a pandemic” Hulda explains. The platform also allows the collective to stay in dialogue with their followers and include their submissions in Hulda’s stories and posts.
“The question is how can we reach out to the broader public and raise awareness of these issues when only a certain amount of people in Zurich are interested in culture and even less in the mechanisms of the art world?”
Yet she does seem to be reaching the right people. The Kunsthaus Zurich, one of the leading art museums in Switzerland, and one of the institutions frequently criticised by the collective for its failure to address gender disparity, appears to have blocked the activists’ account. “We can’t load their page or tag them anymore" Hulda says.
The reason for Hulda’s focus on the art museum is simple: a whopping 80 percent of the city’s budget for art goes to the Kunsthaus. And her demand is clear: because the museum receives public funding, it should have to adhere to the city’s existing plan for gender equality, as well as the Swiss Gender Equality Act and Article 8 of the Swiss federal constitution, all of which seek to further parity.
A Quota for Parity
Exactly how backward Zurich, and indeed Switzerland’s, attitude towards women’s art is can be demonstrated in the number of female artists included in its museums: around 20 to 30 percent of artists included in exhibitions are female. When it comes to collections, Hulda estimates that the number is reduced to a meagre five percent. “We’re still far away from any sort of parity” Hulda says.
“So far, the city government doesn’t want to weigh in on the debate around women’s representation in cultural institutions – probably on the grounds that it doesn’t want to intervene in art” Hulda says. According to the activists, however, action is direly needed. One way to introduce this would be to make a quota, a condition tied to public funds. “A quota would at least be possible in the area of contemporary art” Hulda says.
“The thing about the public space is that you cannot escape it. You can choose if you want to visit a museum or not, but you’re going to be confronted by the cityscape every day”
The same applies to art in public spaces, as managed by the city’s department “Kunst im öffentlichen Raum”. “The thing about the public space is that you cannot escape it” Hulda says. “You can choose if you want to visit a museum or not, but you’re going to be confronted by the cityscape every day”. She’s convinced that having an overwhelming majority of male artists present in the city has an impact on the city’s inhabitants, if only subconsciously.
This June, it will be two years since the last big women’s strike and one year since Hulda started her activity on Instagram. Her future is uncertain, as keeping up the frequency of posts is time-consuming, and every member also has to earn their living. “Maybe the account will cease to exist if the circumstances evolve”, Hulda says.
And she is hopeful: the art world is rapidly changing, and several museums have started to pay more attention to representation, “but you always have to exert pressure, nothing changes voluntarily”, concludes Hulda. Until the change has been established even in the most conservative of institutions, Hulda will continue to expose inequalities where she sees them – if necessary with red barrier tape and cardboard signs.
Noemi Ehrat is a freelance journalist from Zurich based in Reykjavik, Iceland. All images included in this article are from the Instagram account of Hulda Zwingli.