Artist Based on Newton Puts Feminist Perspective on ‘Masterpieces’

On a recent afternoon, school groups and other visitors view the work of Newton-based artist Dinorá Justice in the contemporary wing of the Museum of Fine Arts. “It’s like the holy grail for any artist to walk into a space like this and have all these people looking at your work,” says Justice. “Because that’s really all artists want. It has to be seen.”

The Lay of the Land exhibition is Justice’s first museum show. This is one of the perks of being selected as a 2023 Museum of Fine Arts School Traveling Fellow. Her exhibition consists of paintings of impersonal female silhouettes set against a marble background that reinterpret historical art “masterpieces” from a feminist perspective .

Artist Dinorá Justice stands in the MFA’s contemporary wing, where her exhibition Lay of the Land is on display. (Jacob Garcia/WBUR)

Her work can be better understood by looking at the artist’s version of Eugène Delacroix’s The Women of Algiers. The original painting depicts three seated women while an enslaved woman exits the scene. Art historians still doubt whether Delacroix even had permission to paint them. In his version, Justice replaces the enslaved woman with a silhouette of himself. She says the original painting reinforces the male-dominated society she felt compelled to rebel against.

“I wanted to save them,” she explains. “Take them out of that context and celebrate them for being human beings and also for being wonderful women who are together in this group.”

A recreation of Delacroix's painting The Women of Algiers, created by Dinora Justice, where the women are replaced by silhouettes in front of a green and lush landscape.
Portrait of Dinora Eustis 51, after Delacroix’s Women of Algiers. (Courtesy of the artist)

Justice’s signature impersonal silhouettes stand in stark contrast to the original paintings, which depict more realistic women.

Michelle Miller Fisher is the curator of contemporary decorative arts at the MFA. She says the anonymity Justice affords these women is key to understanding the work. “They’re abstract, they’re anonymous, and so they merge with their landscape in a way that connects them very strongly, both women and nature,” Fisher explains, “as a sort of response to these 19th-century artists who are often so populated with our museums.

According to a study, only 11 percent of U.S. museum acquisitions were works by women artists between 2008 and 2020. And looking at the intersection of race and gender, only 0.5 percent of acquisitions during the same time were works by black artists American women, even though they make up 6.6% of the US population.

Justice defines herself not just as an artist, but as a woman artist. And she is tired of the patriarchal society, but she knows that the problem cannot be solved without recognition. “I’m already hearing, ‘Oh, she’s talking about the patriarchy.’ Patriarchy to me is a system that is very unfair and flawed and has brought us many problems. Justice says. “So I question it.”

Feeling drives her creative process. When she traveled to France to study the works of artists such as Matisse and Titian, she focused on exploring the place of women in those works.

Artist Dinora Justice looks at her painting, Portrait 56, after Delacroix's Women of Algiers
Artist Dinora Justice examines her painting ‘Portrait 56, after Women of Algiers’ by Delacroix. (Jacob Garcia/WBUR)

Justice’s work questions these artists, but Fisher notes that it comes from a place of admiration. “It’s not like a binary or black-and-white critique. But she was very interested in thinking about ways that she could fix and rethink what it means for a woman artist to reach this type of subject matter,” says Fisher.

Justice says she feels compelled to change the perspective of these painted women, but also to empower others through her art. There is also an element of self-satisfaction that she feels when she creates. “I see myself in these ancient women who posed for these male artists,” she says. “And good for them for drawing them, because now I have access to them, but I feel almost entitled to treat their images as mine, and I feel good about that.”

Justice’s paintings are both colorful and critical. Her perspective makes viewers question revered male artists and the status quo, while giving more respect to women. “Hopefully, these paintings will be here long after I’m gone. So I have no control over what people will see,” says Justice. “But there’s always hope that the work you do with some intention does something in the world that’s positive.”

Dinora’s Justice: Earth is on display at the MFA until April.

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