Strong, articulate and determined to be heard, these five women pushed back on what was possible, and did it their way. The result? Some of the world’s best loved, and most successful art, architecture, music and fashion.
To say that Iranian-born architect’s organic, voluptuous buildings could only have been designed by a woman is, of course, simplistic and borderline patronizing. But like all sweeping statements, it holds a kernel of truth. Known as the ‘Queen of the Curve’ – Hadid is one of the most awarded female architects of all time. Before her untimely death last year, she’d been made a Dame of the British Empire (she moved to London in 1972), the Stirling Prize twice, and the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects (the first woman to do so).
Her work might be instantly recognizable, but it’s the sheer variety of shapes, forms and solutions to space that prevents it from being self-referential. Hadid never played the same hand twice. And she loved jaunty angles every bit as much as she did curvaceous swoops.
Critics consider her to be a master of Deconstructivism: “Almost all of Hadid’s buildings appear to melt, bend, and curve into a new architectural language that defies description,” said Allison Lee Palmer, Professor of Art and Architecture at Oklahoma University,
It was Hadid’s early and enthusiastic use of digital technologies, and the possibilities it opened for really reinventing what structures could do that gave her an instant head start, and created a real difference from the boxy, skyscraper obsession of the leading artituyres in the 70s.
Her work spans the globe – from the butterfly wings of the graceful London Aquatic Stadium to the future-city vision of Galaxy Soho in Beijing, the audacious Port Authority Building flying in like some alien spaceship docking in Antwerp, and the sensual draping folds of the Heydar Aliyev Center in Azerbaijan, Hadid’s best work just brings a smile to you face, as it lurches, jumps and shimmers. It’s theatrical, yes, but it’s warm and human too.
She had a ‘rare kind of courage’, said friend and peer, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, on learning of her death. ‘Her combination of beauty and strength was an inspiration to us all. The pleasure her work as given to all of our lives is incomparable.’
Born in New York, of Chinese descent, Vera Wang was the youngest ever fashion editor of Vogue, when she was hired after graduating from esteemed Sarah Lawrence College. The 15 years experience she gained here enabled her to not only learn the inner workings of the fashion industry but also to form firm friendships and business connections along the way.
Now, her work, the gold standard in high-end bridal wear, has been worn by everyone from Jennifer Lopez to Chelsea Clinton, and her single bridal boutique has grown into a fashion and lifestyle empire that takes in engagement rings and ready-to-wear through to homewares such as dinner plates and linens.
And the return for this level of determination and motivation? The retail value of Vera Wang’s collections is estimated to be more than $1 billion per year. That’s not a bad way to show the world you can do this your way.
When artists like David Hockney and Andy Warhol were blazing a colorful trail through the art world of the 60s, living it up in LA and New York, and generally courting the media buzz that threatened to outshine their work, British artist Bridget Riley turned her back on all that. When the commercial world beckoned, and fame and fortune came knocking, she turned, fully and firmly, into her art.
In 1968 – a year of ferment and cultural revolutions – she was running a commune of artists in the east end of London, a world away from the prying eyes of the media obsessed with her work ever since her groundbreaking 1965 New York exhibition – The Responsive Eye. The show that launched Riley’s kaleidoscopic and discombobulating Op Art into the world. Her draftsman’s eye and rhythmic, hallucinogenic canvasses seemed to shift time and space. And they hit the art world like a sledgehammer. But Riley, upset by the commercialization of the style, withdrew from the limelight to concentrate on ever bigger and more dynamic works. More colorful too.
Influenced by Jackson Pollock, London-born Riley is one of the 20th century’s foremost female artists – actually, make that artists, period. She’s still working today, and exhibits all over the world. Her work – shifting, hard to pin down, playful and provocative – as alive and vital as the artist herself.
Bjork started doing things her way earlier than you might of thought. Born in Reykjavik in 1965, she lived with her mother in a commune and released her first album when just 11 years old. But soon, it was punk that really lit up the Nordic agent provocateur’s life up, forming and disbanding a range of riotous groups with names such as Spit and Snot. But it was the Sugarcubes that really catapulted Bjork, and her otherworldly, dynamic and guttural vocals into the limelight – put simply, she broke the sound barrier. Their breakthrough hit, Birthday, perfectly capturing Bjork’s howls, shrieks, vulnerability and tenderness too. It’s this intoxicating mix that weaves through her early solo work – Debut and Post brilliantly conceived statements of intent, both shot through with brilliant pop gems: Venus as a Boy and Human Behavior, tracks with heart and soul to spare. But it was in her videos where we began to get a sense of just how complete, restless and ground-breaking an artist Bjork really was. Her astute touch with collaborates saw her enlist Michel Gondry, Chris Cunningham and Dogme filmmaker, Lars von Trier.
Continually striving to propel herself, and her work, into challenging new territories, Bjork released Medúlla, an album made entirely of vocals, worked with then partner, American artist Matthew Barney on art film Drawing Restraint 9, an exploration of Japanese culture. She’s gone on to work with Timbaland on Volta, her sixth album, Icelandic writer Sjón, and released a song railing against her homeland’s environmental policies, “Náttúra”, with Radiohead’s frontman Thom Yorke.
Recently, Björk and Michel Gondry have collaborated on a 3-D scientific musical about the way science and nature inform each other. Released as a series of apps and educational projects – Biophilia really did break new ground, and showed Bjork was an artist at the height of her powers. But the vulnerability continued – as evidenced on her painfully raw and honest Vulnicura– a visceral portrayal of her breakup with Matthew Barney. But then, Bjork’s never shied away from an access-all-areas approach, as evidenced in Björk Digital, a virtual reality exhibit allowing us to get even closer to this shape-shifting genius.
Born Erica Abi Wright in Dallas in 1971, Erykah Badu started free-styling for a local radio station when she was just 14, changing her name’s spelling because she believed her original name was a “slave name”.
Drawing from R&B, soul and hip-hop, Erykah’s unique recipe was unlike anything we’d heard before. Straight out of the gate, her debut Baduizm, debuted at number two on the Billboard charts and number one on the US Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. Critics compared her to Billie Holliday, but in truth, she was no-one other than Erykah Badu. And she proved it, conclusively, on her next outing, the game-changing Mama’s Gun – a breathless mash up of neo soul, funk and jazz.
New Amerykah Part One and Two offered more object lessons in music that was as political as it was personal: “I’m not afraid to show my butt-naked truth,” she said. The self-proclaimed ‘Analogue Girl’ had bought her first computer, and the electronic sampling and snippets added a frisson and crackle to her work.
She’s working harder than ever these days, adding DJing, acting and philanthropy to the mix – “I’m a touring artist, not a recording artist,” she says, of the increasing gap between albums (a new one’s on the way, she’s promised) and she remains a big draw throughout the world, not least her snappy, chatty social media presence. She’s working with rappers barely old enough to have been born when her first work came out – but her ‘Godmother of soul’ persona precedes her, and everyone from Drake to DRAM is keen to bask in her presence. Still an activist, she set up her own charity organization, Beautiful Love Incorporated, to provide “community-driven development for inner-city youth” through the use of music, dance, theater and visual arts. Still kicking out, still essential, still Eryka, her mantra says it all: “When you do it, it gotta be real, or that’s not it.”