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Allied Arts & Media Feminist Practices

The Art of Change

Feminist Art Conference 2014, OCAD University, Toronto

The process for art-making can boil down to something like this: Make art, get feedback, make art better. Sounds easy, right? It wasn’t for Ilene Sova. In 2012, the Toronto artist-activist was painting portraits of women who had disappeared in Ontario for her Missing Women Project. She wanted to talk about the hard issues she was tackling in her art—patriarchy, misogyny, systemic racism, violence against women—but there wasn’t a group of fellow feminist artists to turn to, at least not a formally organized one.

Sova put out a call for submissions and volunteers and got a rush of responses, including from people in Kenya and Colombia. On International Women’s Day in March 2013, she launched the first Feminist Art Conference (FAC), a multidisciplinary event that brought together artists, activists, and academics of different gender identities, ages, nationalities, and feminisms so they could show their work and use it to spark discussions around important feminist issues.

The conference sold out in two days, attracting 120 participating artists and 150 attendees. “Clearly what I had been missing in my own social practice was something that others in our creative communities were also yearning for,” says Sova. FAC’s subsequent annual conferences have been equally as successful, especially the 2017 event that happened the day of the Women’s March.

‘Ashaba’; No human can look at her directly by Karen White explores unseen oppression. By covering her face while staring straight at the viewer, the artist makes us feel both complicit and engaged in the exploration of colonialism and imperialism.

 Art That Moves

Feminists have been long fed up with the fact that women’s art continues to be undervalued, underrepresented, and often completely ignored. The feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls have been calling out the gender and racial inequality in the arts since 1985 when they picketed the Museum of Modern Art in New York for featuring only 13 women out of 169 artists.

That inequality persists today. Female visual artists earn just 65 percent of the annual income of their male peers, according to a 2018 report by the Ontario Arts Council. Since 2013, women have only accounted for 36 percent of solo exhibitions at Canadian galleries; it’s dramatically less for non-white women. Gender disparity also exists in the performing arts space, which FAC attempts to redress in their events.

FAC has heard all the reasons why feminist work is often shut out of commercial spaces and public institutions. It’s not mainstream or universal (i.e., not male). It’s too angry and personal (i.e., too female) to be good. No one (i.e., men) will buy it. FAC’s response? Carve out spaces to showcase intersectional work that might be deemed taboo elsewhere, for instance, on topics such as rape culture, transphobia, racism, ableism, domestic violence, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, media representation, cultural appropriation, environmental degradation, and Islamophobia. Nothing is off limits. FAC featured a graphic novel about trauma and abuse, Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee, which contains such difficult subject matter that FAC added its first-ever content warning.

Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee explores themes of trauma and abuse by drawing the viewer into the narrative.

According to Sova, people attending FAC events say they are really touched because the art reflects current social issues that affect them. “This creates a very impactful experience for those viewing art or experiencing a performance,” says Sova.

After hosting four conferences, FAC changed its name to the Feminist Art Collective to reflect its expanding mission. It now hosts artist residencies on the Toronto Islands. And its next event—the Feminist Art Festival, March 5 to 7, 2020, at OCAD University—will include a reception, conference, performances, film screening, makers’ market, and a two-week exhibition featuring the work of visual artists.

The Art of the Action

Since day one, FAC has operated as a grassroots organization run entirely by volunteers. Currently, the core team consists of 30 people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Carissa Ainslie, who took on the coordinator role after Ilene Sova became the Ada Slaight Chair of Contemporary Painting and Drawing at OCAD University, describes their current organizational structure as non-hierarchical. “We try to be intersectional in terms of who we’re including in the conversations that we’re having,” says Ainslie. “Ensuring that everyone has a voice at the table is really important regardless of what their experiences have been.”

FAC’s biggest challenge is finding the time and money to put on events, particularly without a physical office or paid staff. It didn’t help that the Ontario government slashed arts sector funding from $18.5 million to $6.5 million earlier this year but, before that, FAC did not have much success getting grants as their conferences are so unique they don’t “tick all the eligibility boxes.” Instead, they’re exploring other options such as sponsorships with companies that align with their values.

For now, FAC relies on in-kind donations for printing services, food and beverages for receptions, and space rentals (OCAD University is a signature partner and hosts the festivals as well as committee meetings). Ticket sales (with pay-what-you-can options) and their annual Made by Feminists market at the Gladstone Hotel also brings in funds.

Despite budget constraints, FAC continues to grow. Submissions for the 2020 festival were up to 187 from 130 in 2017, coming in from Australia, South America, Europe, United States, and Canada. Ainslie says the political landscape has changed since their last conference in 2017 with the #MeToo movement encouraging people to talk openly about sexual harassment and gender inequality.

A voting committee of 11 people (artists, curators, activists, community members and academics) will select the final artists to participate at the festival, through a selection process that considers social justice issues, intersectionality, the collective’s mission and, of course, the strength of the art itself rather than the artist’s professional record.

Not Missing, Not Murdered by Amanda Amour-Lynx features the shirt the artist wore the night she was sexually assaulted. Photo: Black Umbrella Photography, Rebecca Tisdelle-Macias

With FAC serving as a spring board, past participants have gone on to show or perform their work in other venues and countries, collaborated with artists they met at FAC events, and even started conferences (see Black Futures Now and M.I.X.E.D) as well as a literary magazine (Living Hyphen).

Says Ainslie: “The world is a bit ridiculous and I hope people can come together and have some good conversations. We try our best to support the artists the way we can. We can’t always do that with funds but we can by creating a space where artists can build their CV and present work that may not be welcome anywhere else. We just want the best for all the artists involved.”

The Feminist Art Festival runs from March 5 to 7, 2020 in Toronto. Get your tickets here

LiisBeth is all womxn-owned/led.  works to promote entrepreneurs, creatives and innovators in the feminist economy. If you appreciate our work, please consider becoming a donor subscriber. [direct-stripe value=”ds1554685140411″]




This article was made possible thanks to the generosity of Startup Toronto.

Related Articles

Sample Newsletter

Dispatch #21


Ilene Sova, Superwoman, 2013



Why start a business in an industry in crisis (publishing, media, journalism), targeting a demographic (feminist entrepreneurs and business owners) that adds up to a hyper-niche space, and that few, if any advertisers care about (their enterprises tend to be small; read: they have no money).

Because, as Leonard Cohen says, “There is a crack, a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in.”

Creating Cracks 

I recently picked up the book Making Feminist Media by Elizabeth Groeneveld (2016) at the library. The book is about Groeneveld’s insight into feminist media after studying five significant “third wave” feminist publications (Bitch 1996-present, Bust (1993-present), HUES (1992-1999), ROCKRGRL from 1995-2006, Venus Zine (1994-2010), Canada’s Shameless (2004-present), and the only online publication studied Rookie (2010-present).

While their feminisms diverge, what they all have in common is that they aimed to cleave cracks in the steely grey morass we call the system to advance an agenda of social, political, and economic gender equity and equality. Despite the operating challenges and hate mail they received (a phenomenon even before the age of internet trolls), they still triumphantly created vibrant and life-changing media spaces where women and girls could have authentic conversations that matter to them.

Groeneveld notes that these magazines demonstrate, by the nature and stories of their very existence, “what the capitalist market can and cannot sustain.” Their history also shows us why it is so important that healthy societies ensure alternative narratives are heard: These stories become the fodder for the coffeehouse or kitchen table debates that sometimes later lead to the founding of new movements, inventions, businesses or community initiatives that better our world. These magazines didn’t just retread safe consumer narratives—they inspired new ones that catalyzed social change.

If They are so Important, Why is Feminist Media so Hard to Fund?

Feminist media in North America has been around since the early 1700s. A study by Kathleen Endres and Therese Lueck, referenced in Groenveld’s book, which catalogued 76 feminist publications, notes that over one-third of them were defunct after 10 years. Most hung by a financial thread (even in the ‘good old days’ of periodical publishing). If they play such an important role in the lives of women, and our collective path to gender equity, we have to ask why they are so unsustainable.

For starters, enterprises of all sorts generally do better when they address huge markets with big consumer-minded audiences, and in comparison, the number of people who engage with feminist media is low. The fact that the community is also fractured exacerbates the addressable market size problem. There is no one feminism.  While many have a base of loyal paying subscribers, there never seems to be enough of them to make the reader-supported model work on its own. Also, many feminists have (with good reason) been historically suspicious of corporate funding, if not outright anti-capitalist and anti-consumer in their worldviews, and this has not helped the bottom line. Magazines who started to become too commercial in an effort to survive were sometimes punished by their own readers (read: unsubscribed).

However, this appears to be changing. Feminist entrepreneurs, in particular, generally agree that the new imperative is not to ignore capitalist economics, or capitalism as mass culture, but to invent a feminist interpretation of what capitalism could be like if guided by different values. For “how to” inspiration, many look to the social innovation and evolving social enterprise space. New organizational models (e.g.non-hierarchical network organizations or collective impact organizations) and transformative funding models (e.g. community bonds, impact investors, crowdsourcing) are part of today’s feminist changemakers toolkit.

While market realities still befall many, the few recent success stories referenced in the book demonstrate that it is possible to craft an acceptable collage of compromise between sustaining an independent medium for feminist audiences and running a financially viable enterprise that can pay editors, illustrators and writers at the very least, a living wage.

This is good news for the future of feminist media and anyone interested in advancing gender equality and equity. The reality is that new worlds start with new stories.  We need feminist media and storytellers. In fact, it would seem, given recent world events and troubling trends, that we need these outlets and voices more than ever before.

“…reading feminist magazines is much more than the consumption of information or entertainment; it is a profoundly intimate and political activity that shapes how readers understand themselves and each other as feminist thinkers.”–Elizabeth Groeneveld

As a feminist business magazine, LiisBeth is also engaged in navigating this tricky feminist media enterprise design, operating and funding terrain. And as a result we too are working to craft our own unique pastiche of sustainability. For example, rather than accept the either/or options of becoming a nonprofit or for profit, we customized our articles to reflect a for-profit/non-profit hybrid. We chose to further our commitment to social purpose by becoming a certified  B Corp. And like others in the feminist media sisterhood, we also look to leverage new funding sources (e.g. crowdsourcing) along with innovative and aligned sponsorships, swaps (SwapcityB2B, Bunz) and partnerships to build and sustain what we started.

For now, with just over 600 subscribers, we are not yet a bonafide crack—just a chisel mark. But with your continued support, we can indeed become one of the many cracks that lets the light in.

(To subscribe to LiisBeth today, click here)

Other feminist media to consider this holiday season:

Home  (Now defunct, but amazing archive online)

LiisBeth Field Notes

We think this video featuring Marlon James (author of the 2015 Man-Booker-prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings) is one worth watching—and showing your kids. In this video, he talks about the difference between being a non-racist and an anti-racist. Being a non-racist facilitates inaction—perhaps you don’t discriminate, but you also don’t actively work to stop discrimination. He makes a strong case. Simply standing on the sidelines by being non-racist is not enough.

To go a level deeper on understanding the distinctions regarding where one is on a spectrum of non-racist to anti-racist advocacy is also well illustrated in this chart prepared by Rina Campbell of Campbell Consulting in Chicago. In Campbell’s chart, she looks at the difference between a passive non-racist, active non-racist, ally behavior, and anti-racist advocacy, at the individual, community, educational and systemic levels.

After reviewing Campbell’s chart, think about where to you fit in. And then think about how this spectrum framework would apply to your relationship with feminism. We think the same logic can also be applied to other forms of discrimination like gender inequity. Are you sexist? Non-sexist? Or anti-sexist?

Gifts That Keep On Giving: Introducing the B-CORP Gift Guide

Okay, if you are going to buy gifts this holiday season, here is an opportunity to spend your shopping dollars in ways that matter. You can get to the Canadian B Corps online gift guide here. B Corps are businesses committed to positive social and environmental impact. And guess what?! We’re in there!

Other Cool Links to Nifty Gifts:

1. LiisBeth Bookshelf—recommended reads by LiisBeth (when you order via our website, you help us out too!)

2.  Mashable’s feminist gift guide

Can’t Miss Events

LiisBeth attended the Feminist Art Conference (FAC) last year and became a fan of this hidden gem of an event. This year it will be from Jan. 10 to Jan. 21, 2017. They usually sell out, so hurry and register here.

The Feminist Art Conference of Toronto is a volunteer-based organization that brings together artists, academics, and activists to consider feminist issues through art.

LiisBeth is hosting one of the community panels at the FAC on Saturday, Jan. 21, entitled Gender, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation. Panelists include Jack Jackson (All Jacked Up), Renishaki Kamal (Fidget Toys), Emily Rose Antflick (Shecosystem) and more!

And for Your Calendar in 2017, Don’t Forget to Mark:

  • Canadian Women’s March to Washington, Jan. 21.  This event has been organized to support women’s issues in the USA and has now become a Global Movement.A small group of dedicated volunteers are leading the Canadian Initiative and will support these efforts across Canada including a Delegation to Washington, DC. Want to join in? Register here!
  • Forum for Women Entrepreneurs Pitch for the Purse event, Feb. 20, Vancouver, B.C.
  • International Women’s Day March, March 8, 2017
  • Ontario Pay Equity Day, April 19, 2017
  • Digifest is a three-day conference located on Toronto’s waterfront that focuses on the future of education, creativity, entrepreneurship, gaming, and technology; organized by George Brown College. It also features a pitch competition. April 27-29, 2017

Wow! Here you are at the end! If you want to receive our newsletter right into your inbox, sign up here today (Free!)

Activism & Action Our Voices

Ilene Sova: A Woman of Action




Ilene Sova is a Toronto artist, artrepreneur, Tedx Woman speaker and founder of The Feminist Art Conference (FAC). Sova started drawing at age three, and while pursuing her bachelor of fine arts at Ottawa University, developed a keen interest in women’s psychology and feminism. She later combined these three passions and made a commitment to use her painting skills to catalyse discussion of women’s social issues. Her “Missing Women Project” was showcased at the 2013 National Forum on Feminism in Ottawa.

LiisBeth will be moderating a panel on Gender, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation at the upcoming FAC at OCAD University on Saturday, Jan. 21 2017. Panelists include Jack Jackson (AllJackedUp), Renish Kamal (Fidget Toys), Emily Rose Antflick (Shecosystem), and more!

LiisBeth recently sat down with Sova to talk about art, politics and the FAC.

LiisBeth: Why did you found FAC?

Ilene Sova: I founded FAC out of a project that I was working on called the Missing Women Project. I had been painting Missing Women from Ontario for four years in an impassioned attempt to bring about a discussion around violence against women in our local communities. As I was going through each case and doing the research for the portraits it was very clear that each woman had suffered violence due to patriarchal systems of oppression. While I processed this, I had all that feminist rage building up like a pressure cooker. I realized that I really needed to talk about these issues with feminist artists who could give me feedback and context. I came to a realization that I really wanted a supportive community to connect to.

My second realization was that that community didn’t really exist in any organized form in Toronto. So, when I launched the show, I decided that I would organize FAC to bring other feminist artists together to talk about the issues in our work and to meet one another under one roof, make connections, network and create relationships. I made a call for submissions and took the big leap and put it on social media. It had 45 shares by the end of the day. And by the end of that week, I had 20 volunteer committee members come forward! I was getting emails from all over the world (Kenya, Colombia, the U.S.) I was shocked by the reaction! The first FAC was quite magical, and afterwards, everyone was asking, “When is the next one?” I hadn’t thought about doing it again, but when myself and the committee saw the response, we decided in that moment to commit to yearly events and programming to continue with this wonderful energy!

LiisBeth: How many years has FAC been running? What has the response been like?

IS: FAC started in 2012 and our first conference had 60 participating artists and 150 attendees. It sold out in 48 hours. In 2014, we had 120 participating artists and 350 attendees and the conference was fully registered in 54 days. Last year we had 140 participants and 560 people registered! It’s growing beyond my imagination and we now have the addition of the two-week FAC Residency with Artscape Gibraltar Point every spring!

LiisBeth: We just have to ask: since Trump’s win, what are your thoughts about the role of feminism in the coming four years?

IS: My initial feeling about U.S. election news was a strong sense of ambivalence. Does it really matter who won? As a young anti-globalization activist, getting tear gassed pepper sprayed and beaten by police (for speaking out against economic trade agreements) I learned quite early that, to quote Bell Hooks, the “white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist system” will do what it will do. I also experienced how systems issues impact our everyday lives. In my view, the system today is on a fast track to eliminate the middle class, divide people, deregulate, reduce government, erase the social safety net and ultimately privatize services to make immense profits for billionaires. To do that successfully, it MUST create fear, marginalize, oppress, mass imprison, and destroy Indigenous rights. Donald Trump is simply part of a mechanism. And so was Hillary Clinton for that matter—which is why she didn’t win.

As someone who disagrees with how the system works today, and as a feminist activist, I wake up each day asking myself what will I actually do to change it? My answer? I decided to make the kind of art that fuels social change, and focus on helping to build and support my community. I research issues I’m passionate about; and take considered actions to create positive change in people’s everyday lives. It’s the reason I work tirelessly on initiatives like the Feminist Art Conference, getting art education back into our schools with the Blank Canvases project, working hard to provide affordable art spaces at Walnut Studios. These are my points of resistance; this is how I fight back. All the wonderful feminist community organizers in Toronto know it’s time now more than ever to focus on the work in our local areas. As a feminist, if you are feeling demoralized and helpless, give some thought to how you can RESIST in your own, unique way. Help build an active, positive community in spite of the election of a regressive regime in the U.S.. Stand up. Fight back. 

LiisBeth: That sounds like a terrific New’s Year’s resolution item! Thank you, Ilene!


Some Additional FAC Facts

  • In 2013, FAC received over 70 submissions from all over North America, including Colombia and Kenya.
  • FAC 2015  expanded to one week of activities including three satellite exhibitions (one at The University of Toronto, one at York University and one at Artscape Youngplace). Participants came from as far away as Norway, South Korea, Australia, Hong Kong, Turkey and the U.S.

What to Expect at FAC 2017(running Jan. 10-21)

Another incredible lineup of speakers, artists and panels, including:

  • Liisbeth – Gender, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation (Jan 21)
  • Queering Feminist Art Class Panel Presented by Feminist Art Gallery / York University
  • Centre for Pluralism in the Arts Ontario – Women of Colour and Equity: Double Trouble
  • Black Futures Now – Organise This!: The Ethics, Politics, and Joys of Organising a Black Conference
  • Closing Keynote Presented by Native Women in the Arts: Sadie Buck Interviewed by Erika Iserhoff
  • Maker’s market!

For more information and the detailed schedule, go to

To register, go to