Australian Women's Art
Dr Deborah Hart, Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), tells the amusing story that when she was making a pitch to the gallery management to stage a major exhibition of Australian women's art, she projected a slide with the portraits of numerous women artists. The director asked, does everyone know their names? So was born the idea to stage a major exhibition of Australian women's art simply called 'Know my name'.
Know my name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now is a vast exhibition with over 400 works by more than 170 Australian women artists working from 1900 through to the present. It is being staged in two parts - the first from Friday 13 November 2020 to 4 July 2021 and the second part opens in late July 2021.
Having and exhibition based on gender is invariably problematic and historically artists like Margaret Preston and Georgia O'Keeffe were well known for refusing to exhibit in 'she-gender' exhibitions. Critics of gender segregated exhibitions speak of a 'ghetto mentality' and will argue that good art will always rise to the top and does not need any special nurturing conditions. A similar case has been argued concerning Indigenous art - that it should simply be seen as Australian art and will shine through its own brilliance.
The contrary argument is that the whole structure of the 'art industry' is engendered and discriminates against women artists. Sadly this is difficult to refute as the facts speak for themselves. According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 51% of visual artist today are women yet few public art galleries exhibit more than 25% women artists on their walls. At the Tate, for example, in 2017, 27% of living contemporary artists in the Tate collection were women, while at the NGA 25% of its Australian art collection and 33% of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection is by women artists.
Please don't bring up Linda Nochlin and why there have been no great women artists article, that was fifty years ago and today it is simply boring. The fact remains that there are entrenched mechanisms in place that hinder the emergence and recognition of women artists in Australia and there is a good case to exercise affirmative action and to stage a major all-women exhibition.
The proof has to lie in the pudding and how good is Australian women's art and the Know my name show? Firstly, what is the show about? It is not an exhibition of dusted off pieces by obscure women artists drawn from the vaults of the NGA and now presented centre stage. It is a carefully curated exhibition (main curators: Deborah Hart and Elspeth Pitt) that is designed to bring to the fore the best and most interesting of Australia women's art from the past 120 years with numerous loans from museums, art galleries and private collections across the country; specifically acquired pieces by the NGA for this exhibition as well as treasures and lesser known works from the exceptionally rich holdings from the NGA collection. It includes Indigenous and non-Indigenous art, painting, printmaking, sculpture, photography, video, installation work and a generous cross-section of the applied arts.
The NGA is billing this exhibition as, "the most comprehensive presentation of art by women assembled in this country to date ... Know My Name is not a complete account; instead, the exhibition proposes alternative histories, challenging stereotypes and highlighting the stories and achievements of women artists."
Visually, in a word, it is stunning. Located in the NGA's original main galleries with the ridiculously high ceilings and cement walls - the spaces have never looked so good in the time I've known the building since its opening in 1982 - some of the walls have been 'shifted'. rebuilt, reclad and all have been repainted. The height has been used to an advantage rather than as a crushing blow that in Robert Hughes' memorable turn of phrase made Pollock's Blue Poles look like a shimmering postage stamp.
Some really huge pieces have been unfurled, like Judy Watson's nearly six-metre-long painting Canyon, 1997. Huge installations dangle from above, including Mira Gojak's Transfer Station I, and exhibits are allowed to crawl up walls whether it be a display of feminist posters, abstract geometrics of Margaret Worth, early anatomical pieces by Marie Hagerty, a new bronze mandala-like sculpture by Linda Lee (2020) or the classic floating brides by Rosemary Laing.
The exhibition has been built around seven themes with porous borders: Connection with country, Performing gender, Collaboration and care, Colour, light and abstraction, Micky's Room, Lineages and Remembering. Chronology is treated in diachronic terms - something that happens across time with numerous points of reference - rather than a linear construct of time.
Part of the strength of the show is that it provides a new perspective to the familiar. Important Aboriginal pieces by Sally Gabori, Queenie McKenzie, Emily Kame Kngwarreye and the Utopia batiks are juxtaposed with major installation works by Fiona Hall, Rosalie Gascoigne and Janet Lawrence.
In another space, the female form is interrogated with monumental well-known performative photographic series by Anne Ferran, Tracey Moffatt and Julie Rrap shown in their entirety. Also in the space are the less iconic female nudes by Janet Cumbrae Stewart, Freda Robertshaw and other female artists working earlier in the 20th century as well as sculptures by Mestrom Sanné and Rosemary Madigan.
I did leave the exhibition feeling excited - from the moment you entered guided by Inge Kings' s black two-and-a-half-metre high Fetish, past the walls of images of Australian women artists' portraits, Micky Allan's quirky room installation, Vivienne Binns' newly acquired Tower of Babel, 1989 and eX de Medici's brand new sprawling almost six-metre-long The wreckers, 2018-19.
It is a national exhibition, not simply Melbourne-Sydney in its focus, with Western Australian, South Australian and Queensland women artists all well represented. Naturally, not everyone in the 'sisterhood' will be pleased about inclusions and exclusions in the exhibition and there will be a deafening 'why not me' outcry. In many instances the question is valid and hopefully as more public art spaces realise that women artists make art at least as interesting as their male counter parts, we will see more gender equity in the display of Australian art.
Know my name is a free exhibition at the NGA in Canberra, but timed online bookings are necessary in compliance with COVID restrictions. Part one will be on display until 4 July 2021 and part two from late July 2021.
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
Keep up-to-date with Sasha Grishin's blog with the RSS feed.
RSS offers ease of access and ensures your privacy, as you do not need to subscribe with an email address.
Click here to download a free feed reader