Know My Name, a thrilling exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, pays tribute to the radical achievements of Australian women artists – while reminding us that representation is only the beginning of structural change. By Neha Kale.
Know My Name
The woman in the red cheongsam stands on burnt-orange earth straight out of a Russell Drysdale painting. She has a faraway look in her eyes. Over the following scenes she steals an evening gown and hitches a ride out of town with a biker. She ends up facedown on the road, the promise of the big city still 300 miles away.
The photo series Something More was made in 1989 by Tracey Moffatt, then a rising photographer associated with the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative. The work’s moody glamour voices narratives – the isolation of small-town Australia, the limits of a life circumscribed by race and gender – that are alive in Australian culture but hidden from view.
Something More commands a far wall at the National Gallery of Australia’s Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now. Standing in front of the work feels less like an occasion to acknowledge Moffatt’s existence – she’s famous for a reason – than a chance to bask in the audacity of her vision. The work takes a darkly ironic look at the way women are caught between legacies and possibilities. Three decades on, it’s as electrifying as ever.
The year Moffatt made Something More, the Guerrilla Girls, a group of New York artist-activists, famously plastered SoHo streets with posters that asked: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”
Numbers tell a grim story about the relationship between art and patriarchy.
In 2019, Artnet found that female artists accounted for 11 per cent of work acquired by American institutions. The same year, research by independent artist-run initiative “The Countess Report” revealed that women comprise 34 per cent of institutional collections around Australia, although 71 per cent of art students identify as female. The NGA, with an Australian collection that includes just 25 per cent of work by women, isn’t immune to gender bias.
Know My Name, curated by Deborah Hart and Elspeth Pitt, features 300 works from 144 Australian artists, all women. It’s a dazzling presentation, held over two instalments, that takes over the museum’s first-floor galleries. The largest exhibition of its kind staged in Australia is aimed at correcting the NGA gender balance and strives to be “a celebration, a commitment, a call to action”.
This move is admirable, even necessary. But as I walked through the show, I noticed a dissonance between this language of representation, which is couched in the blanket positivity of feminist empowerment, and works that encourage ways of seeing that are radical, subversive and specific.
Anne Ferran’s 1986 photo series Scenes on the Death of Nature, for example, inserts teenage girls, swathed in drapery, into tableaus that ape the great Neoclassical monuments of the Western tradition. But the work’s mastery of light and shadow adds up to images so lustrous that they trap the viewer between the artist’s weakness for beauty and distaste for objectification.
Meanwhile in the same room, Persona and Shadow (1984) sees Julie Rrap, a pioneer of Australian performance art, rearrange herself over Edvard Munch’s silhouettes of the Madonna, a siren, an old woman. The friction between the awkwardness of the artist’s body and the archetypes Munch painted generates an incendiary energy that creates its own force field.
Last year, the NGA acquired the entirety of Persona and Shadow, a series of dye destruction prints, as part of Know My Name’s pledge to achieve equity across its collections. Acquisitions by institutions or collectors have always been part of the promise of the all-woman art show, conceived in the wake of second-wave feminism. Seeing extraordinary works by women together, the logic goes, can unearth the singular talents of female artists.
Shows such as Australian Women Artists: One Hundred Years, 1840-1940, a touring exhibition organised by Melbourne’s George Paton Gallery in 1975, and The Women’s Show, presented by Adelaide’s Women’s Art Movement in 1977, were part of a generational attempt to elevate women’s voices.
This impulse found a second life in the #MeToo era. Know My Name is part of a global movement that includes shows such as 2017’s Unfinished Business, at the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art in Melbourne, but also social media campaigns, books and merchandise.
Now you can post work by Georgia O’Keeffe on Instagram, courtesy of initiatives such as #5WomenArtists. You can wear a T-shirt emblazoned with the names of female art legends (Frida, Yayoi, Artemisia, Louise). You can read about Hilma af Klint, the Swedish mystic who made absurdly gorgeous abstractions, and catch her work at the Guggenheim – or at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from June, in a lucky coup for Sydneysiders.
But in September 2019, a joint investigation by Art Agency, Partners and ArtNet News found that work by women made up just 2 per cent of the $US196.6 billion global art market. If Know My Name skewers age-old mythologies – the bad-boy artist, the artist-provocateur – it’s for good reason. The art world still conflates masculine entitlement with artistic vision.
In November last year, Henri’s Armchair, a 1975 painting by Brett Whiteley, sold for $A6.13 million, a new Australian record. Last March, the NGA spent $A6.8 million on Cube by Jordan Wolfson, the New York artist famous for Female Figure (2014), an animatronic stripper. While female artists have never been more visible or marketable, and the focus on women’s art is a cultural reckoning, the figures show that representation and power are not the same thing.
You can’t write about women in the visual arts without conjuring Linda Nochlin, the art critic whose 1971 ArtNews essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” is being republished next month by Thames & Hudson. Our neoliberal moment, obsessed as it is with individual feminist heroes, frames Nochlin’s work as a call to expand the canon to include women who have been erased from art history, but Nochlin’s more compelling argument is her indictment of the canon itself.
Nochlin points out that women were barred from observing nude models – a practice considered central to history painting, the domain of serious artists in the West, until the late 19th century. They were relegated to lower-status genres such as still life and self-portraiture.
Women, of course, have long been associated with the realms of the domestic and private rather than the historic and public. These barriers aren’t theoretical; they’re also material. “Full, Messy and Beautiful”, a November 2020 essay by Hettie Judah, reveals that when artists become mothers, opportunities start to evaporate.
In Know My Name, this injustice is countered by Kathy Temin and Micky Allan. Temin’s Tombstone garden (2012) uses synthetic-fur forms that resemble children’s stuffed toys to transform the hard-edged machismo of public memorials. For Temin, whose father survived the Holocaust, there’s comfort in swapping the grand narratives of history for the fuzzier shapes of memory.
Allan also challenges the role that public space plays in our cultural imaginary. Micky’s Room, an installation that re-creates the artist’s first solo exhibition, reimagines the gallery as a woman’s bedroom. Here a hand-painted doona, framed photos or close-ups of a toddler’s face blur the boundaries between making art and making a home. The detritus of life is also the stuff of work. The maternal and the material merge into one.
One of the strengths of Know My Name is its cross-section of work by exemplary Indigenous artists, including Julie Dowling’s Black Madonna (2004), a critique of a society that permitted the Stolen Generations while supposedly holding motherhood sacred.
But the show presents fewer pieces by artists of colour, hinting at a feminist counter-mythology that centres cultural whiteness, and it also largely ignores how a new generation of artists is challenging gender binaries. Again, there’s an antidote in the works themselves. I loved Margaret Dodd’s This Woman Is Not a Car (1982), a suburban nightmare that charts the demise of a bored housewife, whose body is reduced to automotive parts by the men around her. This video work, which references the artist’s Adelaide upbringing, exposes the Anglocentric fantasy of white Australia as the construct that it is.
In the exhibition’s final rooms, themed “Connection with country”, Tender (2003-06), an installation in which Fiona Hall transforms shreds of United States currency into bird’s nests, recalls the invisible casualties of market forces. In the next room is Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters), a new installation by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers. The work, which retells the Seven Sisters Dreaming, revolves around smiling women woven from tjanpi, the Pitjantjatjara word for grass.
These spaces, which include Narelle Jubelin’s delicate needleworks and a sublime landscape by the great Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, imagine women’s stories as constellational. They share cultural space. They are emboldened by each other. For me, it’s here that the possibilities of Know My Name truly start.
Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Part one shows until July 4. Part two opens late July.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as "Naming rights".
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