If the phrase Know My Name makes you think of the theme song of a James Bond movie, you’re a prime candidate for the National Gallery of Australia’s new survey of Australian women artists, 1900 to the present. You might even draw a twinge of masculine panic from Chris Cornell’s lyric:
The odds will betray you
And I will replace you
The inexorable rise of women artists is one of the major features of art today, along with the greater visibility of artists of colour and indigenous artists. The odds are starting to betray the dead white males who have had it so good for so long. Will they be replaced by a rising tide of female artists? Not likely, even if we are witnessing a momentary eclipse. Nevertheless it’s ironic that such a show is opening in Canberra in the very same week Federal politicians have had their misogynist attitudes put under the media microscope.
I’m generally not a big fan of affirmative action events in which artists are included or excluded by virtue of their gender. This is partly because women artists are already making huge headway in group exhibitions and museum representation. It’s not unusual to find shows in which they supply more than half the exhibitors simply because of the nature and quality of their work.
It’s a quiet but steady revolution that promises to sweep away the old biases that once bedevilled our art institutions. But because all revolutions require spectacular symbolic gestures shows such as Know My Name are inevitable. The COVD-19 crisis has provided the perfect conditions for a massive survey of women’s art as it has become virtually impossible to organise the international blockbusters that draw crowds to the big galleries.
More than most art museums the NGA is vitally dependant on interstate visitation and has been hard hit this year by the bushfires and the pandemic. A show of Australian women artists provides a compelling reason for at least 50 percent of the population to come along for a look, and we know that it’s women who take the lead in planning visits to art galleries, concerts and the movies.
It’s also an opportunity to raid the NGA vaults, bringing out works that haven’t been seen in decades, and to showcase a few recent acquisitions. Curators, Deborah Hart and Elspeth Pitt, knew it was important to produce a really attractive, illuminating exhibition if only to thwart accusations of numbing Political Correctness.
In this they appear to have succeeded. One could haggle over the selections, but the presentation is impressive. The ground floor galleries have been cleaned out and opened up, providing room for a more adventurous display. There’s no strict chronological or thematic emphasis. Instead, the curators have looked for affinities between artists who may be separated by place or time. One room, for instance, is shared by Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Rosalie Gascoigne, another features three important photo-series by Anne Ferran, Tracey Moffatt and Julie Rrap. In the corner of a room devoted to abstract art, a painting by Mary Webb (1917-58) sits alongside one by Gemma Smith (b.1978).
Dozens of small portraits and self-portraits have been clustered on one vast wall at the entrance to the show. An array of political posters of the 1970s & 80s shares a room with a marvellous piece of embroidery from the Edwardian period. The photos in Rosemary Laing’s series, Flight research (1999-2000), literally fly up the wall, as if propelled by a gust of wind. Marie Hagerty’s abstract, Baconesque Deposition (2012) is hung high, as if in a cathedral.
Among works newly acquired for this show the standout is a fibre sculpture by the Tjanpi weavers of Central Australia. It features seven life-size figures standing beneath an elaborate canopy.
One welcome surprise was the space devoted to the work of Micky Allan (b. 1944), an artist who seems to have slipped off the radar in recent years. Allan was one of the stars of the feminist art movement of the 1970s, but her diverse, playful multi-media works are rarely displayed in art museums today. She is exactly the kind of “name” that deserves to be known by a new generation of artists and gallery-goers who may be debating with themselves whether feminism is an historical movement or a living philosophy.
Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now,
National Gallery of Australia,
14 November, 2020 – 4 July, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 14 November, 2020