Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now showcases art made by women. Drawn from the National Gallery’s collection and loans from across Australia, it is one of the most comprehensive presentations of art by women assembled in this country to date.
Told in two parts, this exhibition tells a new story of Australian art. Looking at moments in which women created new forms of art and cultural commentary such as feminism, Know My Name highlights creative and intellectual relationships between artists across time.
Know My Name is not a complete account; instead, the exhibition proposes alternative histories, challenging stereotypes and highlighting the stories and achievements of all women artists.
Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now is part of a series of ongoing gender equity initiatives by the Gallery to increase the representation of all women in its artistic program, collection development and organisational structures.
Curators: Deborah Hart, Head Curator, Australian Art and Elspeth Pitt, Curator, Australian Art with Yvette Dal Pozzo, Assistant Curator, Australian Art. Contributions by Kelli Cole, Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, and Rebecca Edwards, Sid and Fiona Myer Curator Australian Art.
Part One Exhibition Archive
Women’s portraits and self-portraits reflect different stories and artistic connections. Unique to the women who make them, shell necklaces by Lola Greeno and her daughters and nieces connect generations of women. Presented nearby are portrait miniatures on porcelain and ivory, a form of portraiture intended to be held in the hand or kept close to the body.
Other self-portraits show women following their creative paths with conviction in defiance of the considerable difficulties they faced to become recognised as artists. In the early twentieth century, artists including Agnes Goodsir and Bessie Davidson found support outside of Australia, particularly in France, where they were able to live in creative communities, free from expectations of marriage and other heterosexual norms.
From images of young women to those in older age, from artists born in this country to those who have travelled here from other countries, these portraits represent ways of remembering and recognising artists’ important contributions to our cultural life.
Tjanpi Desert Weavers is an award-winning, Indigenous governed and directed social enterprise located on the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara (NPY) lands in Central Australia. For 25 years, the Anangu women artists of the Tjanpi Desert Weavers (Tjanpi meaning ‘wild grass’ in Pitjantjatjara language) have developed and mastered their skills, weaving baskets and creative collaborative fibre art installations. These whimsical works generate awareness and insight into culture and Country alongside their focus of creating income and employment for women on their homelands.
During March 2020, as the heat rose and the wind rolled over the sand dunes on NPY Country, Tjanpi Desert Weavers artists came together to create their most ambitious collaborative work to date, Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters). Working side by side, the women artists drew on their experience and cultural knowledge to create seven woven figures representing the sisters and a large woven form with small lights above, referencing the Pleiades star cluster.
The Seven Sisters is an epic ancestral story that has an important underlying teaching element, reinforcing law and cultural structures.
"Arts and Country and environment are all one".
– Banduk Marika AO
In these two rooms, and across different media, artists show their connections with Country and their interest in the environment. Connections to land and Ancestors are embodied in paintings by Waanyi artist Judy Watson, Kayardild/Kaiadilt artist Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori and Gija Elder Queenie McKenzie.
Community also informs the batiks by women artists from Utopia in the Northern Territory including Jeanie Pwerle and Rosie Kngwarray who portray women’s stories and ceremony in flowing designs. Emily Kam Kngwarray, an elder of considerable standing in her community, made batiks before becoming a painter in her 80s. Portraying her home Alhalkere with plants like atnwelarr (pencil yam) in bloom, her work attracted great attention, and she represented Australia posthumously at the Venice Biennale in 1997.
Rosalie Gascoigne and Fiona Hall were also selected for the Venice Biennale in 1982 and 2015 respectively. In the case of Gascoigne, her work was both closely connected with her experience of the region in which she lived and worked and resonant with broader international movements of land art. With Gascoigne and Hall, Janet Laurence is also an advocate for the preservation of the environment, as revealed in her installation, Requiem.
The creation of community spaces in the latter part of the twentieth century expanded the places – such as schools and private studios – in which art had typically been made. In addition to childcare services and respite from domestic violence, dedicated women’s spaces, including the South Sydney Women’s Centre, offered screen-printing classes. The resulting posters spoke to a range of women’s and broader issues including Aboriginal land rights and environmentalism. As the feminist artist and activist Ann Newmarch observed, these kinds of works were ‘not intended for an elite “educated” art gallery audience… but [as] a means of expression and communication…’.
A pioneer of community-based art in Australia, Vivienne Binns made Tower of Babel with colleagues, friends and family members whom she described as her ‘personal community of influence, respect and care’. She states that her work is a ‘way to understand art as a human activity rather than something that only Artists do.’ This idea is also expressed in the Westbury quilt, the earliest work in the exhibition. Made by women members of the Hampson family, their lively quilt reflects the nature of their lives at the turn of the last century.
It was largely women artists who first championed modernism and abstraction in Australia in the early twentieth century. Colour was key, and its formal and emotional qualities were used to create art that favoured idea and feeling above literal depiction.
In Beatrice Irwin’s book, The new science of colour, colour is described as ‘the very song of life and the spiritual speech of every living thing.’ Inspired by these observations, Grace Cossington Smith became known for the luminous and energetic surfaces of her paintings. While softer in tone, Clarice Beckett’s work looked at phenomena such as the flare of colour at sunrise and sunset. Her work is echoed in that of contemporary painter Gemma Smith, who describes colour as ‘magical’ in its ability to transform.
A tendency to focus on experiences of colour gradually paved the way towards pure abstraction. Artist Janet Dawson observed that ‘abstract work is a great joy … If you can empty your mind of chatter, and just live with the work for a few minutes, you find this enormous release into a mode of thought that is beyond speech.’
In the 1980s artists including Tracey Moffatt, Julie Rrap and Anne Ferran examined ideas of gender in works that merged photography and performance. In Scenes on the death of nature, Ferran used the camera to explore the pleasure and ethics of looking. Photographing a group of young women whose poses echo the forms of classical sculpture, Ferran considers the ways in which historical and contemporary images have positioned women as passive objects and sensual subjects.
Julie Rrap also explored the roles assigned to women in art in her series Persona and shadow. Inserting herself into paintings by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, Rrap twists her body to fit their original poses or, plays up or acts out in their limiting structures.
A lesser-known artist who worked earlier in the century, Janet Cumbrae Stewart’s paintings adopted the language of the academic nude. Celebrating her subjects, Cumbrae Stewart delighted in the acts of their dressing and undressing. While her work has been contested, with some criticising her use of a ‘male’ style, others admired her pioneering expression of desire and love between women.
Memory, and the act of remembering, inform each of the works in this space. Kathy Temin’s memorial gardens challenge the idea of monuments as heroic sculptures cast in steel. Recalling the loss of family, Temin connects architectural forms and tenderness with the act of remembering, her faux-fur works reminiscent of childhood toys, soft to the touch and comforting.
The combination of meditative states and expressive gestures underpins Lindy’s Lee’s wall sculpture, The unconditioned. Based on the ancient art of Chinese flung ink painting, fragments of bronze form a mandala, or a chart of the cosmos, signifying the continuing cycles of life and death.
Activating memory through the body is implicit in Barbara Campbell’s Dubious letter, which was used in a performance work called Cries from the tower. The performance involved Campbell unravelling an embroidered skirt from a great height. For the artist, the falling ribbon symbolises the promise of escape and overlaps with histories of women held captive in fairy stories, poetry, literature and history alike.
Micky Allan’s first solo exhibition Photography, drawing, poetry: A live-in show was held at the Ewing and George Paton Galleries in Melbourne in 1978. She transformed the gallery into a domestic setting, installing her photographs, drawings, paintings, and poetry. Blurring private and public space, she ‘wanted to change the experience of the gallery goer from one of white walls, hush, hush, don’t speak, say what you really think when you get out of here’ to one that they could experience in a ‘combined rhythm’ with everyday life. Visitors of all ages participated in Allan’s exhibition, preparing snacks, watching TV, and lounging on the bed.
This room, developed in collaboration with the artist, is imagined in the spirit of her exhibition. It includes Allan’s art, personal tokens, and objects from her home, alongside the work and performance films of fellow artists from the 1970s to the present day.
Gemma Smith is a passionate researcher of colour, using her work to explore its subtleties and behaviours. She has remarked: ‘colour and its interactions have become the content of my work. There are so many possibilities to play out’. Recently working at the palest ends of the spectrum, Smith has collaborated with the curators of this exhibition, selecting colours for the walls that delicately shift from room to room, appearing and disappearing like a scent.
Square cloud compound draws on the history of Cockatoo Island, a site which since colonisation has operated as a prison and an institutional home for young women. Dwyer grew up visiting the site and has had a ‘long engagement’ with its ‘ghosts’. The vibrant patchwork of materials in this work – including lamps, stockings, fabric and beer bottles – forms an oversized cubbyhouse that evokes a childlike sense of wonder and discovery and a means of escape.
In 2010 Australian designers Cami James and Nadia Napreychikov established DI$COUNT UNIVER$E and began creating fashion informed by social, political and feminist ideas. The group of works on display here comes from their Spring 2019 collection WOMEN and offers an unapologetic account of the experience of womanhood.
Debuting at New York Fashion Week in 2018, models marched down the runway in designs proudly emblazoned with the phrases ‘not for sale’, ‘bimbo’ and ‘hysterical’, a reclamation of terms traditionally used as insults and to objectify women’s bodies. Through text, colour and embellishment, other designs referenced biological processes associated with womanhood (reproduction and menstruation) that are rarely discussed publicly but often the basis of discrimination within professional and cultural contexts.
The development of this collection coincided with the escalation of the Me Too movement, a global response to the harassment of women. Although this movement exposed widespread gender discrimination, it was also criticised for primarily advancing the voices of white, cisgender women (who are assigned female at birth and identify as women). Those also experiencing oppression as women of colour and/or trans women were often left behind.
In contrast, James and Napreychikov have championed inclusivity since the label’s inception. For the WOMEN runway presentation they cast cis- and transgender models from a range of cultural backgrounds to represent the ways in which womanhood exists in contemporary society.
Since meeting and forming a creative partnership in the early 1970s, Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson have become pioneering figures in fashion design. Working collaboratively under their fashion label Flamingo Park, they drew upon a mutual love for the Australian environment, developing a distinct voice in fashion through bold garments and prints. They have also carved out significant design careers individually, with Kee well-known for her vibrant knits, and Jackson for her collaborative work with artists such as the women producing batiks at Utopia Station.
Archive the archive is inspired by the life and work of Philippa Cullen, a performance artist, dancer and choreographer who sought to generate sound through the movement of the body using theremin and early electronica. Despite the originality of her art, Cullen is now little known, having died prematurely at the age of 25 in the mid-1970s.
Despite never meeting Cullen, Lloyd conceived the performance as collaborative work in which she extends Cullen’s practice through her own. She wrote, ‘Here I am transmitting the actions of Philippa and what I know of her life, into a dance, 45 years after her death. I work with the thoughts that stimulate the dance; when we watch someone dance, we are watching the thinking. What was Philippa thinking? What dance did she not get to do?’
Barbara Campbell’s Dubious letter (1992)—60 metres of hand-embroidered ribbon tacked together to form a skirt-shaped object—was suspended from the high ceilings in the Remembering gallery, centred to eye level, with generous space all around. This positioning allowed for a circular reading of the work’s embroidered text by any member of the public: Dubious letter created its own tacit participatory performance.
Cries from the tower redux premiered at the National Gallery of Australia in May 2021. Campbell took the inherent performative quality of Dubious letter and linked it back to the original context of the object within her solo performance Cries from the tower (1992), last performed in 1995 in the same gallery space.
For the Redux, Campbell invited three other performers, Hannah Bleby, Clare Grant and Agatha Gothe-Snape to build a multi-vocal, perambulatory reading-out-loud of Dubious letter’s embroidered text. The text is taken from ‘Letter III’ of the so-called ‘Casket letters’, dubiously attributed to Mary Queen of Scots and used to implicate her in the murder of her second husband, Lord Darnley. Campbell had embroidered ‘Letter III’ three times—in 16th century French, 16th century Scots and contemporary English—using historiographic documents.
The 2021 Redux began in similar fashion to the 1992 original: with the opening section of William Byrd’s Mass for four parts sung live by a solo soprano voice. On this occasion, Canberra-based soprano, Hannah Bleby sang the Kyrie eleison from a long vertical aperture high above the performers and audience.
As the high note fell away, Clare Grant began to walk carefully around the embroidered form, focusing her gaze on the lower section, reading the old French translation aloud, moving her eyes steadily upwards and pausing where the text joined with the 16th century Scots translation. At this point, Campbell took the lead in reading, with Grant following behind as an echo. When the text again changed to contemporary English in the top section, Agatha Gothe-Snape led the reading, the other two voices coming after, phasing in and out, overlapping, as all three wound around the work, increasing their walking pace in concert with the sharply narrowing conical form. As the readings concluded, Hannah Bleby sang the final section of Byrd’s Mass, the Agnus dei. Her voice remained suspended in air, like the embroidered object itself.
Barbara Campbell, 7 July 2021