Rose d’Or Award-nominated film, The Exhibitionists is both a playful and profound docu-comedy celebrating women in the arts.
It is after hours inside the National Gallery and four women attending a cocktail party challenge one another to get locked inside the cultural institution overnight. What starts as a tipsy dare ends in an attempt to rewrite history as the accidental tourists spend the night at the Gallery.
“Where’s the female take?” queries one of the quartet after they discover the walls are dominated by male artists. They decide to put on an exhibition themselves and rehang – quelle horreur! – one wall with works by Australian women.
This escapade is purely fiction, a scene from the recently produced docu-comedy The Exhibitionists starring Mandy McElhinney, Bridie Carter, Bessie Holland and Veronica Milsom, which aired on the ABC on International Women’s Day (March 8). Produced by Northern Pictures for ABC Television, it is part of a partnership between the National Gallery and the national broadcaster for the Gallery’s Know My Name initiative, which celebrates the work of Australian women artists and aims to enhance understanding of their contribution to our cultural life.
Producer Karina Holden, head of factual at Northern Pictures, describes The Exhibitionists as “a hybrid film”, where drama is interwoven with documentary footage and interviews with artists including Janet Dawson, Nora Heysen, Emily Kame Kngwarreye (Anmatyerre people), Vivienne Binns, Karla Dickens (Wiradjuri people), Dorrit Black and Julie Rrap, as well as National Gallery curators and art historians.
Ms Holden – who was named winner of the 2021 Sydney UNESCO City of Film Award at the recent Sydney Film Festival – studied art history for her HSC and wrote a thesis on the perspective of female artists and the way male artists represent women in artwork, so she has a deep connection to the film’s content.
“There were so many stories that we fell in love with and so many we unfortunately had to cut [because of time],” she says.
"We wanted to make sure each artists’ story was representative of a particular female experience. Whether that was because of the way the critics had attacked their work, or because of opportunities that they’d missed out on, or because of how forgotten their work was, or because of the marginalisation of their particular cultural experience. Plus women who represented certain breakthroughs, whether that was the first Archibald win or the highest price of art that has been achieved.”
Production took place over several evenings in the National Gallery late last year, led by a predominantly female crew including the director, writer, cinematographer and producers.
“It’s very meta because you’ve got female filmmakers making art about women who are artists making art about women…it’s an all-women team and so we had so much fun,”
The Exhibitionists celebrates a partnership between the National Gallery and the ABC for the Gallery’s Know My Name initiative. Other productions that were supported through the partnership include the documentaries Step Into Paradise, about the relationship between the artists and designers Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, and Bronwyn Oliver: The Shadows Within, about the Australian sculptor – both of which premiered on the ABC and iview in 2021 – and the Fierce Girls podcast series, which featured a run of Know My Name artists.
Kalita Corrigan, ABC Arts commissioning editor, says the partnership was an exciting opportunity to demonstrate ABC's vital commitment to celebrating women’s contribution to our national cultural heritage: "Know My Name is a visual arts initiative by the National Gallery, but the ABC represents all art forms, so when we took up the baton we broadened the conversation to include musicians, composers, authors and all creators."
The National Gallery has a longstanding connection to supporting films about art, but recently delved into film production through the Australian Artists Film Fund. Created in 2019 and funded by National Gallery donors, the Film Fund supports the commissioning and promotion of feature films about leading Australian artists that aim to broaden the exposure of art and artists across the country. The Film Fund has so far helped to produce Catherine Hunter’s documentary Quilty: Painting the Shadows, which was also supported by the ABC and focuses on the evolution of Ben Quilty’s major 12-panel painting Myall Creek Rorschach, about the Myall Creek massacre of 1838 on Gamilaraay Country in Northern NSW. The painting has since entered the national collection.