‘Here We Are’ at the Art Gallery of NSW

By Miriam Cosic

An opportunity for rethinking the position of women in contemporary art

Miwa Yanagi, Sachiko, from the series My grandmothers, 2000, Art Gallery of New South Wales © YANAGI Miwa. Photograph: AGNSW, Felicity Jenkins

One of my favourite rooms in an art museum anywhere in the world was Gallery 4 of the Art Gallery of South Australia back when Ron Radford was director. It was labelled Australian Modernism, and it was only if you carefully read and compared every wall text that you might have registered the idiosyncrasy of it: every artist was a woman.

They were mostly South Australian (Dorrit Black, Stella Bowen, Margaret Preston, Bessie Da­vidson, Kathleen Sauerbier, Gladys Reynell and Nora Heysen), with three from Sydney (Anne Dangar, Grace Cossington Smith and Grace Crowley) thrown in for good measure. No signage highlighting this singular choice, no special pleading. It was as though the curators were just presenting a room full of the most exciting examples of the era.

It seems apt, given that South Australia was the first colony – and the second self-governing jurisdiction in the world after New Zealand – to give women the vote, in 1894. Unlike New Zealand, it also allowed women to stand for parliament. Tracey Lock, AGSA’s curator of Australian art for the past 25 years, remembers that South Australian Women Artists: 1890–1940, staged in 1994 to celebrate the centenary of South Australian women’s suffrage, was the first show she curated there.

Here We Are is a new exhibition of women artists at the Art Gallery of NSW. It gives an opportunity for thinking anew about the position of women in art today. The works take up four rooms and are acquisitions that date from 2015, when the gallery initiated a policy designed to increase the percentage of women artists it collected.

The exhibition contains major pieces, beautifully hung, in dialogue with each other. The preoccupations of women have long been trivialised as making for “domestic art” while the male view is considered universal. In these rooms we realise that a lot of women’s art has been inevitably preoccupied with studying their changing role in society, and is no less universal than the work of the other 50 per cent of the world. When we consider the sexual and social subjugation of women over the centuries, in art and more broadly, the relationship between women and art is profoundly political by its nature.

The rooms segue between intensely personal and wider perspectives. Njideka Akunyili Crosby portrays the intimacy of a biracial relationship set against an intriguingly busy collage of photos of Nigerian life, some of them from her own family. In the middle of the same room is Louise Bourgeois’ bronze sculpture, Arched figure, of a slim and headless man, one of several she made to show men gripped by bodily emotional reactions. One of these is titled Arch of Hysteria, which more obviously undercuts Freud’s attribution of hysteria (it’s in the name) and anxiety to the very make-up of women.

Elsewhere, the masculine gaze is satirised. Deborah Kelly’s series The Venus Variations are collages that play with famous nudes in art history, like Matisse’s Odalisque à la culotte rouge and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, doubling them up or playing with their constructions. They are ringed with the pretty flowers that once reeked of the feminine.

There are several photographs by the inimitable Tracey Moffat, from the series Body Remembers, which was shown in the Australian Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. These intense, melancholy and yet eerily distanced ochre pictures, portraying a formally dressed woman in a 1950s domestic servant’s uniform (herself) taken on a deserted country property, are a meditation both on the artist’s forebears in servitude and on the wider experience of colonisation.

Judith Wright’s suite of five paintings that occupies a whole wall has even more grandeur, and yet more intimacy too. Called Significant Others, each is a large-scale abstract doubleheader: one head coloured, the other a ghostly companion. Made of acrylic painted on beeswax-covered Japanese paper, they have a textured physicality that draws the viewer close. It is tempting to reach out and touch.

Born, by American artist Kiki Smith, is a take on an early, pre-sanitised version of the fairytale Little Red Riding Hood. The girl and her grandmother, each bearing age-appropriate versions of the artist’s own face, are both dressed in red cloaks. They stand on the belly of an upturned wolf that’s drawn like a crescent moon from which they have emerged, spurted blood merging with their cloaks. Made in 2002, it came after an intense period of thought about the relationship between humans and animals. The seconds in between seeing the subject matter and realising its viscerality is an interesting trip.

There is also humour to be found here in a wonderful set of photographs, called My Grandmothers, by Miwa Yanagi, which explores what a woman might be if she were to age free of patriarchal expectations. In saturated colours, each picture shows an older woman forsaking the modest image the title projects. In one, the woman is screaming, cigarette in hand and long dyed-red hair flaming out behind her, as she rides in a sidecar with an exuberantly laughing bikie. In another, she sits staring moodily out of a business-class seat in an aeroplane, sporting bright aqua hair.

Other works are challenging, exuberant or meditative; a few are a little bland. The still of Katthy Cavaliere, naked and facing out to sea, her arms outflung, sitting on a pile of her recently dead mother’s clothes, is from her short film called nest. It serves as the advertising image for the show, and is certainly eye catching. So is Justene Willams’s Insight, an agriculturally coloured sculpture of a man lying prone of the floor with long neon bolts firing from his pelvis. Some pieces are less memorable than others, as though chosen for their historical importance rather than viewer appeal – a forgotten priority in these days of trumpeting visitor numbers.

AGNSW isn’t the only institution to realise it is high time women in art received equal recognition. Women represent 25 per cent of the collection at the National Gallery of Australia. Acknowledging this imbalance, the NGA has adopted the hashtag #KnowMyName from the National Museum for Women in the Arts, in Washington D.C. It is also collaborating with The Countess Report, which measures gender representation in the Australian visual arts, to develop guidelines for arts organisations to achieve equality. The NGA will present a major exhibition of women artists next year.

The National Museum for Women in the Arts has collated interesting statistics. According to a survey published by the Public Library of Science, based on more than 10,000 artists in the permanent collections of 18 prominent American art museums, 87 per cent are male, and 85 per cent are white. In London in 2017, only 22 per cent of solo shows in major galleries were of women artists – an 8 per cent decrease from 2016.

Several state galleries in Australia have appointed women directors recently. The last thing AGSA director Rhana Devenport did before leaving the Auckland Art Gallery for AGSA was to purchase the entire portfolio of more than 200 works from feminist collective Guerrilla Girls. And as the first female director of AGSA she has brought her brief to support women artists to Adelaide: “There’s still a lot of work to do,” she told me last year. “When [women’s] survival and autonomy are still fundamental questions, it’s our responsibility to do all we can.”

I’m ambivalent about quotas, preferring to think that a carefully levelled playing field would allow for gender-free selection on merit. But then I realise no one seems to know who Joan Mitchell, whose work I love, is. Or Lee Krasner, though everyone has heard of her husband, Jackson Pollock. Is that about merit, or is it because the wildly masculine image of the hard-living American Abstract Expressionists left their female counterparts in the shade? And that’s not to mention entrenched cultural and commercial bias.

How is it that women have attended art schools in Australia in great numbers from the early 20th century, then (with the exception of those marvellous modernists and a scant few others) seem to have faded from sight? Think Helen Maudsley and John Brack. A pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art, critic Cyril Connolly famously said, though Maudsley, who had four children, vehemently disagrees with this claim

When one scans the statistics and realises the depth of the imbalance and how deep the cultural and psychological biases that lead to it run, and hears the sexist remarks about how raising the number of women lowers standards, quotas begin to look like an excellent idea. It was satisfying too, to see the number of young men, as well as the majority of women, who were strolling through Here We Are when I visited.


Here We Are is at the Art Gallery of NSW until October 13.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Miwa Yanagi, Sachiko, from the series My grandmothers, 2000, Art Gallery of New South Wales © YANAGI Miwa. Photograph: AGNSW, Felicity Jenkins

Read on

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?

Cover image of ‘Bodies of Light’

‘Bodies of Light’ by Jennifer Down

The Australian author’s latest novel, dissecting trauma, fails to realise its epic ambitions

Image showing from left: The Tiger Who Came To Tea, Gladys Berejiklian and Thomas the Tank Engine

The little premier that might have

Does unquestioning, childish enthusiasm have a place in politics?