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Anonymous Was a Woman

Exhibition essay for This Wild Song, by Sophia Cai

I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929

In her pioneering essay of 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin opens with a perennial question that strikes at the very core of the canon of Western art: “Why have there been no great female artists?”1 Nochlin recognised that while women have been creating art for as long as men, they have not historically received the same recognition due to a range of institutional and societal barriers such as social class, education and their domestic role in the home. In other words, art making operates within a wider social sphere, and it is these social and institutional factors that determine what art is shown, recognised, and recorded in the art history books.

Nearly half a century later, these issues of gender representation and equality are still highly relevant. Recent statistics published by the Countess Report show that while approximately 74% of visual arts graduates are women (as of 2014), disproportionately it is their male colleagues who get shown more in major institutions, receive more media coverage, and win more major art prizes.2 Notably also, women occupy less senior and leadership positions, the roles that invariably make these decisions. The Countess Report is not alone in raising attention to these entrenched inequalities faced by female and non-binary artists, and many artist-run initiatives including the Women’s Art Register and the Artist’s Guild in Melbourne, and international activists such as the infamous Guerrilla Girls continue to highlight these topics while bringing attention to female artists and their work.

It is in this spirit of identifying, recognising and celebrating female artists that Melbourne-based artist Ilona Nelson first began This Wild Song. As a multi-platform project encompassing photographic portraits, interviews, exhibitions and events, This Wild Song celebrates a diversity of contemporary women artists working and living in Australia today. At the heart of This Wild Song is a focus on collaboration and female agency; Nelson works closely with each artist to create unique photographic portraits that are a “honest and true depiction of who the artist is as a person.”3 More than merely documenting the artist as an individual, the portraits also reflects a specific concept related to the artist’s creative practice, resulting in intimate and highly individual depictions.

For this exhibition at Town Hall Gallery, Nelson has chosen 26 portraits to be shown alongside selected artworks by the portrayed artists. As a group show curated on a community network rather than a theme, the show is ostensibly varied and includes artists at different stages of their careers and working across a range of mediums and practices. As This Wild Song is an ongoing project, with more portraits to come, works selected for this exhibition have been based on portraits not previously shown in Melbourne. While there are visual and thematic links that can be drawn between some of the artists, as a whole the exhibition arguably celebrates the plurality and diversity of the individual artists’ practices, and provides a focus on authorship and self-determination.

Presenting Nelson’s photographic portraits alongside each artist’s own work paints a richer picture of both, while simultaneously asserting the artist’s individual practice. Many pairings in the exhibition feature strong visual correlations between the artist’s work and their portrait often explored through materiality or form. Hannah Gartside’s portrait, draped in fabrics in front of a cloth wall echoes her soft sculpture made from a found nightgown in both colour and texture. Similarly, the colourful and fantastical aspect of Kate Rhode’s work is expressed through the artist’s portrait and her dress. Nelson’s portrait of Charlotte Watson likewise evokes a link through its materiality, with the surface and blackness of the velvet mimicking Watson’s charcoal works.

A number of the portraits also feature the artist directly engaging with materials from their studio, emphasising a close relationship between the artist and their work. For instance, the portrait of Freya Jobbins sees the artist surrounded by the toys and dolls that she reassembles in her art practice. Cyrus Tang’s portrait directly references her corresponding time-lapse photograph depicting a clay city in ruin. By having her hold the same ceramic buildings in her hand, her portrait of Cyrus offers a contemplative response to her photograph series. In a similar manner, Danica Chappell’s portrait and her artwork both utilise photography to construct abstract spaces through layers of transparent materials. These similarities offer a viewer an introspective view into the process of artistic deliberation and making.

In other instances, the pairing of the portrait with the artwork leads to some unexpected correlations and interpretations. One particularly striking portrait is of artist Michelle Hamer, who appears almost floating on her back, her body draped in bright orange safety barrier mesh. The significance of using the barrier mesh can be understood in relation to Hamer’s art practice, which interprets urban environs and city scenes through hand-stitched tapestries as a commentary on everyday life and built environments. By picturing herself with the mesh tape that one can find frequently find at construction sites, Hamer inserts herself into the visual landscape of her art practice.

Viewed as a whole, the most remarkable thing about This Wild Song is its emphasis on female-embodied presence. Portraiture is utilised as a means to give visibility to the ‘who’ behind the work, and also gives direct agency to the artist in how they are depicted, or chose to represent themselves. Themes of identity and the self naturally emerge through this process, as seen for instance in the portrait of the late great Polixeni Papapetrou, which mirrors her artwork in its stylistic approach and imaginative execution.

This Wild Song is informed as much by the existing art community as it is an attempt to create new network and opportunities. It is imaginable that This Wild Song could continue as long as there are gender disparities, and it does so by highlighting the remarkable individual narratives and approaches of artists on their own terms. But the work in tackling representation should not rest on Nelson’s shoulders, or for that matter, any individual effort or project. We must question the very structures and institutions that have created a narrative of art history that excludes as much as it includes. We must keep our eyes open, we must pay attention, so that these names do not become anonymous in the history books we write today.

Sophia Cai is a Melbourne-based curator and arts writer with a particular research interest in Asian art history as well as contemporary craft. sophiacai.info
This essay was commissioned by Town Hall Gallery, Hawthorn.

1 Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists, first published in ARTnews, January 1971

2 Elvis Richardson, The Countess Report, Last accessed 14 August 2018, thecountessreport.com.au

3 Excerpt from This Wild Song project statement, thiswildsong.com.au/ilona-nelson-this-wild-song

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