Artist Deborah Kelly calls out manspreading in novel Instagram exhibition
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Artist Deborah Kelly calls out manspreading in novel Instagram exhibition

The artist behind the famous Batman-style night sky projection Beware the God has taken to Instagram in the week of International Women's Day to call out sexism, sexual harassment and manspreading.

Deborah Kelly is the second Australian artist to feature in the unique art-as-activism project, 52 ARTISTS 52 ACTIONS, initiated by Sydney's Artspace, by which select contemporary artists and art collectives from Asia develop art and stage actions around political and social themes dear to them.

Political artist Deborah Kelly in her Bronte studio.

Political artist Deborah Kelly in her Bronte studio.

Photo: Anna Kucera

Every week for the year a different artist will share their response via the social media site, be it a painting, a shared meal, a temporary installation or a tour.

Indigenous artist Richard Bell chose the week of Australia Day to highlight Australia's 2017 Nobel Peace Prize winners, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Kelly is keen to call out sexism, sexual harassment and manspreading on  International Women's Day.

Kelly is keen to call out sexism, sexual harassment and manspreading on International Women's Day.

Photo: Anna Kucera
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Upcoming artists include Hit Man Gurung (Nepal), Nasim Nasr (Iran/Australia) Heman Chong (Singapore), Mulka Project (Australia) and Reetu Sattar (Bangladesh).

Together, it was hoped the works would "create a continuously unfolding archive of creative responses" to everything from the refugee crisis and mass migration to the impacts of climate change, according to Artspace executive director Alexie Glass-Kantor.

The first day Kelly posted a posted a multi-coloured flashing gender equality animation. Next, she wanted to explore Indigenous women's rights but struggled to find a way to acknowledge the long struggles of women of colour in this country and so, without an answer, she posted the question back.

For International Women's Day, Kelly made "something less important but more useable" – a downloadable sticker about manspreading, and hopes people will stick them up on buses and trains.

"I grew up in this culture trained in being conciliatory toward men filling up my space, airtime and culture and I'm a little bit over it. I do understand the uses of charm, but sometimes it sticks in my throat."

The freedom to react as one pleases is one of the great attractions of the project, Kelly said, whose works are held by the Art Gallery of NSW.

Ms Glass-Kantor said the project intended to spotlight the unflinching voice of the artist and "the belief that empathy and understanding are critical for a better future". There had never been a more important time for such a project. "Every day, headlines and news feeds intimidate with an increasingly troubled world where profit and personal gain are seemingly placed above all else and difference is feared."

Kelly regards herself as a "political artist but I'm terrible at meetings" and "I've never belonged to a political party". "I just want things to be better than they are," she said. "Art is not the means, it's just where my skills lie. Political movements need art to make themselves richer, deeper and more interesting."

All this from an artist who does not really use Instagram but has long understood that art exists beyond the four walls of a gallery.

Kelly started out as a newspaper cartoonist for Lot's Wife and the Fitzroy Voice, in Melbourne, and those works were reproduced in many publications. She went on to make the Beware of the God project for the Museum of Contemporary art and a body of collages No Human Being is Illegal (In All Our Glory), which featured in the 19th Biennale of Sydney and is still touring Australia.

"That really gave me a taste for making works in multiple locations at once," Kelly said. "It made me a fan of the reproduced image and its power to travel and be disseminated and to stir conversations much broader than its own kitchen."

Follow @52artists/52actions Instagram account here.

Linda Morris is an arts and books writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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