Art gives us an opportunity to shine a light on the past, hold up a mirror to the present and gives us a window to an imagined future.
Reassessing what has come before is an important element of art history - the ability to re-examine the past and consider if it authentically captures the essence of a previous era.
Know My Name, an initiative launched by the National Gallery of Australia last year, has been the catalyst for the institution to examine its collection, consider its practices and review the role it plays in recognising all artists.
Our upcoming exhibition is a very public demonstration of a deeper commitment throughout the institution, bringing together a range of works by women that shed light on the multitude of ways audiences can consider the history of Australian art and the role of women; the trailblazers, the unknown superstars, the overlooked voices.
Over the course of a year, and delivered in two parts, Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now will showcase more than 400 works by some 170 female artists.
While some of the artists are relatively well known, others are less so. The exhibition seeks to retell the dynamics of Australian art by adding the voices of women to this history, opening it up to new meanings and possibilities.
The show aspires to make the art of women better known in the wider community, and to counter the dominance of an art history that prioritised men.
By turning the tables, we present an opportunity to reckon with the strength and breadth of women's contributions to the art of this country, focusing on the era from 1900 to now.
Some works are being exhibited for the first time; others are transformational or breakthrough moments in artists' careers.
To be obliged to tackle other people's problems, or merely to cook their meals, the moment one lays down pen or brush, is intolerably hard.Artist Stella Bowen
Given the number of significant female artists of the past and present, this exhibition can only tell part of a much bigger story. It is not an endpoint nor is it separate from other endeavours around the world. Rather, it is part of a continuum.
The gallery is committed to joining this social and cultural change. As editor - and Know My Name project board member - Alison Kubler noted earlier this year: "This will not be a one-off campaign for recognition. Once the key values are embedded in the culture, it will become the way things are done."
An exhibition focused on gender is a complex undertaking. For the gallery, it represents an opening up, not a closing down. It is about inclusion not exclusion. It is still necessary to have this show as the work of women, even now, remains lesser known and is, by implication, less valued.
You only have to look at the collections of Australia's cultural institutions to understand that the art of women is not represented to the same depth or degree as that of men.
Know My Name was conceived after the gallery became aware only 25 per cent of works in its Australian art collection were by women. We are not the first institution to commit to this decades-long struggle to give female artists greater visibility. This is not the first exhibition dedicated to women's art held in Australia, and it draws on the remarkable scholarship of those who have dedicated their professional lives to the advocacy of women's work.
While the reach of this exhibition is historical, its impetus is contemporary. The #MeToo movement may have originated as a campaign against sexual violence but its cultural impact has been equally significant, inspiring many projects focused on women's art, and compelling the kind of critical review undertaken by women and feminist art historians of the 1970s who 'recovered' artists of the 19th and early 20th century neglected in general histories and public collections.
Throughout the 20th century, there were the trailblazers who overcame barriers to recognition. In the 1920s, Grace Cossington Smith and Margaret Preston were creating their own distinctive styles of Australian modern painting and making their mark as leaders in the field of modernism. In 1933, Nora Heysen held a successful solo exhibition in Adelaide, five years before winning the Archibald Prize in 1938 - the first woman to do so - and a decade before she was appointed an official war artist, again, the first woman to take up the post.
For every female artist who managed to break through, there were, however, many more who faced struggles like Clarice Beckett or Stella Bowen. In the Know My Name publication, author Jennifer Higgie writes how Beckett's parents discouraged their unmarried daughter, who had shown early artistic promise, from pursuing her creative ambitions and insisted she keep house for them. "Nonetheless, Beckett continued to take part in exhibitions and to paint her swift, small pictures, although critics were, in the main, dismissive. She hardly sold anything."
It wasn't until the 1970s she began to receive recognition, after her sister alerted curator Rosalind Hollinrake to 2000 works in a hay shed near Benalla.
For Stella Bowen, it was the traditional expectations of women - as housekeeper, mother, carer and more - that kept her from artist endeavour. Bowen, who painted her strikingly intense Self-portrait in Paris in the late 1920s, reflected on the reasons why she had not painted more when in a relationship:
To be obliged to tackle other people's problems, or merely to cook their meals, the moment one lays down pen or brush, is intolerably hard. What one wants, on the contrary, is for other people to occupy themselves with one's own moods and requirements ... That is why a man writer or painter always manages to get some woman to look after him and make his life easy ... A professional woman, however, seldom gets this cushioning unless she can pay for it.
While the histories of non-Indigenous women have been difficult to forge and retrieve, those of Indigenous women have been even more so, since their cultures have been fractured and systematically destroyed by colonisation. During the 1980s a remarkable groundswell of First Nations artists came to prominence. Some of these artists, including Brenda L Croft (Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra), Fiona Foley (Badtjala, Fraser Island) and Tracey Moffatt, were founding members of the Boomalli Aboriginal Artist Co-operative, and although their approaches are distinct, their work has often employed remembering as a way of making when exploring the lives of their communities and the continuing effects of colonial imposition.
In the 1970s and 1980s, collectives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists campaigned for recognition of Aboriginal land rights. Marie McMahon's poster You are on Aboriginal land was conceived after she visited Tikilaru Country on Bathurst Island with Piparo (Winnie Munkara), one of its custodians. The work, in which Aboriginal woman Phillipa Pupangamirri firmly stands her ground, responds to white businessmen wanting to use the land for economic gain by building a resort. It is part of a large wall of posters in the exhibition that have been produced by women, including those working in poster collectives aimed at tackling issues such as the Vietnam War, racism and violence against women.
Among the most powerful collective works in the exhibition is Kangkura-KangkuraKu Tjukurpa - A sister's story by the Ken Family Collaborative, or the 'Ken sisters': Tingila Yaritji Young, Maringka Tunkin, Sandra Ken, Freda Brady and Tjungkara Ken, and their mother Paniny Mick. They come from the Aangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in the far northwest of South Australia, and their painting refers to the Seven Sisters and Honey Ant Dreamings, both of which are integral to their Country and community.
Moving beyond the strictures of linear time, these Pitjantjatjara women bring the understandings of a continuing culture into the present. As said in an interview, "When we work together as a family, we are learning from each other and teaching each other. Our family is strong because we teach all our young women this important Tjukurpa (the force which unites Aangu with each other and with the landscape)."
Australian multiculturalism throughout the 20th century added another dimension to the contribution of creative women. Numerous migrants who came to Australia after World War II experienced the loss of community and extended family. Mirka Mora, who emigrated as a young woman with her husband Georges, brought with her the experience of racism and a close encounter with the Nazi death camps in France.
While her vibrant persona often masked this trauma, her engagements in her art with forces of good and evil, her will and sparkle to make the most of life, along with her work teaching in the community, came out of this background. Like the renowned sculptor Inge King, she brought an invigorated sense of culture to Melbourne in the 1950s when society was much in need of enlivening.
Relationships are integral to art for many women. Among the highlights of Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now is a new performance work by dancer and choreographer Jo Lloyd, remembering the work of the brilliant but largely forgotten Philippa Cullen, who died in 1975 at the age of 25.
Cullen's highly experimental dance work included theremins, electronic musical instruments that are not touched but rather are responsive to movements of the body. Lloyd's performative approach will not so much recreate Cullen's work as bring her own remarkable dynamic vision and experience into close connection with the spirit of the earlier performance.
The Lloyd-Cullen project epitomises the connections so important to the work of female artists; now, throughout history and into the future. It reminds us that while personal endeavour is crucial, so is our interconnectedness across place and time.
Any exhibition in its impermanent drawing together of works of art is an action that marks a moment in time; Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now is a gesture made against neglect, an appeal to remember, and to keep remembering.
- Deborah Hart is the Head of Australian Art and Elspeth Pitt is the Curator of Australian Painting & Sculpture at the National Gallery of Australia.
- Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now opens November 14 and runs until July 4, 2021. The Know My Name conference runs November 10-13. Visit nga.gov.au for details.