Feminist Photography Catches Fire at Flinders University City Gallery

John Neylon explores Photography Meets Feminism, Australian Women Photographers 1970s–80s at the  Flinders University City Gallery.

The phrase ‘photography meets feminism’ sounds a done deal. Of course they belong to each other. Love at first sight. That’s the beauty of history; everything gets bundled into neat chapter headings that give some meaning to the chaos of everyday experience.

The 1970s was a chaotic time — plague, pestilence, rivers of blood, cane toads on the march, locusts chomping and war mongering presidents mongering. In response, somewhere in the shelter of a humanities campus, an art school studio, a front bar or repurposed factory site, the times were ‘a-changing’.

Artists began to learn and exercise the arts of war. The 1970s saw artists in Australia, and elsewhere, adopt the unionist strategy of collective action. Almost overnight, artists, art schools and art museums that still believed in things called ‘the studio tradition’, ‘the history of art’, ‘aesthetic values’ and so on, found themselves choking in the dust of cohorts of ideologically inspired young artists and theorists as they linked arms and charged towards a brave new world in which no tube of paint could escape political classification.

feminist-photography-flinders-art-museum-adelaide-review-ruth-maddisonRuth MADDISON, Women’s dance, St Kilda Town Hall, Melbourne, 1985, gelatin silver print, 36.5 x 24.5 cm, collection of the artist, courtesy of the artist

Adelaide’s rejection, in this era, of fossil-fuelled art systems in favour of free-radical thinking translated into deep-cycle batteries of creative energy — powered by sustainable enlightenment. The Experimental Art Foundation, The Women’s Art Movement and other agencies, publications and programs emerged at this time as tangible expressions of a deep desire for change.

As the recent Adelaide FRAN (Feminism Renewal Art Network) Fest’s Archival Hub: Remembering the Women’s Show at ACE Open reminded us these counter-culture initiatives were effectively (re)building the car as it raced down the road.

Artists who had exhibited in the 1976 The Women’s Show (Margaret Dodd, Loene Furler, Ann Newmarch, Stephanie Radok, Beverley Southcott and Helen Sheriff) under the curatorial eye of Jude Adams created archival assemblages from memories and artefacts that recalled The Women’s Show, the impact of feminism on their work and circumstances at the time.

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Christine GODDEN, Untitled, c. 1976, gelatin silver print, 15.2 x 22.8 cm, courtesy of the artist

This project was a reminder of the value placed by feminist artists, then and now, on constructing ‘scrap heaps’ from everyday experiences and memories that reveal or construct narratives that complement or disrupt the way society sees itself. Archival Hub epitomised the spirit of ‘70s feminist art practice in that ‘anti form’, participation and inclusivity mattered more than ‘the art object’ and refined gallery spaces.

The material culture, such as publications and photos, thrown up by this furious activity of adopting theories, writing manifestos, and participating in group shows, committees, protests and happenings, survives as best it can. Perhaps an incoming generation can catch the fire as appears to be happening in Adelaide with the FRAN project. But, as Joseph Conrad once reminded, “history repeats itself, but the special call of art which has passed away is never reproduced. It is as utterly gone out of the world as the song of a destroyed wild bird.”

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Fiona HALL, Untitled, 1985, gelatin silver print, 19.8 x 24.5 cm, Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection, acquired 1985, MGA 1985.32, courtesy of the artist and Rosyln Oxley9 Gallery (Sydney)

Which leads to the bigger question – what to do with the past? Is it enough to tend to the archives, publish and present the occasional survey? All worthy enterprises but do these things have the capacity to engage new audiences, who, if the desired outcomes of counter-culture art are to be taken seriously, need to be co-opted into the journey towards a better world? IKEA document boxes crammed with printed ephemera and small, black and white photos of some committee meeting or performance in an ill-lit hall are never going to cut it.

At some point, good art and creative curatorial flair have to ride to the rescue. The selection of work for Feminism Meets Photography has been drawn from the Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection. It makes no claim to be a survey of key artists identified with feminist photographic art practice but can be read as broadly representational of trends associated with the 1970s–1980s era of experimentation and politicisation.

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Carol JERREMS, Juliet ‘Girl amongst leaves’, 1976, gelatin silver print, 20.2 x 30.3 cm, Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection, donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural, acquired with assistance of the MGA Foundation 2012, MGA 2012.113, courtesy of Ken Jerrems and the Estate of Lance Jerrems

These trends include photojournalism (particularly documenting the work and everyday experiences of women), exploring concepts associated with the idea of a feminine sensibility, counterculture behavior subverting values associated with so-called fine art photography, reflections on notions of domesticity and women’s roles in society, patriarchal imposition of gender stereotyping and more.

There are few technical pyrotechnics, and colour, when it is used, plays a limited role. However, many of the images carry an imprint of considered compositional and tonal values. When artists like Micky Allen, Virginia Coventry or Sue Ford deliberately subvert them, the intention is clear — to create a new grammar of expression and gesture. What makes this exhibition particularly interesting is that it captures a point in time when not only feminist agendas were being foregrounded through the immediacy of photography but alternative constructions of reality were being explored by harnessing photography’s ambiguous identity and dynamic.

Photography Meets Feminism, Australian Women Photographers 1970s–80s
Flinders University City Gallery
Until Sunday, November 19
artmuseum.flinders.edu.au

Header image: Anne Ferran, Scenes on the death of nature, scene I, 1986, gelatin silver print, 122.0 x 162.0 cm, Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection, acquired 2000, MGA 2000.59.01, courtesy of the artist and Sutton Gallery (Melbourne)

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