The Feminist Renewal Art Network (FRAN) will soon mark the 40th anniversary of The Women’s Show — an Australia-first open festival of women’s art. The Adelaide Review speaks with the organisers and explores what’s changed over the last 40 years.
If you wish to laughingly eviscerate Australian identity, gender roles and national treasures, why not use a tiny car? Scale the bulbous hood of a Holden FX down to the size of a handbag; sculpt its curvaceous form out of clay and smother it in gleaming white glaze. Crown the windscreen with dusky pink roses and drape, over all, a stiff tulle veil. Here comes the bride.
In 1977, at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), Margaret Dodd debuted this miniature in her series of ceramic works, This Woman is Not a Car. The work is well known, and was earlier this year restaged to accompany the Sydney Film Festival, where Dodd’s 1982 “suburban melodrama meets horror road movie” of the same name was screened.
While her cars are iconic, we are today more intrigued by a second exhibition Dodd was participating in at the same time, in the same city. Across town, Dodd had ‘dolled up’ a teapot in curlers and stuffed it with aspirin. This was no solo show; the teapot was just one piece among 400 works presented in Adelaide at Australia’s first nationwide, open, women-only exhibition.
Not expecting the influx — organiser Julie Ewington later remarked she’d been warned they were making a “big mistake” underestimating the number of women artists waiting in the wings for an opportunity to exhibit — The Women’s Show 1977 spread from the AEAF basement to the Jam Factory workshops.
In the final days of the show, a reviewer from the Weekend Australian arrived. Between dismissing the show as “a political exercise” and holding Dodd aloft as one of the only “good or adventurous” artists in attendance, he took time out to critique the housekeeping. He was dismayed at the untidy state of the craftshop spaces: “Is it now considered incorrigibly bourgeois to expect exhibition areas — I hesitate to use an establishment word like gallery — to be swept and maintained?”
It’s been 40 years since that review was printed; 40 years, we hope, of progress.
In 2013, following Beyoncé is a Feminist, an exhibition held at Brigid Noone’s Fontanelle gallery, discussions began around Adelaide’s feminist art history. Jude Adams, an artist and academic responsible for teaching Australia’s first feminist art course, started talking with Noone — and four years later they are about to launch FRAN Festival, a month-long feminist art show designed to “value and reflect both the history and contemporary practice of Australian feminism and art”. Joining Adams and Noone on the curatorial committee are artists Loene Furler and Mia Van den Bos.
From L to R: Loene Furler, Brigid Noone, Mia Van den Bos and Jude Adams.
Van den Bos agrees that Beyoncé is a Feminist struck a chord right when people were ready to hear it. “‘Tumblr feminism’ was taking off, and people were dyeing their armpit hair and stuff like that. In high school, feminism was not cool; no one wanted to be a feminist. Then by 2013 it was cool again, and people wanted to identify.”
Noone’s exhibition predated Beyoncé’s famous 2014 performance at the Video Music Awards (VMAs), where she appeared on stage silhouetted against the word FEMINIST illuminated in 15-foot-high letters. The music Beyoncé has produced in recent years is widely recognised as feminist work. Beyoncé’s profile has raised that of feminism; other celebrities such as Emma Watson are champions, too, and feminism has been ‘relegitimised’ through pop-culture. There is a viral, newsworthy quality to contemporary feminist art that taps into social issues. Take as an example Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance Carry That Weight, in which the artist protested her university’s response to on-campus rape by carrying with her the mattress on which she had been assaulted.
Against the rising tide of feminism comes a violent wave of antagonism. In the wake of Beyoncé’s VMAs performance, Google Trends shows a significant spike in searches for “men’s rights” and “against feminism”. We are all aware that those who comment on the internet have an inordinate amount of time on their hands – but those who trawl the internet looking for women to abuse have more time than most. In 2016, The Guardian revealed “the dark side” of their comment section, detailing the vitriol that women journalists receive compared to their male counterparts; more than 1.4 million comments have been taken down by moderators for abusive content. Another example: the Bank of England’s proposal to include Jane Austen on the £10 note elicited a response so vile and disturbing that the tens of thousands of violent comments were gathered as data in a corpus study on the language of rape threats.
The extreme reactions just galvanise the movement, says Adams. “It’s a consequence of our networked lives that that appalling violence and aggression is getting air. Before, if you received nasty letters, no one would know. I think the [troll] response has less to do with feminism than it does to do with that networked, public culture, which amplifies those voices. It provokes women to stand up. People get angry. More women will say, ‘Hey, this isn’t right’.”
Offline, there is plenty of work to do – and there is more joy in succeeding against the wishes of vocal critics than there is in fighting with them on the internet.
As women gain more ground in traditionally male space, there is a perception that the world is becoming “too female” says Noone. It’s the artistic equivalent of Dale Spender’s experiment that showed that men perceived discussions as being “equal” when women talked only 15 per cent of the time, and discussions as being “dominated by women” if they talked for 30 per cent.
“It’s hard to get to 50 per cent representation,” says Van den Bos, “because as soon as you reach about 30, everyone starts to freak out.”
In Australia, organisations and publications have emerged to critique our nation’s representation problem: our presented artists are overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white. Audiences and artists want more visibility across spectrums of race, gender and ability. Journals like Peril and Pencilled In raise the profiles of Asian-Australian artists; CoUNTess collates and analyses data to draw a statistical picture of Australia’s art scene. The stats are stark: 75 per cent of art school graduates are women, but 66 per cent of artists exhibited in state museums and galleries are men.
These discussions are the same as those being held when The Women’s Show was organised in 1977. The 1979 Sydney Biennale was the focal point of a years-long campaign to improve visibility of Australian and women artists. In the Biennale catalogue, artistic director Nick Waterlow wrote: “in 1979, the feminist movement and the Left united and they wanted greater Australian representation, and in particular more women in the exhibition … I had to walk a tightrope, and they were a very persuasive bunch. In the end there was a very sizeable Australian representation, but it was not possible in the whole Biennale to include as many women as men.”
The numbers? Of the 62 artists booked for the 1979 Sydney Biennale, 19 were Australian, including five women. Five international women artists also appeared. Was it really “not possible”? Where did the 400 keen and available women artists of 1977 go?
In this context, FRAN’s most impressive curatorial achievement is that they have secured most of the galleries across Adelaide and South Australia to be involved with the festival. With the exception of a few spaces that were unable to make space in their programming, not a single gallery said no when approached by FRAN. More than 50 galleries are involved, and almost all people participating will be women or gender non-conforming artists.
“That’s the biggest difference from the 70s to now,” says Adams. “In the 70s, there was a survey of commercial galleries, and the responses were things like ‘Oh, we showed a woman artist this year’, and they thought that was enough. That’s the attitude that’s changed, and that is very important to recognise.”
Friday, August 25 to Sunday, September 24
Various galleries across South Australia
FRAN will also host a symposium at the Art Gallery of South Australia on Saturday, September 16 and Sunday, September 17
Photography: Sia Duff