So Fine: Contemporary women artists make Australian history

What would our national history be if women were responsible for its telling? Are elements of our past forgotten or ignored by our traditional recorded history? These are the questions posed by ‘So Fine: Contemporary women artists make Australian history’, an exhibition which invited ten artists to create work that ‘reinterprets events, people and places from Australia’s past’.

Bern Emmerich, Ruffles on the Rajah, 2018, painted and fired ceramic tiles, seashells
Courtesy the artist, Scott Livesey Gallery, Melbourne and National Portrait Gallery, Australian Capital Territory

The title of the exhibition suggests the intricacy and delicacy of the works shown, and this is certainly confirmed by Bern Emmerich’s ceramic pieces inspired by the journey of convict women sailing to Van Diemen’s Land in 1841. Ruffles on the Rajah (2018) features highly detailed caricatures of the women passengers, on a ceramic canvas framed in bold seashells. The overall affect is to confront the viewer with the multitudes of experiences aboard the Rajah, and also the absence of their record. Ms, Mrs and Miss Demeanours (2018) harks to the feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political’ – dainty saucers and side plates are inscribed with the names of women from the Rajah’s voyage. Emmerich’s material choices link the personal sphere these women were expected to occupy with the public one that saw them shipped to Australia as convicts, making for an arresting installation.

These themes of public versus private realms, and hidden histories echo throughout the show. Pamela See’s paper art presents the vastness of migrant experiences held by Chinese Australians, dismantling stereotypes by showcasing the diverse paths of businessmen, butchers, carpenters, publicans and philanthropists. Her silhouette portraits hint at the two dimensional way migrant communities are represented in historical records.

Carol McGregor, black seeds, 2016, possum skins, cotton, ochre, ash and resin, 187 x 93cm
Redland Art Gallery Collection, acquired in 2017 with Redland Art Gallery Acquisition Funds
Courtesy the artist Redland Art Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, Australian Capital Territory

‘So Fine’ doesn’t disregard the importance of our Indigenous history. Wathaurong-Scottish woman Carol McGregor uses traditional techniques of weaving to create vessels that are womb-like in form, as well as stitching a possum-skin cloak in the method of her ancestors.

Shirley Purdie, a senior Gija artist, presents a wall of canvases. The figures come to life through her composition, which exists as much on each individual canvas as it does on the collection of paintings as a whole. Their layout mimics the repetition and continuous flow of lore through generations.

Purdie’s work contrasts with Leah King-Smith’s photographic interrogations of the identity of her mother, a Bigambul woman. In her series, King-Smith first shows each image of her mother as it was originally taken, accompanied by her hand-written reflections. Then, she creates versions of each portrait with layers and textures applied, demonstrating the complex perspective we apply to the identities of our parents, seen as they are through the lens of our relationship to them.

Nusra Latif Qureshi also explores identity in her piece that combines portraits based on colonial photographs, with red thread that erratically connects the images, suggesting the inextricable links between individuals that create communities.

Pamela See, Yip Hoy, 2017, papercut on paper, 42 x 32cm
Courtesy the artist, Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Queensland and National Portrait Gallery, Australian Capital Territory

These more personal works are complemented by other artists’ reflections on broader historical themes. Valerie Kirk’s woven canvases reflect on immigration and notions of the ‘traveller’; Nicola Dickson explores the first meetings between French explorers and Indigenous Australians through her paintings; Linde Ivimey’s playful sculptures pay homage to Australian scientists in the Antarctic; and Fiona McMonagle’s large-scale canvases depict children representing the Child Migration Scheme.

‘So Fine’ is an ambitious exhibition, drawing on a range of mediums and interpretations of portraiture, to bring attention to the multiplicity of narratives that make up Australian history. Whilst the range of mediums can make the exhibition feel disjointed when seen as a whole, individually each artist’s work creates an entry point to a tapestry of stories.

Zoya Patel is a writer and editor based in Canberra.

National Portrait Gallery
Until 1 October, 2018
Australian Capital Territory