New Woman

‘New Woman’ on view at the Museum of Brisbane celebrates 100 years of herstory. The exhibition presents 111 pieces by female artists working from Brisbane including Tracey Moffatt, Margaret Cilento, Gwendolyn Grant, Carol McGregor, Olive Ashworth, Judy Watson, Fiona Foley, Pamela See, Jay Younger, Davida Allen, James Barth, Megan Cope, Sancintya Mohini Simpson, Naomi Blacklock, Courtney Coombs, Emma Coulter, Rachael Haynes and Elisa Jane Carmichael. We spoke with curator Miranda Hine about the exhibition.

Do you think ‘women artists only’ exhibitions should be an essential part of institutional programming?
Not necessarily. It’s important to ensure artists have value as artists, not just ‘women artists’, and generally I believe they should be shown alongside other voices to engage in a rounded conversation. However, we felt it was time for this particular show, as there hadn’t been one of this scale before, and there are so many underrepresented female artists from Brisbane’s history, as well as successful artists who people often forget are from Brisbane. We are also conscious that a show like this might not be relevant in the next few years as gender distinctions become less important.

Gwendolyn Grant, The Beach Umbrella, 1930, oil on canvas. Photograph: Carl Warner. Courtesy Lyceum Club Brisbane Inc. and Museum of Brisbane, Queensland

Did you include trans or non-binary artists?
At the crux of ‘New Woman’ is identity, which is a huge topic to unpack, and relies on the understanding of intersectionality and individual experience. We wanted to explore how binary definitions of gender have excluded certain artists from recognition generally, whether it’s because they were female or because they didn’t conform to those definitions. We worked with the incredible artists James Barth and Courtney Coombs, who identify as trans and anti-gender respectively, to open these conversations through their works featured in the exhibition. Our public program series also unpacks this idea of identity, engaging the public in these important conversations.

The salon-style hang that you have employed here is typically associated with the white-male fin de siècle artists, is it a deliberate provocation you can expand on?
We wanted the salon hang to have impact by highlighting the volume and variety of the art on display, but it is also impactful partly because you are not used to seeing women hung in that way. We also chose the vibrant wall colour to cut through the ‘white box’ space associated traditionally with
male work.

Davida Allen, Drawing #1, 1982, pastel, charcoal, graphite, gouache and pen on paper. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by the Artist, 2017, Griffith University Art Collection. Photograph: Carl Warner

How do your thematic categories parallel the march of time and social changes?
In a city where the art community has been small and its productivity so precariously linked to shifts in government and funding, the work is almost always a reflection of the social, political and economic context of the time.

The one constant is the arts community’s ability to bolster itself against the uncertainty of investment in and respect for the arts. They no longer rely exclusively on funding or permanent exhibition spaces. Brisbane has such a strong artist-run initiative culture that has thrived since the 1980s, because artists learnt they could not rely on anyone but themselves and each other. This attitude started many decades earlier in the 1920s, with female artists advocating for the arts and establishing their own galleries.

In many ways, Brisbane’s story of art is about movement. In the earlier years, it was the women who left Brisbane to seek an arts education overseas who contributed most greatly to the art scene. Many of whom upon their return started teaching art classes, sharing their new knowledge informally in the women’s lounge, and pushing for a conservative public to recognise new ideas such as abstraction. Yet in the later years it’s the ones who stayed, when a majority of artists left the city due to the lack of support for the arts, who really defined the continuing attitude of Brisbane art.

Rachael Haynes, Threads of Resistance, pocket placard installation in Museum of Brisbane’s Adelaide Street Pavilion, 2019. Photograph: David Chatfield. Courtesy the artist and Museum of Brisbane, Queensland

What shifts have you identified in the depiction of women, their agency and Brisbane’s ’art ecology’?
Throughout all of the works from the 1920s there is a palpable notion of ‘legacy’ where these women are acutely aware of how they and women before them have been viewed: as linked to the domestic sphere, as amateur artists, as painters of still lifes and other ‘feminine’ imagery, and as craft workers. By reclaiming these associations, the women in ‘New Woman’ have maintained their own agency regardless of how they were treated in the art world.

However, when you look at the diversity of artists in the contemporary section in comparison with the first few decades, it’s quite clear that there were so many women who were not afforded the agency to become artists in the first place.

There is no denying that inequality still exists in Brisbane’s art ecology, as it does in most industries and in most cities in the world, but today some of the strongest work coming out of Australia is by Brisbane’s artists.

Museum of Brisbane
Until 15 March 2020
Queensland