She Persists: Perspectives on Women in Art & Design

She Persists: Perspectives on Women in Art & Design
National Gallery of Victoria

‘Can a woman who is an artist ever just be an artist? Can a woman – however virtuosic and talented, however disciplined – ever attain a fundamental freedom from the fact of her own womanhood?’ This question posed by award-winning novelist Rachel Cusk unfurls ‘She Persists’, a collection of perspectives on pivotal moments in and key considerations to the field of art and design by women, all drawn from the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Collection.

Arranged into five thematic chapters: Ambition, Perseverance, Activism, Feminisms and Identity, the publication features 34 essays and interviews by leading scholars, critics and NGV curators who, through a global lens, pen a compelling analysis on the complex relationships between art, gender identity and the politics of culture, and how socio-economical constructs have impacted these relationships and the various waves of feminist movements. The contributing writers present their inquiry reflecting on the ambitious way select artists and designers from the NGV collection have responded to and challenged societal paradigms throughout history.

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Despite the criteria, the ambit of stories and voices contained in ‘She Persists’ are not constricted. The trailblazing subjects build on the message of empowerment and togetherness in overturning the status quo – from the persuasiveness of the spirited Warlpiri women of Lajamanu with their paintings and teachings, the fearless political nature of Xioa Lu’s practice, Annie Swynnerton’s artistic and suffragette legacy, the activism of The Guerrilla Girls, Barbara Kruger, Destiny Deacon and Hannah Brontë, to pioneering industrial designers Frances Burke and Joyce Coffey. As the book eloquently presents, art has long been used as a vehicle for change, a tool for advocacy.

A colour historically associated with efforts to achieve gender equality, purple, fittingly is the colour splashed on the glossy book jacket – the back of which notes that ‘The idea of persistence was the inspiration for this publication’. In 2017 the phrase ‘Nethertheless, she persisted’ became a catchphrase for feminists around the world, made popular by the US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The phrase became a rallying cry for further advancement of women’s rights globally and a recognition that persistence is required as we collectively strive for equality.

‘She Persists’ does just that – by unpacking the tenancy of women and framing feminism as a pluralistic concept, continually evolving and being redefined by the individual and the collective, the book becomes an important stamp in time, an archival text on how far we’ve come and how our persistence must continue.