Vivienne, eX, Karla and Fiona
To celebrate the National Gallery’s Know My Name initiative, Sophie Tedmanson brought together women artists from four generations for a conversation about the power of art and gender.
In her pioneering 1971 essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Linda Nochlin argues that ‘The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.’ The National Gallery of Australia created the Know My Name initiative to support Australian women artists, including a commitment to new gender parity guidelines for future programming and collection development. Ahead of the Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now exhibition and conference opening in November, four Australian women artists talk about their experience of art and gender. They are: Vivienne Binns, 80, pioneering 70s feminist and pop art icon; eX de Medici, 61, former tattooist whose watercolours featuring guns and skulls reference gender and power; Karla Dickens, 53, a Wiradjuri woman whose Aboriginality and gender informs her work of found objects and poetry; and Fiona Lowry, 46, an Archibald Prize winner renowned for her atmospheric paintings inspired by cultural and spiritual references.
‘We want to be seen on a level playing field, our voices and visions are crucial. More and more in the world, female vision and voice is just screaming to be let in.’ Karla Dickens
Here is what they have to say.
‘When we started the women’s art movement, we were not initially interested in joining a group that separated women out as women artists, we just wanted to be artists.’ Vivienne Binns
Sophie: I want to start by asking each of you to discuss what the Know My Name initiative means to you and how important it is to be recognising and supporting Australian women artists?
Vivienne: The name has made me pause — Know My Name. I think I’d prefer something like: Know My Name, Know Her Name. It’s interesting as an older woman because when we started the women’s art movement, we were not initially interested in joining a group that separated women out as women artists. Many said, ‘I’m not a woman artist, I’m an artist.’
In saying that I think it’s an absolutely essential initiative and I applaud it. It’s wonderful to see the work women have done over the years, as well as what younger women are doing. There’s so much that is really about the now that young people can pick up on and get the zeitgeist in a way and speak in languages that I might not be used to. I love all that.
eX: I think we’ve always known, in Western terms, that women don’t have names. We have our fathers’ names and our fathers’ fathers’ names, yet our mothers are completely forgotten and aren’t ever able to be discoverable. I like that there’s a play in this idea that we would never have had names, so to know our current names is a great idea. I think it’s imperative, like anything that is deficit, that it needs to be addressed and analysed and there’s a long list of why women’s work has been excluded.
Ultimately, all I could really conceive of was that women’s aesthetics were just completely unwanted within the male constructs of the art world. I think it’s way overdue, quite frankly, years — 30, 50, 100 years — overdue.
Fiona: I remember reading Linda Nochlin’s essay when I was at art school and it really alerted me to something that I wasn’t particularly aware of at the time; I was surrounded by women at art school. I was quite young when I was there and I’d just left home. That essay really woke me up to what was happening throughout history and potentially what women were still going through and I think I determined then to not be left out of the conversation. I do think the initiative is really important and women need to be supported by institutions and organisations to keep making work. But I agree with Vivienne as well, I see myself as an artist, not a female artist.
Karla: For me, yes I’ve got a name but really it’s about my work, which is separate to that. And I totally agree with Fiona and Vivienne — I want to be known as simply an artist. And, as an Aboriginal female, well I’ve got more labels than most gay men’s wardrobes. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter to me what people want to label me as or whether that gets me in a show or that gets other women into a show. I want to see other women’s work, I want to know about other women’s practice.
It’s been amazing being here today with other women. I think we come to practice differently, we come to audiences differently, we come to the world differently and our visions can be different. So yes, we want to be seen on a level playing field, but our voices and our visions are crucial.
And I think that more and more in the world, female vision and voice is just screaming to be let in. Throughout the world at the moment with what’s happening environmentally, artistically, politically, I don’t really see it working, and I don’t feel safe in the world. And I’d like to connect with, hear and feel a more feminine voice and more feminine visions in the world. I’m all up for it.
Yesterday, landing at Mascot in Sydney, there was a great big Know My Name billboard with Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s work. And it was amazing. I grew up on Roby Street in Mascot, my grandparents lived there and my grandmother lived in a humpy at the back of the airport. So to see an Aboriginal woman’s artwork leading into the airport was really incredible. So it’s an amazing initiative. And like eX was saying, it’s a bit late but …
‘Not naming names, but I was involved in a program where the male artists were paid up to 20 times more than the women — an extraordinary difference.’ eX de Medici
eX: Better late than never! I think perhaps there’s a similar equation with the gay marriage debate, for instance, where gay marriage became a similar semantic issue. And until that’s normalised with us being perceived as simply an artist alongside any other male artists … But we’re not there yet.
Vivienne: No, we’re not.
eX: So I’m pretty happy for it to become a debate and to become a better analysis of even the politics of how you position your words together: woman artist, political artist, gay marriage. I mean, these things are still pervasive and unless we work at it, then nothing will change.
Vivienne: That’s absolutely right. I remember when Lucy Lippard [American critic and champion of feminist art] came to Australia in 1975 to give the Power Lecture at Sydney University and she said she didn’t want to have cocktail parties to meet all the great artists of the art scene, instead she just wanted to talk to women artists. And as one of those artists, I can’t tell you how extraordinary it was to have someone of her stature wanting to speak to us. It changed the mindset, all the pundits began speaking differently about the issue. I remember going back into the Australia Council and saying hello to people I knew on the Visual Arts Board, for instance, and the difference in their attitudes when talking about Lucy and starting to talk about women artists was unbelievable.
Sophie: I wanted to bring up what Karla mentioned before about how we’re in a time of change. It’s 2020, and we are in the middle of a pandemic, and over the last couple of years, we’ve had the gay marriage debate, the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements — so much has changed. Vivienne, you were part of the feminist revolution in the 70s. Does it surprise you that we’re talking about this now, that it’s taken so long to get to this point? And on the flip side, do you think people will be more receptive to making change now and being more proactive about making sure we do more to recognise female artists?
Vivienne: Look, things come and go. You get all excited because you think, ‘Oh, geez. This is a whole new thing.’ And then you find other forces push back and then it takes a while for the forces to get a resurgence of those kind of ideas. We were part of the second wave of feminism. And we had older women, who would be the age I am now, coming in to talk to us. And this was a women’s art movement, which was different to the women’s movement and some of the gay liberation movements. It was through the women’s art movement that my eyes were opened. I felt as if talking about what women did, it was like this great gate had opened and I was looking out on this whole new vista waiting to be explored. That’s what I meant earlier about young people picking up on the spirit of the time, I was picking up on something. I didn’t know what it was, but I was picking up on it. It had a keenness of truth about it and an enormous sense of insight.
‘As an Aboriginal female, well I’ve got more labels than most gay men’s wardrobes. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter to me what people want to label me as or whether that gets me into a show or that gets other women into a show. I want to see other women’s work, I want to know about other women’s practice.’ Karla Dickens
Sophie: Fiona and Karla, you’re from a different generation. How do you feel about being part of what’s happening now and reflecting on what Vivienne just talked about?
Fiona: I guess I am surprised … that we’re still having to make this statement and that women aren’t as recognised or supported as they should be. At a political level, we need more support. That starts with good childcare funding. We need this to change through government, so families can be supported through what they’re doing. Also within the institutions, such as art schools, I think there needs to be more women teaching in those areas showing who they are so that young artists feel supported and inspired to keep going.
Karla: As a teenager I indulged in high-risk behaviour and was very much one of the boys. And when I went to the National Art School in the early 90s I gave my art that same passion I had on the streets. I had this older teacher mock me and say: ‘you’re a good artist, but you’ll leave and have kids’. That was when I first started to become aware of the positioning of women in the art world because I hadn’t really looked at art until then. I became aware of the women’s art movement. And then I remember different moments where I saw contemporary Aboriginal artists — Tracey Moffatt, Destiny Deacon — for the first time, it was just so liberating and mind-blowing. Those white fellas teaching at the National Art School at the time were all good artists, but if I was surrounded by supportive and nurturing women, I wouldn’t have had that same drive in those days because I was being put in my place.
At the moment, with Me Too and Black Lives Matter, the world is in trauma. Black Indigenous people are in trauma. Our Country is in trauma through mining, through the fires. We have the voice and the visions of women and non-binary people. But I don’t think that’s going to be acknowledged and felt and heard until women’s voices are, especially for the importance of Indigenous peoples who cherish and hold Country and hold the land. That has not been in the vocabulary in the modern world.
And that’s a reflection in the artwork. So seeing all those [Indigenous] artworks, and Judy Chicago’s work — even a great big vulva, when there was a wave of vulvas going on — resonated with me and gave me a connection to what’s in the world because often I don’t feel that. So with all these movements, I can only hope that that trauma and that uncomfortability drives really incredible voices of change. Especially for the planet — I think COVID has been a blessing to slow us all down, send us to our rooms and have a think about things. Even for artists and what we want to say and the environmental impact of what we make.
Vivienne: We’ll see how it pans out. I’m not that hopeful. You see how much the artist is appreciated by the economy, COVID has highlighted the situation, you see how it has impacted seriously on women artists and others. But the question is where are the values?
eX: And what are the values? We’re in a time of all the values being overhauled, upended. Hopefully, in a better way than has been practiced before.
Karla: And who have suffered financially the most from COVID? Women and the arts. But we didn’t get a look in …
‘I am surprised that we’re still having to make this statement and that women aren’t as recognised or supported as they should be.’ Fiona Lowry
Vivienne: And of course, poor people and poor countries. We’re talking about gender and poverty. And the system maintains it. The systems of patriarchy and we could say capitalism and …
eX: Consumption. I think the system hopefully is looking straight into a big mirror and itself because I think everyone knows this has been an unsustainable system for a very long time. And I’m hoping that this will actually open the door to the universal basic wage and …
Fiona: And again we recently had the waiving of childcare fees that elevated so much stress for families during this time, which felt like a promise for meaningful lasting support. The fees have come back even though nothing financially has really returned to normal and families are still having to fork out large amounts every week to get to work and feed their families through this crisis. Retracting that childcare arrangement is representative of the inconsistency of the level of support that women and families can rely on from governments and can be quite disrupting.
Sophie: What about the finances of being an artist and remuneration, knowing your worth — is it hard to put a price on your work compared to a male artist who is usually more confident?
Fiona: Yes, it can be quite difficult to know your worth as an artist and what you can and can’t ask for. That conversation often gets avoided until the last minute in a lot of instances — you’re commissioned to do something, and then you find out the money’s not there. I was in a situation recently where I didn’t step forward because I guess for me it was an uncomfortable conversation to say: ‘I want this, this and this’.
I just assumed, I suppose, that there was an understanding between parties and the right thing would occur, but it didn’t. But that sort of thing happens quite a lot. These nebulous transactions add uncertainty and can be exhausting and distracting when you’re really just wanting to make the best work. It’s often tricky for a lot of women to navigate these interactions but I’m sure for men to a degree as well.
eX: Not naming names, but I was involved in a program where the male artists were paid up to 20 times more than the women — an extraordinary difference. And this was not that long ago. And ultimately, it’s a bit like the workplace agreements from John Howard’s era: ‘Don’t tell anybody what you earn because then you can compare’. None of this was ever discussed as part of the artist participating in this particular program. I was shocked at the difference between what the women were paid and what men were paid. This significantly different perception as to who is worth what.
Sophie: Did you say anything about it at the time?
eX: It was already over. But I had a perception that was the standard fee. In fact, it had nothing to do with the standard fee. We were paid a lot less than men who were probably not even coming near our shoes as artists.
Sophie: Each of you approach gender in your work in different ways and challenge the perception of the power structure and the way we look at the body through the female gaze, whether it’s Vivienne’s Vag Dens, eX’s Shotgun wedding dress, Karla’s Warrior Women, or Fiona’s The Ties That Bind. I’d love for each of you to explain your approach to these works, starting with Vivienne. I read a quote where you said that Phallic Monument completed itself without a great struggle, yet Vag Dens didn’t, until you added teeth to it. It’s interesting that the female body was more difficult.
Vivienne: It was painted as a pair of male and female organs. And yes, the teeth were totally unexpected. But I couldn’t complete the work until I put them in. Vag Dens was taken up a little bit as a feminist icon. But I’ve always insisted that it was made as part of a pair and if you look at that pair, it actually problematises the whole situation in a very interesting way that I haven’t fully teased out myself. And I probably won’t now, to be honest with you. These are archetypal images that have occurred in different societies over time — the phallus with the flowers coming out of the top and the toothed vagina. There’s a contrast to the way the blokes around me when I started out were doing abstract works. They were using plenty of symbols such as the idea of the phallus becoming a gun, which of course fits in with the force of ejaculation and so on. But the flowers just came out of my imagination. And then coming to Vag Dens, it’s quite a jolly image actually: a funny little fantasy of something around us — there’s sperm and the sun is shining. And if you look right to the centre of it, through the vulva and up, there’s a little circular bit like a scene of the Promised Land. And that’s significant to me. But this image of the teeth kept coming into my mind. And I put it off, it seemed too violent. I put more decoration around the edge, but I couldn’t make the painting work and wasn’t happy with it. So I put in the jagged teeth and it worked. It was terrific. I wish that there were a lot of women who had teeth on their vagina in a world where rape is used over and over and over and over again.
I’ve had blokes come up to me and think I’m a castrating bitch, but it wasn’t a castration impulse. It was more about strengths, the kind of strength that I see in the lioness who can use her teeth to rip humans apart or also carry her cubs around. It’s the rose and the thorn; much more the strength in femininity rather than femininity as the strength.
Karla: Warrior Women came about while I was doing a residency in Jakarta, where I had gone for inspiration and to make work. I had this vague idea in my mind about making a work with knickers and I had been collecting them (new ones, not crusty ones!). One day I was walking down this little lane and there were some woman melting aluminium body parts of cars over a fire, and I went over, pulled these new knickers I had just bought out of my bag and said: ‘could you make these?’, and they said: ‘sure!’. So I came back from Jakarta with 20 pairs of aluminium knickers in my suitcase. Once I got into the studio the stories and the essence behind that work became more and more clear and, like the piece of poetry I wrote, they are very protective, they’ve got lots of gnarly bits of metal and machinery on them, one has a feral cat attached to it.
They were shown first at the Melbourne Art Fair and the day I went in for the opening, the front page of the paper featured a story about four women who had just been murdered within a short period of time, so those works are very much about the protection of women and the abuse of women and how we have to live those experiences and then get up and be graceful in the world and keep living and keep loving our kids and our partners and ourselves. They are also fun — at the Art Fair not many men would go into the booth to see those knickers, but the women were laughing those naughty laughs women have when they get it!
Fiona: I remember reading something that the writer Joan Didion said about how an overheard conversation can spark a whole novel. I really relate to this idea, as often an idea for a body of work can come from a line in a song or poetry. The Ties That Bind had a very incremental build-up to what ended up being produced in the end. I had heard a line from a Bruce Springsteen song called The Ties That Bind and that sparked this whole train of thought. He was talking about love and complexities of relationships, but it also reminded me of this line of scripture that I learned growing up: ‘The sins of forefathers will be visited upon the sons’. The work really is a meditation on that idea or phrase; that if we don’t acknowledge our history then we’re forever traumatised by it, historically, as well as on a personal level.
When I think about the figures [in the painting], they’re playing out these ideas … some are intimate or going through something intense together but at the same time there is this absence, aloneness or emptiness that is separating them. It’s not really political but more about searching for something within your own mind around relationships and the blind spots that often occur in them. It wasn’t a space that I wanted there to be a definitive meaning though, it was about people going through something — they’re not at the beginning or the end of it, they’re going through an experience. I think a lot of my work sits in that murkiness because that’s how I experience things. Things are very ambiguous to me.
eX: The Shotgun wedding dress actually started as a joke and then [former National Gallery director] Gerard Vaughan thought it was a good one and asked me to make the object. I work with the gun, the absolute ultra-phallic symbol. And I recall years ago doing a floor talk at the Gallery, actually with one of the guns from the National Gallery collection. And afterwards this guy said to me: ‘I don’t know if you knew, but guns are phallic’. It was so patronising, as if the maker has no idea what they’re doing or even bothered to explore it. Again, I think that was part of the big problem. But in regards to the wedding dress, as a person who never once entertained the idea of getting married, I thought the irony of that was just hilarious; the irony of the fact that it’s a wedding dress, but it’s a forced wedding and so it’s not a really good wedding. Then not long after I finished it, it got included in a show of real wedding dresses at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, the only fake wedding dress in the show. It had just been a bad theoretical wedding and then it got included with 300 beautiful gowns made for actual weddings.
The Shotgun wedding dress is also tilted at this idea of the Pietà, Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Virgin Mary in the Vatican. The theory is that if she stood up, she’d be around nine feet tall. So I made my wedding dress about as high as the Virgin Mary. So she would stand about the same height as a woman who’s never been fucked and was in a marriage of convenience with some poor cuckold. I don’t usually work in irony particularly, but I’ve felt that the wedding dress was a full-tilt at irony.
Sophie: Many pioneering Australian artists were teachers, and many in the Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now exhibition mentored each other. How important is that kind of community for each of you, and what impact has mentoring had in your careers?
Karla: I used to teach and do a lot more before I became a mother, and I guess most of my mentoring now is focused on my daughter, which is amazing. But that’s why things like today — coming together and listening to other women and their experience is so important. I’m an artist who doesn’t have assistants, and last year I was in a position where I needed an assistant. I always try and have women and mothers — especially single mothers — involved in that process, which has been essential for me. I’m inspired by any artist who continues to work and more so by any female who continues to work and make art, especially when it’s not materially based for us most of the time. I hope to do it more and I think that with COVID, community-based work is more important than ever. I don’t live in a city, so I see more community-based art coming out of the situation.
Since COVID hit, Megan Cope, a Quandamooka woman and incredible artist, moved into our home. We have very different practices, but just seeing how another woman goes through the process is invaluable. I love it and I hope that I can continue to encourage and give support — whether that just be a cup of tea or a bed if somebody needs one. I think that mentoring is not just studio-based, but it broadens over the whole life experience at different times. I live in the Northern Rivers of NSW and there are women in the Nimbin community who have taught me how to be a mother, I’ve learned from their experience and their sharing. And from being a mother, I’ve learned to mother myself. So it just goes around; as much as I give, I get back.
Fiona: I really relate to what Karla said about coming to the Gallery today and meeting all the women here; I feel like I’ve gleaned so much just from one short day. My practice is so solitary and I don’t spend a lot of time in the art world. So I’m not often in situations where I meet a lot of other women who are making work. I have friends that I made at art school who I’m still in touch with, which I think is really important, especially for young artists — to gather your clan around as you keep moving forward. In those early days, we would show together and support each other. Now I teach a little bit as well, so I feel like I’m going back into that more social experience and talking with younger women artists and trying to support them in ways that I can.
But I do think that there needs to be more of it. I’m feeling that today, just being here in this conversation has been really interesting for me personally.
eX: I’ve had a long history of mentoring and collaboration for pretty much my whole career. I have been under mentorship with Dr Marianne Horak from the CSIRO since 1996. And I’ve trained three fantastic women tattooists. I made a decision not to train men because I felt as though they already had so many advantages in that particular medium that I was not going to advantage them any further. Those girls I trained were known as ‘Ex’s Rottweilers’ because they were ferocious. It’s a world where you have to really stand your ground, you have to be very tough. So those three women have brilliantly handled their lives beyond me. It’s just been a normal part of my work all the way. I also work with Roslyn Atkins, who’s a printmaker in Melbourne. We’ve been working together now for 15 years. These are all ongoing relationships and I value them immensely.
Vivienne: I have one very special mentor, from when I was at the National Art School, East Sydney in 1958 to 1962. Her name was Irene Broadhurst, and she had studied art with Dattilo-Rubbo. I credit her for bringing out some of the very best in me. She was widely read, had a wry, wonderful sense of humour. I’m a bloody gasbag and she was a great listener. She was very wise and introduced me to interesting ways of thinking and philosophy and various kinds of spiritual movements. I have always taught and now I am certainly mentoring people. The people who are assisting me with getting ready for two big exhibitions are wonderful. They are bright and capable and they learn from me, but they also teach me many things.
Sophie: In closing, what advice would you give today’s young women artists or students?
eX: I come from a generation that was pretty feral, which was actually quite good training — we didn’t particularly care if someone didn’t like us or whether they thought we were unfeminine or whether we were any damn thing that they wanted us to be. It’s a long game. And ultimately, to survive the long haul of being an artist, you have to be fearless and take risks.
Fiona: Work hard, make work every day and really dig deep into who you are. Make work from a deep place inside yourself.
Karla: Be brave and try and avoid wanting instant gratification. Pace yourself and hang around other people who are going to support you in that process. And be brave and be gentle at the same time.
Vivienne: Be honest and ruthlessly brave enough to look into yourself, into your emotions, to watch and beware of self-deception. Even if it takes you into very challenging areas, there’s every chance that that will be an experience for great development and further insight. And follow the yellow brick road, follow that little light that’s bouncing along in front of you. The one you can’t quite take your eyes off and you’re drawn back to all the time. Stay with it.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of the National Gallery’s Members’ magazine Artonview. To get a copy of the magazine and access future editions, become a Member: nga.gov.au/members/
The Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now exhibition opens 14 November. The Know My Name Conference will be delivered virtually on 10–13 November.
For more information head to: nga.gov.au/knowmyname
Sophie Tedmanson is the Chief Content Officer at the National Gallery of Australia.