Why A Women’s Gallery?

by Marian Evans

Outside 26 Harris Street Wellington — l to r Marian Evans, Allie Eagle, Nancy Peterson, Juliet Batten, Anna Keir, Heather McPherson, Bridie Lonie, Keri Hulme. in front, Bridget Eyley, Claudia Pond Eyley photo: Fiona Clark ‘The Women’s Gallery’ sign by Helen Wilson and Linn Latta

The Women’s Gallery Inc. opened in January 1980, in the bottom floor of an old building at 26 Harris Street Wellington, New Zealand, co-ordinated by Anna Keir, Bridie Lonie and me. It later moved to 323 Willis Street and closed in January 1984. The catalogue for the Opening Show provided a manifesto.

‘Why a Women’s Gallery?

Women artists have been seen to have been in the minority throughout history [some of these women had been at art school, where the art history text was Gombrich]. Men have defined the human experience through their art and women have often felt excluded. Men have also defined the female experience — we have seen ourselves through men’s eyes, whether it be the famous female characters of literature, the celebration of the virgin mother in our religion or the female nudes painted by men throughout history.

Art must express the whole person, but all too often women, in suppressing their femaleness, fail to express their wholeness.

When we undertake the task of breaking out of the images men have presented to us and exploring our exclusively female experience, then we become vulnerable. We uncover private and previously unexpressed areas of ourselves. We lack a positive tradition to encourage and confirm us in what we see. There are few women artists to endorse our new vision. The only tradition we have to draw on is one where women have been suppressed by a predominantly male culture.

This means that we need to withdraw and gain confirmation from each other before we are ready to announce our insights to the ‘outside world’, i.e. our culture, which, despite the changes that have taken place, is still undoubtedly male dominated.

Hence at certain key moments men may be excluded from some event, not out of spite (as some would have it), but because we need to draw on the special advantages of being exclusively among women. An all women gathering makes the audience participants and includes everyone in our event. This separatism is not an end in itself, it is simply part of a process. The process is one of self-discovery, of building our traditions by going back to the roots of our experience.

In the end we hope to redefine not only what is female but also what is the human experience.’

Helen Wilson designed a poster for us that lists the participants and was probably printed at the Media Collective.

Some of the events had their own poster, like this one. Helen Rockel didn’t come to Wellington for the Opening Show. Joanna Paul, Carole (Kanya) Stewart and Tiffany Thornley were there, but weren’t around for the group photo.

We held most events in the largest gallery space, the ‘front area’ in this plan drawn later in 1980 by Sharon Alston, when she came from Auckland to be a co-ordinator.

But the concert was across the road, at Circa Theatre. Helen designed this poster, too.

Later, Anna Keir made a drawing of three of us walking along the road during the opening week.

Anna, Marian, Allie (1980s, 26x33 cm, pencil on paper)

And there’s this clip of Nancy Peterson of Auckland’s Community Women’s Video, in conversation with Anna and me. It provides some contemporary information that might otherwise be forgotten. Nancy and Carole (Kanya) Stewart conducted many other interviews in that opening week, with the artists and with writers like Patricia Grace and J C Sturm who took part in associated readings.


Someone’s found this leaflet from 1980, which expands on the manifesto, lays out the day-to-day priorities and seeks support.

The leaflet also provides just a little bit of the larger context about published resources and about other women’s groups, festival and exhibitions from that time. But there are many more not mentioned. Here are just a couple of examples, from notes in A Women’s Picture Book (1988).

The Auckland Association of Women Artists was founded in 1980 after the Women in the Arts exhibition at Outreach Gallery in Auckland. According to Herstory [Diary] 1987 its role was ‘both supportive and educational. It aims to help women artists make contact with each other and to develp and awareness of structures and images that have denigrated and oppressed women in the past. It shares information about the work of contemporary women artists by monthly slide talks, films, discussions and performance evenings with guests from both New Zealand and overseas’.

Tiffany Thornley wrote a note about Women’s Arts Festivals in Christchurch–

‘The Women’s Art Festivals meant a chance to create a women’s space, a women’s environment. A place to nurture women, where women could feel women’s support and show their own work, ideas and creativity.

The First Festival (first weekend February 1979) worked– women brought their pots, paintings, poems, photos, their rooms. They made personal statements about their lives, their mothers, their grandmothers, families and children. We held workshops on music, dance, drama, anger, abortion. Loads of feminist films came from the Sydney Co-op.

With the Second Festival (February 1980) we tried harder, more workshops, more art, more professionalism. It lacked the spontaneity of the first, and the mutual sharing. We must have tried too hard. We had a great performance on Friday about Sylvia Plath.

Looking back,the First Festival was a phenomenon of the 70s and follwoed on from the women’s art environment at the Canterbury Society of the Arts during the 1977 United Women’s Convention — also Spiral collective and Herstory Diary 1980 collective being in Christchurch.

Both festivals were strong statements about women and their art. By the time the Second Festival was held much of the 70s women endergy had dissipated, gone north or overseas; and was fed up with the strong anti-women reaction due to again, not allowing media coverage or viewing by men. Looking back it is amazing we did so well with the resources we had. I know both festivals are part of our feminist herstory and were extremely important.’

Anne Else’s excellent survey of women’s arts and writing groups in Women Together: A History of Women’s Organisations in New Zealand Ngā Rōpū Wāhine o the Motu (1993) provides a wider view, back to the 19th century and after the Women’s Gallery. It also provides individual entries for groups like Haeata, a Māori women artists’ collective founded in 1983 (end point, if any, uncertain).

Keri Kaa contributed the Haeata article. Haeata began when Wendy Harrex of the New Women’s Press invited a group of Māori women writers based in Wellington to compile a Herstory Diary based on the lives of Māori women. Haeata undertook numerous projects. It launched books by Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme [some members of Haeata were also Spiral members or cherished Spiral supporters] and Robyn Kahukiwa. It organised Karanga Karanga, a group exhibition, with Waiata Koa, an Auckland-based women writers and artists collective and a group of Māori women artists in Gisborne. Karanga Karanga was shown at the Wellington City Gallery, the Fisher Gallery in Pakuranga and the Gisborne Museum and Art Centre. After that, Haeata worked on other exhibitions with the City Gallery, Whakamamae by Robyn Kahukiwa and Shona Rāpira Davies and Te Tiriti o Waitangi, in partnership with Project Waitangi and Pākehā artists. The collective also nurtured new and young Māori women artists and as membership expanded included women working in many mediums, contemporary and traditional.

Haeata also hosted indigenous artists from outside New Zealand and some collective members also visited these women. Keri wrote–

‘The support of men has been important to Haeata’s projects. family members and friends have often provided practical help and spiritual guidance…

Haeata regards itself as part of Ngā Puna Waihanga, the Māori Artists and Writers Society (founded in 1973). Sometimes Haeata’s emphasis on support for women has caused debate and dissension in Māori society. But while the struggle to maintain the group’s stance has been stressful, providing support for Māori women artists has always prevailed.

Encouragement from elders has been important to Haeata’s development and survival.’