‘Until recently, this work was in a shed’: NGA surveys 120 years of art in search of gender parity

Being asked to serve dinner. That’s a key memory for Adelaide artist Margaret Worth of a landmark 1968 exhibition of Australian abstract art, The Field, at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Worth was an artist of excellence herself, and married to Sydney Ball, whose work showed in The Field.

The curators knew she was a painter when they visited the couple’s home but “just asked her to serve dinner”, says Elspeth Pitt, a curator of Australian art at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra.

Pitt, myself and Deborah Hart, the NGA’s head of Australian art, are standing before the radiating curves of colour of Worth’s 1967 painting Sukhāvati No 5. “She’s so delighted to have this work here now,” Pitt says.

The far reaches of the room we’re in pulsate with an abundance of abstract and colour-field works by Grace Crowley, Clarice Beckett, Gemma Smith and more. Know their names? Or how about this: that in an opposite trend to Europe, modernism and abstraction in Australia was largely pioneered by women? This, despite the NGV stating in 2015 that the male-dominated Field exhibition defined “an entire direction in contemporary Australian art” and “its significance in Australian art history cannot be overemphasised”.

But men’s art can be overemphasised – and has been, as testified by this, the largest exhibition of art by all women artists ever held in the country, Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now. Opening on Saturday and running until July 2021, this big exhibition has small aims. Or at least very overdue ones. “People can easily identify works by male artists like Streeton, Nolan and Boyd, so we want to bring the work of women to people’s consciousness in the same way,” Hart says.

Several key new works were commissioned for acquisition, including an installation by Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara women, Tjanpi Desert Weavers, called Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters). Woven on Country from grass, and emanating Tjanpi’s signature vitality and wit, the sisters are not quite giants but not human-scaled, either. As one of the first works you see in a room dedicated to First Nations artists, Seven Sisters is an excellent metaphor, too, for the exhibition’s efforts to raise women artists onto the same oversized pedestal as men.

Know My Name’s 350 works occupy the NGA’s expansive upper-level wing. This area was previously home to its Australian art collection which, with the kind of self-awareness and commitment to improve you wish would waft 20 minutes down the road to Parliament House, the NGA admits was “heavily skewed” to male artists (75%). It’s time for that to change, the NGA director, Nick Mitzevich, believes.

Last October, Mitzevich announced a new focus on achieving gender parity “across all facets of the National Gallery” including its acquisitions and governance structure. It acknowledged the work already done by the Countess Report, the Sheila Foundation and social media campaign #5WomenArtists. Because not only has women’s art been here all along but, for decades, so has the labour of those committed to showcasing it.

The NGA sought breakthrough moments in women’s artistic practice. For example Rirratjingu woman Banduk Marika’s prints from the 1980s – the first woman in her family with permission to draw her father’s totems and stories. Or Tracey Moffatt’s Something More photographic series – “the first time Moffatt really established her visual language, drawing on kitsch and filmic tropes”, Pitt says.

Then there is Julie Rrap’s startling Persona and Shadow series of dye destroyed photographs from 1984, taking up a wall. Rrap is performance artist Mike Parr’s sister. She began working with Parr early in his career before branching out and inverting her surname to preserve her artistic identity. “On her first trip to Europe, she was like ‘where are the women?’ so she inserted herself into paintings by Edvard Munch in a fascinating exercise that’s part photo and part performance,” says Pitt.

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