This Wild Song is a long-term project by artist and curator Ilona Nelson. Galvanised by recent statistics around gender inequality in the arts (for example the 2015 Countess Report), Nelson has made it her mission to champion and celebrate Australian female artists through photographic portraiture. Involving more than 100 practitioners so far, This Wild Song has evolved to encompass a growing online archive of photographs and interviews, exhibitions, public forums and most recently a podcast.
The project includes familiar names from diverse corners of the artworld – Patricia Piccinini, Bindi Cole Chocka, Polixeni Papapetrou, Nell, Jill Orr – as well as artists in the early stages of their careers, on the cusp of breaking out, juggling multiple jobs and in many cases motherhood. Through its rich and evolving archive, This Wild Song presents a compelling portrait of the women whose practices are shaping Australia’s contemporary artworld.
For a new exhibition at Town Hall Gallery, in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn, Nelson has selected 26 diverse photographic portraits from the ever-expanding collection, pairing them with the artworks of their subjects.
Anna Dunnill: How did the project begin?
Ilona Nelson: This Wild Song started out as a series of photographic portraits of Australia-based female visual artists. I was creating these to address gender inequality in the arts in a positive way – and to celebrate all of the amazing women in Australia who are continuing to develop their practices. A lot of women in the project are also mothers.
The Town Hall show is a series of 26 portraits from the project, which haven’t been seen in Melbourne before, it’s the first major show here. Alongside the photographs I’ve also curated artworks by each of the artists that are in the portraits, so it’s a really huge group show.
AD: Who are some of the artists chosen for the Town Hall show?
IL: It’s quite varied. There are established artists, like Patricia Piccinini, and the late and wonderful Polixeni Papapetrou. And then there are younger artists like Hannah Gartside. Gosia Wlodarczak is going to be doing a five-day live drawing performance, drawing on the entry of the gallery space; there are a lot of events happening throughout the show.
AD: What’s the process that you go through when you’re starting to work with someone to develop a portrait?
IL: The artists that I invite into the project all have something unique in their work. I want to create a really broad synopsis of what’s happening in contemporary art in Australia, so I’m conscious of not having lots of painters, for example, or one medium in particular. What usually happens is that I get in touch with them, ask them if they’d like to be a part of it, and we meet in person or have a chat on the phone so I can get to know them. I find that when they start to talk to me about their work, in their words, that’s when the concepts will pop into my mind. And then I’ll just sort of resolve the idea, and touch base with them to ensure that it is something that’s really true of them as a person. And then I’ll go off and location scout or make a costume or whatever is necessary and then we’ll shoot the portrait.
AD: Do you have any favourite moments, or people you were particularly excited to photograph?
IL: Poli’s portrait [Polixeni Papapetrou] was the third portrait that I shot for the project. There was about three months of emailing, just so she could get to know me and understand what I wanted to do and what ideas I had, before we shot.
AD: How are you negotiating the curation of the artists’ works in conjunction with the portraits?
IL: I’ve got the whole space, so that’s three rooms, and I haven’t counted how many works are in it, but probably about 60. I’m working with an exhibition designer, Catherine Pyers. Because it’s broken up over the different rooms we’ve got the portrait next to their artworks, just so people can read their work and look at the portrait. Some portraits have very obvious links to the practice and the person, and others are more subtle.
AD: Can you give me an example?
IL: Well, with Gosia’s portrait, I made a tunic for her to draw on. So it was almost like a documentation of one of her drawing performances. The final documentation I chose is one where I see it as ‘Gosia the person’ rather than a snapshot of her drawing – you can see who she is.
AD: Has anything emerged or changed in terms of what you’re hoping to achieve through the course of doing the project? And have you had any pushback?
IL: It has been a really positive experience. Definitely celebrating these women to address the balance of gender equality is still there. But what has come in now, what is really important to me is paying artists for their time properly. I really want to create change in those areas.
That’s why I’ve decided to start the podcast. It complements the interviews on the website, because it’s more about the business of being an artist. Really honest conversations about what it’s like being a professional artist. We talk about art school, representation, all those sorts of things. I definitely didn’t plan that aspect of the project in the beginning!
AD: Do you have any thoughts about how your This Wild Song project might evolve in the future?
IL: I need to look at how I can make this project sustainable. I’ve done a lot of fundraising to be able to do this exhibition, and we showed in Singapore in March this year as well. Moving forward, honouring all the women that are a part of the project and completing their portraits, and continuing the podcast. So we’ll see how it goes! It’s a lifelong project; I think there will be ebbs and flows.