Know Their Names

Feature

Chanel Miller’s 2019 memoir, Know My Name, details the harrowing sexual assault she experienced at California’s Stanford University in early 2015. It also charts Miller’s emotional journey following the ensuing four-year court case, the highly publicised People v. Brock Allen Turner, during which she was referred to anonymously in documents as Emily or Jane Doe. Writing her side of the story after enduring years of anonymity, Miller’s memoir reveals not only her identity as an Asian-American woman but weaves a narrative of strength through adversity, compounding her resilience and determination to speak out against sexual assault and be publicly named as a survivor.

Influenced by Miller’s story, the #MeToo movement, and the renewed demand for gender parity across the arts and entertainment industries, the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has put forward the Know My Name initiative, an ongoing push to improve the visibility and representation of female-identifying artists in their collection and exhibitions. A major part of this initiative is Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now, an exhibition of over 350 artworks encompassing several new commissions, a 400+ page publication, and the conference Know My Name: Women and Art in the 21st Century featuring, amongst others, feminist art historian Griselda Pollock and photographer Nan Goldin.

A huge undertaking led by two of NGA’s curators of Australian art, Deborah Hart and Elspeth Pitt, the Know My Name exhibition provides an in-depth analysis of women’s art practice across 120 years of Australian history and includes both well-known and lesser-known artists working in a diverse range of mediums. “As a collaborative team, Know My Name presented us with a moment to look at women’s stories, to look at the NGA collection, to scrutinise our collecting practices, and to see how far we’ve come and what we need to do into the future,” says Pitt.

Tracey Moffatt, Something more #8, 1989.

While the majority of works in Know My Name have been drawn from the NGA’s collection or loaned from private and public collections, one of the most recently completed is a spectacular room-size installation by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, a group of women who regularly come together from across the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Lands in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia. Presented close to the entrance of the exhibition, multiple clusters of intricately woven grass and raffia forms tell the ancestral story of the Seven Sisters Dreaming. Commissioned by the NGA and led by Kelli Cole, assistant curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, the installation took months to finish and weathered Covid-19 restrictions to become one of the most complex commissions ever constructed by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers.

Incorporating an extrasensory dimension into how the Know My Name exhibition is physically experienced, Sydney-based painter and sculptor Gemma Smith was commissioned to create a custom colour palette for the gallery walls. “The palette is based on Gemma’s ongoing Threshold painting series,” reveals Pitt. “She has selected a series of very delicate, atmospheric colours and the play of these colours becomes more apparent as you move through the exhibition.” Smith’s all-encompassing palette acts as a subtle perimeter for a central theme of Know My Name—artistic lineages that connect the past and present. Hart elaborates, “We didn’t want to tell a straightforward linear narrative. We wanted to look at what women hold in common and look at thematics in a circular narrative. As you go through each room, there are early and later works in dialogue with each other.” It is this persistent dialogue that links turn-of-the-century artists, like Grace Cossington Smith and Nora Heysen, to contemporary counterparts Micky Allan, eX de Medici, Tracey Moffatt and Yvette Coppersmith.

Yvette Coppersmith, Nude self portrait, after Rah Fizelle, 2016.

In addition to the impact of Miller’s memoir, the curatorial team also drew inspiration from the work of art historian and curator Janine Burke, an important figurehead for feminist art in Australia in the 1970s. Burke’s influential book, Australian Women Artists: 1840-1940 was published in 1980 and stemmed from an exhibition Burke had co-curated for the Ewing and George Paton Gallery at the University of Melbourne. Speaking about the wider context of Burke’s writing and research, Hart explains how the 1970s were a particularly fruitful time for women in Australia. “It was an important period, not only for curators and the people writing about art, but for artists themselves. Artists were really challenging the boundaries of what art could be. A theme running through Know My Name is the idea of life and art coalescing, that art and everyday life are one and the same thing, whether it be in the political or social sphere.”

Shedding an unfaltering light on the consistent contribution women have made to the arts throughout Australian history, Know My Name clearly demonstrates that despite a lack of visibility, female creatives have always been on par with their male counterparts. “We really want to encourage people to recognise the richness and diversity of women’s practice,” Hart says. “Some people have asked why a women-only exhibition? Yet nobody asks why all those men-only exhibitions have happened. The response that often came back in the past was women didn’t have work of the same substance. What we want to say is there have been incredible works all the way through. We want to show how complex, thoughtful and immersive their stories are, and really encourage people to know these women’s names.”

Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now
National Gallery of Australia
14 November–4 July 2021

This article was originally published in the November/December 2020 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Briony Downes