Ponch Hawkes on women, ageing and art

Feature

Sex and the ageing body have lately occupied Melbourne photo artist Ponch Hawkes, whose sensibility for the unseen and repressed was forged in the 1970s feminist movement. In the last few years Hawkes has taken some 500 portraits of women aged over 50, who all posed nude for the aptly titled group exhibition Flesh After Fifty. “Just recently, I’ve tapped into the ether and there’s lots of articles about women and ageing and bodies,” says Hawkes, herself aged 74.

These newer photographs tap into female body expectations, which are weighed against the reality that certain female bodies are purposefully unseen. As Hawkes explains, women over 50 “don’t know what other [older] women look like, because we think we should look the way we looked when we were 28, and we’re in this terrible mindset of always being compared to something you can never [again] be”.

Meanwhile Sex and Death, Hawkes’s collaboration over five years with artists Samara Hersch and Bec Reid, and which began as live performances in Melbourne and Amsterdam and was then adapted for online, mines similar themes. For the piece, participants were asked to pick a card to answer questions: Who was your first lover? Who have you loved who has passed away?

Is there something squeamish in the Australian psyche about these subjects? “I don’t know if it’s Australian or Anglo-Saxon,” Hawkes says.

“It’s just not part of our culture.” She pushes her palms away from her body. “That’s private and you put it aside as though [death] is not something that’s going to happen to you, but it is one of the things you do contemplate as you get older—less about sex, though you still think about it, but more about death.

Ponch Hawkes, No title (Women’s liberation demonstration in City Square) 1975; printed 2018, gelatin silver photograph, 20.2 x 30.3 cm (image) 28.0 x 38.2 cm (sheet) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased NGV Foundation, 2018. Copyright Ponch Hawkes, 2018.

 

“Your body doesn’t work as well as it used to. You imagine you’re going to age and everything is just going to go along as it is, but you don’t figure that some bits are going to break down like an old car,” she laughs.

I enquire about a photo of Hawkes taken a few months ago that she posted on Instagram, showing her on crutches after a knee reconstruction. “Oh it’s beautiful now,” she says. “It works really well.” In truth, for nine weeks, Hawkes, who’s an avid reader, didn’t pick up a single book, so consumed was she with the ordeal of the operation.

Time spent recovering, alongside lockdown, has enabled thinking through her next moves. Having never had any formal art training in her youth, Hawkes, whose partner is the designer, sculptor and painter Ian Bracegirdle, has decided to re-enroll for a term in an associate diploma at the Latrobe College of Art & Design in Collingwood. “I enjoy hanging around with younger people and seeing what they come up with.”

The day before I speak with her, Hawkes has started painting again. It’s something she only began in recent years, with bears as her subjects. She has also begun planning a photo series about grief over the loss of her 18-year-old dog, and is also considering enrolling in a Master of Arts to improve her writing skills.

It is this curiosity for the new that led Hawkes to photojournalism in the 1970s, long before she called herself an artist. Her image No title (Two women embracing, ‘Glad to be gay’), taken in 1973 and candidly showing an intimate embrace between two women, will be included in the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition Queer in early 2022. Another black and white photo from the same shoot shows four women holding hands in front of a brick wall sprayed with graffiti: “Lesbians are lovely”. Hawkes, who awakened to feminism during a stint in the United States with her then husband John Hawkes, took these images for the “politics, sex, drugs and rock and roll” counter-culture broadsheet The Digger which John was editing. The photographs were captured during Melbourne’s Gay Pride Week, when gay liberation was gathering momentum.

“We were so far ahead of the game publishing stuff nobody else wanted to,” Hawkes recalls. “The questions we asked [these women] were so naive: we all knew there were lesbians in our social group, but to hear people talk about how they were acknowledged in one sense but not acknowledged by family and society generally, it was very illuminating for me.” The artist took these images at the age of 26 and while she would later refine her photography skills, she critiques her ability then with a camera as “shocking”.

Hawkes grew up in Abbotsford. Her footballer father worked in the laundry at the Abbotsford Convent for 35 years, where Hawkes would later exhibit. Through her life she’s had relationships with both men and women, and while the longer lasting ones were with men, the images of lesbians she captured in 1973 was an epiphany. “It presented to me what discrimination there was, and if you decided to come out, what the implications were for your life.”

That political awakening would guide Hawkes through photographing subjects as diverse as Palestine to asbestos workers. Seeing does not necessarily create understanding, she cautions, but she hopes her work promotes change. “There are undercurrents in the way you see things,” she says, “and layers in everything you see.”

Queer
National Gallery of Victoria International
18 March 2022—21 August 2022

This article was originally published in the November/December 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

 

Steve Dow