To Future Women

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In January 2017, Australian artist Georgia Saxelby traveled by bus from New York to Washington DC to attend the Women’s March on Washington. She joined the millions of women gathered at the National Mall to protest the inauguration of President Donald Trump, as well as call out his anti-women sentiments. With similar protests held globally, it was a deeply affecting experience for Saxelby. “The mood that day was visceral,” she says. “I looked around and saw the feelings I’ve felt internally, displayed on the protest signs – publicly and unapologetically. It felt like we knew we were taking part in a historic moment and we understood the power of a networked front.”

Before arriving in Washington DC, Saxelby had spent time undertaking mentorships with architects working with sacred spaces in New York, Ireland and Mexico. While she initially trained as a painter at Sydney’s National Art School, since graduating in 2014 Saxelby has embraced performance and participatory installation as a way to conceptualise the social impact of ritualistic practices and the intersection of art and architecture. “Engaging with architecture allows me to engage with public space, the built environment and infrastructures of culture outside of the studio, gallery or museum walls,” she explains. Directly inspired by her experience of the Women’s March on Washington and developed during a 2017 residency at the Halcyon Arts Lab, Saxelby’s most well-known piece is To Future Women, 2018, an interactive installation featuring handwritten letters from contemporary women to their counterparts in 2037. As a way to engage with architecture, after they were written, the letters were taped in rows throughout the gallery spaces of several museums and galleries including The Phillips Collection and the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. Walking among the rows of letters was like experiencing an all-encompassing linear network of support.“I wanted to use the platform of art to reinterpret the characteristics of the Women’s March – the power of the words on protest signs, the claiming of institutional space and the networking of women,” Saxelby says. Now the exhibitions have passed, the letters have been institutionally archived as a time capsule until 2037, when they will be re-exhibited for the 20th anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington.

Georgia Saxelby, To Future Women, 2018, installation at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC. Photo by Kate Warren.

Over 3000 letters were written for To Future Women and their content ranged from heartfelt declarations from mothers to their daughters through to discussions of reproductive rights and gender equality. Saxelby also invited letters by post and collected worldwide responses in 10 languages. “I’ve received letters from Hillary Clinton and Dr. Jill Biden, three generations of one family living in different states and a man in a California penitentiary talking about the change he is committed to making from his cell,” Saxelby says.

“Letters have a long tradition of revealing intimate and alternative histories. Writing a letter is a ritualistic act – it elicits a sense of reflection and is a way of leaving your mark.”

Recently awarded a 2019 Samstag Scholarship, Saxelby is planning to build on her earlier architecturally informed works, The Architecture of a Witch’s Hut, 2017 and Lullaby, 2018, by travelling to Washington DC to present a solo exhibition at the Australian Embassy and spend time at the Katzen Art Center at the American University Museum. “The Embassy of Australia is a very interesting site to deal with, not only because it’s technically Australian soil in America, but also because it will be the last exhibition in the gallery before the whole building gets destroyed to undergo renovations,” she says. “I think of it as a dying building.”

Saxelby’s plans for the Katzen Art Center take a hairy turn, quite literally. Intended for display in 2021, Saxelby is in the process of developing an installation based on the concept of a hairy temple. Designed to be a reflection on invented rituals, gender and sacred space, she explains the broader implications of this work. “In a temple, one spatially inhabits one’s desires. This particular temple will be hairy, made up of locks of hair offered voluntarily from participants as an act of symbolic shedding. From Rapunzel to Samson and Delilah, there is an ancient relationship between architecture, hair and women’s agency in the Western cultural imagination. Hair is both public and intimate, alluring and repulsive.”

With a practice embedded within feminist discourse and art’s capacity for social impact, Saxelby is an artist consistently seeking a greater understanding of our personal and global experiences. When asked to divulge her own hopes for future women, Saxelby said, “One of the major recurring themes people wrote about in the To Future Women letters was acknowledging we are standing on the shoulders of women who have come before us. I hope the women of 2037 feel like they have our support and a lineage they too will belong to. Since the Women’s March on Washington, feminism seems less of a taboo word and I’ve found that liberating, like a veil has been lifted. I hope that doesn’t stop.”

Georgia Saxelby is a recipient of the 2019 Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship.

Briony Downes