Against the backdrop of rallies for an end to violence against women, the agitation for change in Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery’s ‘Paper Cut’ is at once historical and timely, finds Belinda Hermawan.
“Paper Cut Part 1”, various artists, curated by Lee Kinsella ·
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, University of Western Australia, 13 March 2021 ·
At a time when rallies are taking place around the world to demand an end to violence against women, “Paper Cut Part 1” feels particularly relevant.
The exhibition at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery is comprised of Australian works from the 1900s onwards that unapologetically lampoon the gender expectations of the era. Sourced from the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art and curated by Lee Kinsella, it’s the first of two exhibitions of works on paper by Australian female artists, with a focus on political and feminist posters of the 1970s. Viewing these works in 2021 is bittersweet; we have made progress but we still have a long way to go.
Central to “Paper Cut Part 1” are Ann Newmarch’s political posters from the 1970s. Bold in colour, creativity and messaging, three of her screen prints proclaim “Women hold up half the sky!”. As if issuing a challenge to the hand that women have been dealt, Newmarch reinvents the traditional playing card in Colour Me Bold – The Queen of Hearts (1977), replacing the Queen of Hearts with a breastfeeding Mona Lisa and equipping her with colourful hand tools. The idea that a woman is capable of many roles, not just that of a mother is a theme that reverberates throughout the exhibition.
Echoing the card motif, TextaQueen’s TextaNudes 54: post-modern pin-ups (2002) is a deck of playing cards that seeks to reclaim nudity as an expression of female power. Instead of posing enticingly for men, these women are depicted – refreshingly – as fully fleshed individuals afforded space in which to speak.
No study of gender and power is complete without an interrogation of the political structures that underpin those mores. The key players in the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 were all men, a reality captured by Pamela Harris Kerr’s Coup (1976) and Jude Adams [it couldn’t happen here] (1977) and [When is a coup not a coup?] (1977). The promise of legislative reform under Gough Whitlam – and hope for race and gender issues – was dashed by his dismissal, an act seen by many as an overreach of power by the Governor-General. Adams depicts a pot-bellied Aussie bloke drinking a beer as Sir John Kerr’s decision is made, juxtaposing this with photos of suburbia and a bikini-clad woman holding a baby. The fate of the nation’s direction was vested in men – all of them white, some of them recognisable but others faceless, with decisions often made behind closed doors.
In a clever act of resistance, many of the artists featured here have responded to institutional and entrenched power with vibrant, creative and humorous works. In her prints Carol Porter pokes fun at society’s expectations while challenging them: in one, a giant woman looms over parliament and suggests “Don’t get mad, get elected!” (1997), while another has AFL players in heels because “if high heels are such great idea, why aren’t men wearing them?” (1994).
The posters of the Women’s Domestic Needlework Group, dated from 1979, form a fantastic series commentating on a wide range of issues. The Group was established in 1976 by artists Marie McMahon and Frances (Budden) Phoenix, as a means of reclaiming the value of craft practices such as embroidery, knitting and needlework. In one especially striking poster the process behind creating a pretty dress is represented as requiring a woman’s blood for dye, her very life force exploited for the benefit of a more fortunate woman. This powerful work feels sadly relevant some 40 years later as the fast fashion industry continues to disproportionately exploit women.
The exhibition depicts women making their strength known, pushing against the confines imposed on them even if doing so makes society uncomfortable. By way of scathing commentary, the artists in “Paper Cut Part 1” draw blood – a sting that reminds us to keep the conversation on equality alive.
Pictured top is a detail from TextaQueen, ‘Me (Arlene TextaQueen)’, 2001, fibre tipped pen on cotton paper, 100 x 70 cm, Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, The University of Western Australia. The collection includes work by women and non-binary artists. © the artist.
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