Arts / Women artists meticulously making Australian history

Valerie Kirk with her commissioned tapestry “The Traveller”… “a kind of self portrait done from a photograph, where you can see my shadow over the rocks”.

IN a bold curatorial step, the National Portrait Gallery has taken the leap into the under-explored world of women’s artistic practice and found it to be “so fine”.

That’s from the title of the new exhibition, “So Fine: Contemporary women artists make Australian history”, part of the NPG’s 20th birthday celebrations, in which curators Sarah Engledow and Christine Clark have proposed the idea that the art of women distinguishes itself by “a habit of serious thinking and a meticulous approach to creation”.

Meticulous maybe, but badly underrated or dismissed as “cottage art” or “craft”, so Engledow and Clark have thrown the spotlight on 10 women artists from across Australia by presenting new perspectives on the past.

And these artists, they say, are anything but gentle, with “incomplete, biased, personal, regional, marginal and distinctly feminist” stories to tell.

Visitors can expect to see works created around first encounters, the convict experience, indigenous people, the betrayal of children, the divided self of the immigrant and scientific discovery.

There will be works by Gija painter Shirley Purdie, ceramic pieces inspired by convict women by Melbourne artist Bern Emmerichs, a portrait of her Bilambil mother by Brisbane photomedia artist Leah King-Smith, sculptures about Australian scientists in the Antarctic by Sydney’s Linde Ivimey and Indo-Persian-style miniatures by Melbourne artist Nusra Latif Qureshi.

There are also paper-cut images about Chinese entrepreneurs and innovators by Brisbane’s Pamela See (Xue Mei-Leng), paintings of kids sent to Australia under the Child Migration Scheme by Fiona McMonagle, painted, stitched possum skin cloaks and vessels, feathered pencils, woven hair and wire baskets by Wathaurong-Scottish woman Carol McGregor, painted works and words set against a backdrop of hand-blocked wallpaper evoking French encounters with indigenous Tasmanian and Pacific peoples by Canberra’s Nicola Dickson and woollen tapestries and painted slates by Scottish-Australian weaver Valerie Kirk, also from Canberra.

“CityNews” caught up recently with Kirk, one of the most lauded textile artists in Australia and for 27 years until she retired in 2017, head of textiles at the ANU School of Art and Design.

Over the years she has taken on some spectacular commissions, including the creation of a brilliantly-coloured carpet for Government House in Sydney during the time of Marie Bashir and, closer to home, University House commissions that have seen her weave tapestries dedicated to the ANU’s Nobel Prize winners and the late Prof Frank Fenner. Right now she is planning a 1.2 x 2.4m tapestry for University House biophysicist Prof Graham Farquhar.

Born in Scotland, Kirk grew up in the midst of the kind of fine work the exhibition acknowledges and says: “Often it is regarded as just women’s work… traditional china painting, botanical art and textiles – these are the areas that women have largely worked in, and my works relate to that tradition.”

For Kirk that means weaving and tapestry, but she believes that she’s been selected because the NPG curators were also intrigued by work that looked at her role as an immigrant, a perpetual traveller.

“I have my mum, friends and strong connections in Scotland and over the years I’ve been backward and forward.

“You belong to two different places, but there’s a space in the middle where these things combine and sometimes confuse.”

This led to a new commission for this show, “The Traveller”, which she describes as “a kind of self portrait done from a photograph, where you can see my shadow over the rocks”.

Snapped during a textiles tour to Peru in 2017, she recognised herself and said: “This is me, a traveller”.

Engledow and Clark recognised that too and the result was a race against time to weave a new tapestry with cotton warp and woollen weft.

Kirk has taken a behind-the-scenes look at the other art in “So Fine”.

“It’s very personal work,” she says. “I think there’s a big return to craft, to making in a world where people are generally sitting in front of screens and we can’t focus on the inner world… it’s coming through that this is something we need in life.”

“So Fine: Contemporary women artists make Australian history”, National Portrait Gallery, June 29-October 1.


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