Review / ‘So Fine’ shines

Art / “So Fine: Contemporary women artists make Australian history”, At the National Portrait Gallery until October 1. Reviewed by CAREN FLORANCE 29 June – 1 October 2018

“The Girls” by Zoe Davis and Linde Ivimey 2018, steel armatures, acrylic resin, cast and natural human, sheep turkey, fox, chicken and snake bones, earth, paper, natural fibre, dyed cotton, dyed and sewn viscera, courtesy of the artist

SO Fine” needs to be visited multiple times; there is just so much so see, so much to think about.

This lively, moving exhibition was planned to coincide with the NPG’s 20th anniversary, and continues its project of escaping the boundaries of stiff paintings in large, gold frames.

Ten culturally diverse artists were hand-picked by NPG curators Sarah Engledow and Christine Clark and given the brief to explore and reimagine any aspect of Australia’s history in their own particular way.

The results are divine, with many of them using techniques traditionally connected with women’s work, such as china painting, tapestry, basketry and sewing, paper-cutting, and drawing. These processes and more become paths into storytelling, and stories are what connects all the works in the exhibition 

There are personal stories, about family and community: Bigambul woman Leah King-Smith layers up her father’s photographs and her sister’s family history research to create photography dreaming of her mother, Pearl King, as an “animated spirit bein”.

Senior Gija artist Shirley Purdie paints stories of her family, stories about women’s traditional knowledge of food, dance, animals and country.

Valerie Kirk uses her own story of migration from Scotland to Australia, exploring the physical and psychological shifts as she continues to move between the two countries.

She weaves herself into her tapestries, and gives us Ayrshire needlework-painted slate roof “peggies” accompanied by the actual needlework sewn into gorgeous muslin and lawn cotton christening gowns.

Some personal connections are merged with found stories: Wathaurung woman Carol McGregor links her intricately made family cloak to a wider practice of mapping land and “unsilencing” stories through objects made of possum skin, pencils and emu feathers.

Linde Ivimey celebrates the work of Antarctic scientists by reimagining them as the creatures they research, building gorgeously magical avatars using animal skins and bone and sinews, placing herself and her friend Zoewithin the scene as the small girls who perhaps imagine these fairytale people. Nusra Latif Qureshi’s installation Refined Portraits of Desire (2018), uses unnamed studio photographsfrom Melbourne in late 19th and early 20th centuries and connects them with contemporary emotional possibilities, using a network of red thread to link between various small details, such as glances.

Other artists delve straight into history.

Fiona McGonagle has made huge cloth banners depicting children from the British child migration scheme, bravely smiling as they set off to the colonies. The amplification of their brave smiles creates a ghostly foreshadowing of the harsh lives they were to encounter on remote farms and in orphanages around Australia.

Pamela See’s “Making Chinese Shadows” presents stories of Chinese settlers with delicate papercut silhouettes, offering a reminder that the Chinese have long been settled in Australia, and in some areas during the 19th century, outnumbered Europeans by 10  to one. Nicola Dickson hones in on 18th century French exploration of the South Seas, re-combining separate artist impressions of natives, wildlife and landscape that were published back in Europe, and uniting them as whole images.

And finally, Bern Emmerich’s three “quilted” ceramic plateworks are gloriously busy too, bursting with historical facts about all the convict women deported to Tasmania, with each woman named and many of them portrayed with every distinguishing feature listed in their records.

The best thing about “So Fine” is the joyful seriousness in the crafting of each work, an attention to detail that rewards both eye and mind. The material pleasure of each work is completely seductive.

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