Established in 1975, the Women’s Art Register (WAR) is an artist-led living archive of women’s art practice in Australia. Functioning both as a public resource of visual and written records and also a member’s network of female-identifying and allied artists, WAR has played a pivotal role in ensuring that the history of women’s art in Australia is recorded for future generations. Within an art historical narrative that has traditionally privileged the works of male artists, WAR seeks to bring visibility to overlooked artists and artistic practices.
More than forty years since its founding, the artistic landscape of Australia has certainly changed but the founding principles of WAR still remains as relevant. Gender disparities and representation, unfortunately, continue to be felt in the art world and beyond. The principles of white-collar white-feminism that formed the historical context for the 1970s have also come under increasing scrutiny, as intersectional practices and diverse voices are added to the conversation. The discussions today around feminism are multi-faceted, and the imperatives of WAR as it heads into the 21st century is how to ensure its membership and its archive reflects the diversity of the artists it seeks to represent.
Conspicuous Presence is an exhibition curated by WAR that reflects on these contemporary issues and debates. The exhibition features the work of five early-career to mid-career female artists of colour, Sofi Basseghi, Georgia MacGuire, Ema Shin, Khi-Lee Thorpe and Su Yang, who employ a diversity of practices and approaches in their art practice. The show is not defined by a rigid curatorial premise, and the works do not share a common aesthetic or thematic approach. Instead, the exhibition foregrounds each artist’s individual practices and provokes audiences to consider their work on their own terms through a particular focus on materiality and process-driven techniques. The exhibition is also an exercise for WAR to diversify the current conversations around feminism and art, and to seek out new opportunities to work with artists who have not previously been involved with the WAR network.
At first glance, there are some material commonalities in the practices in Ema Shin and Sofi Basseghi, who both employ textile methods in their work, albeit in very different ways. Basseghi is interested in exploring cultural and social identity, and uses photography as a means to chart both real and imagined stories of the lived experiences of her subjects. By printing her photographs on fabric, Basseghi interrogates how we may experience this reality, while also adding an element of intimacy to the picture. Shin, on the other hand, utilises hand weaving and embroidery techniques in her works to explore the female body. Often sculptural and three-dimensional, Shin’s works uses tactile materials to explore the correlation between the anatomical body and forms found in nature.
This interest in natural forms is similarly explored in the works of Georgia MacGuire, who utilises the motif of the flower as a symbol of beauty but also resistance. While the floral forms that MacGuire utilises are rooted in connotations of romance, they are also connected to a recent history of Indigenous women, who have traditionally crafted feather flowers for sale. This dual meaning is utilised by MacGuire as a means to challenge this history, and the continued oppression of Indigenous women.
The exhibition also includes the works of two artists working within very different traditions of painting. Su Yang uses oil and tempera to depict the idealised female body, focusing particularly on depictions of the body before and after cosmetic surgery. Her paintings are a comment on idealised notions of beauty, and the pressures that women face in subscribing to those values. Khi-Lee Thorpe on the other hand, uses painterly abstraction to consider space and presence. Painting on canvas as well as doorframes, Thorpe gives a literal representation to urban or domestic spaces. The resulting abstract paintings display a personal interpretation through colour, form and materiality.
As the title of the exhibition suggests, Conspicuous Presence is a show that is about visibility and presence; not just visibility in terms of a diversity of artistic practices, but also visibility in terms of artistic representation. The artists selected in Conspicuous Presence do not necessarily prescribe to strict definitions of identity politics or histories of feminist history – but rather speak more from a personal and introspective perspective. As a ‘snapshot’ of current art practice Conspicuous Presence alerts us to the fact that feminism is not a singular definition, but a conversation that is open to discussion.