Lists / Susan Best / Visual Culture

Women artists who should be better known (Part 2)

Last summer Susan Best, author of Visualizing Feeling, put together a list of artists who should be better known in response to women still not being fairly represented in major art collections. What turned out to be a hugely popular piece, here’s part two: women working in the southern hemisphere. 

“While German artists are not expected to make work about würst and Canadian artists are not expected to make art about ice-hockey, there is often a silent rule when it comes to the inclusion of artists from less mainstream art countries: ‘make art about where you’re from, and about what makes you different . . . or stay at home’.”
Candice Breitz

In her sharp and witty statement, photographer and video artist Candice Breitz perfectly captures the irritation felt by artists from outside the main Euro-American art centres when their work is expected to somehow reflect or embody their geographical or socio-political location. Art, it is implied, only needs to be inflected or shaped by its context of production when it comes from countries or regions unfamiliar to those centres, such as Brazil, Australia, or, indeed, Breitz’s country of origin, South Africa. Women artists from the margins, then, are double disadvantaged.  On top of sexual discrimination, they are expected to make a certain type of art or to simply ‘stay at home.’ Here are five women artists from the Southern hemisphere who refuse to stay at home.

Anne Ferran (1949-)

Anne Ferran, Carnal Knowledge - Untitled no.8

Anne Ferran, Carnal Knowledge—Untitled (no. 8), 1984 gelatin silver photograph, 39 x 58 cm.

Anne Ferran came to prominence in Australia in the 1980s. Her practice is generally divided into two parts: her early works about femininity and representation from the 1980s and then her works from 1995-2003 that focus on Australian women’s history, and colonial history in particular.

Pictured here is an image from her very first series Carnal Knowledge (1984), addressing concerns around female desire and the female body. Bodies nestle in the cavities and voids made by other bodies and fade and fracture into the similarly constituted background, like Cubist paintings where figure and ground are built up from the same compositional substance. The impossible conjunction of faces, and sometimes the same face doubled, is made possible by double exposure. The images are all overlaid with weathered stone, making the faces seem almost sculptural and yet at the same time they are also fluid, dissolving into one another.

Fiona Pardington (1961-)

Fiona Pardington, Portrait of a life cast of Matua Tawai, Aotearoa/New-Zealand

Fiona Pardington, Portrait of a life-cast of Matua Tawai, Aotearoa/New Zealand from ‘The Pressure of Sunlight Falling’ series 2010, Archival pigments on 308gsm Hahnemuhle photo rag | 146 x 110cm, Courtesy: Musee de l’Homme (Musee National d’Histoire Naturelle), Paris.

New Zealand artist, Fiona Pardington’s very diverse practice ranges from her early works using medical and erotic imagery to her most recent series of exquisite still life photographs. Her position as a Māori artist of Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mamoe, and Ngāti Waewae descent informs her work with Maori cultural artefacts in museum collections, such as hei tiki (greenstone carvings worn as neck ornaments).

For her series, The Pressure of Sunlight Falling (2010), she photographed life casts held in the collections of two French Museums that were made on a nineteenth-century voyage to the Southern Seas. When exhibited at Govett-Brewster Contemporary Art Museum in Aotearoa/New Zealand in 2011, 21 large-scale photographs of the different peoples of Oceania were shown. Most of the images show the casts head-on; five profiles were also shown of Māori heads. The series transforms the objectifying practices of the discipline of anthropology into exquisite and powerful portraits of ancestral figures.

Rosângela Rennó (1962-)

Rosangela Renno, Three Holes

Rosângela Rennó, Three Holes, 1998, laminated Cibachrome print, 167 x 113 cm. © Rosângela Rennó.

Brazilian artist Rosângela Rennó does not take photographs herself instead she recycles existing photographs. Her practice involves both “found” and “sourced” photographs, to use Mark Godfrey’s distinction between images that artists collect by chance, and more purposeful or motivated assemblies.

The archival images she used in Vulgo [Alias] are drawn from a collection of glass plate images in the São Paulo State Penitentiary Museum. Rennó has transformed the original identification shots of the prisoners into very large format photographs with a delicate rose colouration directing the eye towards the cowlick patterns of scalp and hair. The images are faintly eroticised through this infusion of the colours of flesh and blood. The men’s individuality is restored by the quirky nicknames that Rennó has given them, based on the pictures made by the hair on their heads.  Three Holes, for example, has three holes like coconut eyes on the back of his head.

Mikala Dwyer (1959-)

Mikala Dwyer, The Hollow

Mikala Dwyer, The Hollows, 2014, plastic and air, dimensions variable, installation shot at Cockatoo Island, Biennale of Sydney.

Mikala Dwyer is one of Australia’s foremost sculptors. One of the hallmarks of Dwyer’s practice is a particularly deft way of handling poor or abject materials. She seems able to breathe some kind of life or vitality into her objects, no matter how abstract. Her forms are often like “personnages”—to use the term Lucy Lippard borrows from surrealism to describe the strange animate, yet abstract, quality of Eva Hesse’s sculptural works. Hesse has been a touchstone for Dwyer’s practice, not only through the shared sculptural vocabulary of slightly wonky abstract shapes, but also the strange anthropomorphism that led Robert Smithson to say that Hesse was “making psychic models.” Often, it is not just the forms or their hand-made qualities, but their placement together that creates something like a magnetic charge between components. Dwyer often favours circular arrangements to generate this field of relations, or more recently tensions between objects in formation in close proximity to wall paintings.

Milagros de la Torre (1965- )

Milagros de la Torre, Shirt of journalist murdered in the Uchuraccay Massacre, Ayucucho

Milagros de la Torre, Shirt of journalist murdered in the Uchuraccay Massacre, Ayucucho from Los pasos perdidos [The Lost Steps] series 1996, toned gelatin silver print, 40 x 40 cm.

The work of Peruvian artist, Milagros de la Torre, focuses on the oblique representation of violence. De la Torre doesn’t show violence per se, rather her work is part of the emerging genre of aftermath images. In her case, it is not sites of historical violence that she photographs, but rather poignant objects some of which are drawn from state archives such as the Peruvian criminal justice system and mental institutions.

Her work address important contemporary issues, such as racism, crime and the threat of terrorism, in a subtle non-sensational manner. For example, in her series Lost Steps, she includes objects from the Peruvian civil war—a flag confiscated from the guerilla group Shining Path, and a journalist’s shirt from the Uchuraccay Massacre—alongside other objects involved with violent crime. This inclusive arrangement demonstrates de la Torre’s interest in illuminating what she calls ‘the dark side of human nature’. ■

Visualizing FeelingSusan Best is the author of Visualizing Feeling: Affect and the Feminine Avant-garde, winner of the AAANZ (Art Association of Australia & New Zealand) Best Book Prize for 2012, and is Professor of Art Theory, Queensland College of Art, Griffith University. Her research focuses on modern and contemporary art, with a particular emphasis on women’s art, conceptual art and South American art.
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