Body and Soul

Women’s art is one of those vaguely suspect labels. On the one hand, it’s reductive to describe an artist’s work by way of her gender. On the other hand, I find myself drawn to work created by women. Even when I have no idea who the maker is.

This happened to me in Hobart. There I saw a life-sized wax sculpture of a dead horse hanging from a sling. I had never heard of its creator, the Belgian sculptor Berlinde de Bruyckere. World War I cavalry horse carcasses inspired her. If this is “women’s art” then I want to see more of it.

Luckily for me, New Zealand and Australia are rich in women’s art. It draws from local wells. The landscape of Down Under, its legends and the rituals of its people.

Here is a tiny sampling of the awesome women’s art I saw.

Down Under

At the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, I see a retrospective on the work of Louise Henderson: From Life. Louise who, I ask.

Henderson was born in Paris in 1902. While she taught embroidery and design, she created with paint.

women's art by Louise Henderson
May by Louise Henderson at the Auckland Art Gallery. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Different ideas have come and gone about why Henderson is not as well known as she should be. First and most obvious, she was a woman in a largely male art world. Second, she was foreign-born and foreign-schooled when New Zealand artists were big on national identity. Third, her work has been harder to pin down

Philip Matthews, Why artist Louise Henderson is back in fashion in Stuff, 8 Dec 2019

Henderson didn’t paint intimate domestic scenes, the traditional domain of “women’s art.” Instead, she created a series of floor-to-ceiling works. In “Twelve Months,” Henderson captured the majesty of a New Zealand sky in May.

This is autumn Down Under. Will you look at those colors?

Ancient Mothers

women's art by Claudia Pond Eyely
Shield for Ancient Mothers by Claudia Pond Eyely at the Auckland Art Gallery. Photo credit: Karen Kao

From Henderson’s retrospective, I move on to The Body Reborn exhibit. Again, it’s the color that draws me to Claudia Pond Eyley’s “Shield for Ancient Mothers” (1983). Then I see the intricate fertility images inside the triangles. I like the byline: “a piece of personal armour to protect the body.”

Pond Eyely made a series of shield paintings in the 1980s. She drew on women’s art from other cultures, whether ancient or contemporary, local or foreign. This was her contribution toward a larger conversation on women’s art.

The 1980s was a progressive decade in Aotearoa New Zealand and notable for the rise of the feminist art movement and the Māori women’s art movement. The Body Re-Born considers the diversity of ideas, concerns and politics that women across both movements were experiencing and responding to.

Auckland Art Gallery, The Body Reborn exhibition details

From body to classroom to gallery walls

From New Zealand, we cross The Trench to Australia. There, I find indigenous women’s art adorning the walls of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Marking Time explores the ancient indigenous practice of marking rock faces, ground and body.

For example, to perform the women’s ceremony known as the yawulyu, Waipiri women

gather communally to mark their bodies with cultural signatures of kuruwarri (signs or marks of ancestral beings in a metaphysical landscape). Each body painting creates a gendered dialogue that addresses questions or place, creation and identity.

National Gallery of Victoria, From body to classroom to gallery walls
Women's art by Claudia Moodoonuthi
Dog on scooter by Claudia Moodoonuthi at National Gallery of Victoria. Photo credit: Karen Kao

While body painting continues as a ritual practice, indigenous artists have turned to canvas and other surfaces to create their art. For example, Claudia Moodoonuthi uses everyday objects to recall her childhood.

Nana got dad’s land rights royalty and got all her grandchildren bikes and scooters. The dogs like Bluey would come running behind us.

Claudia Moodoonuthi interviewed by Jeremy Eccles, “Moodoonuthi – ‘Little One’” in Aboriginal Art Directory, 27 Nov 2017

Women’s art collective

Until now, I’ve encountered women’s art created by a single actor. But you can also create art as a collective. Like the artists indigenous to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. Thanks to the women artists of the APY Lands, my experience of women’s art Down Under comes first circle.

In 2019, an Australian white supremacist killed 51 New Zealanders during an attack on two mosques in Christchurch. In response, a group of women artists from the APY Lands

came together to paint and express the grief and sorrow of a people separated by sea and culture, but united in humanity.

Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū

Then they traveled from Australia to Christchurch to present their work as a gift to the people of Christchurch. One of those works — Kununpa Kutju — now hangs in the Christchurch Art Gallery.

When I view the painting, it feels like I’m looking down from a great height. I see women seated on the ground to share stories and creating connections. All around them stand Grevillea shrubs — native to the APY lands — and a symbol of rebirth and coming together.

One Spirit is a work of women’s art, a collective creation with a common purpose in mind. To me, it represents a woman’s desire to share, body and soul.

women's art Christchurch
Kununpa Kutju by APY Lands Women’s Art Collective at Christchurch Art Gallery. Photo credit: Karen Kao