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Time for ‘dead white male’ artists to move over?

It’s a quiet but steady revolution that promises to sweep away the old biases that once bedevilled our art institutions. But because all revolutions require spectacular symbolic gestures, shows such as Know My Name are inevitable. The COVID-19 crisis has provided the perfect conditions for a massive survey of women’s art, as it has become virtually impossible to organise the international blockbusters that draw crowds to the big galleries.

More than most art museums, the NGA is vitally dependent on interstate visitation and has been hard hit this year by the bushfires and the pandemic. A show of Australian women artists provides a compelling reason for at least 50 per cent of the population to come along for a look, and we know that it’s women who take the lead in planning visits to art galleries, concerts and the movies.

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It’s also an opportunity to raid the NGA vaults, bringing out works that haven’t been seen in decades, and to showcase a few recent acquisitions. Curators Deborah Hart and Elspeth Pitt knew it was important to produce a really attractive, illuminating exhibition, if only to thwart accusations of numbing political correctness.

In this they appear to have succeeded. One could haggle over the selections, but the presentation is impressive. The ground floor galleries have been cleaned out and opened up, providing room for a more adventurous display. There’s no strict chronological or thematic emphasis. Instead, the curators have looked for affinities between artists who may be separated by place or time. One room, for instance, is shared by Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Rosalie Gascoigne, another features three important photo-series by Anne Ferran, Tracey Moffatt and Julie Rrap. In the corner of a room devoted to abstract art, a painting by Mary Webb (1917-58) sits alongside one by Gemma Smith (b. 1978).

Dozens of small portraits and self-portraits have been clustered on one vast wall at the entrance to the show. An array of political posters of the 1970s and ’80s shares a room with a marvellous piece of embroidery from the Edwardian period. The photos in Rosemary Laing’s series Flight research (1999-2000) literally fly up the wall, as if propelled by a gust of wind. Marie Hagerty’s abstract, Baconesque Deposition (2012) is hung high, as if in a cathedral.

Among works newly acquired for this show, the standout is a fibre sculpture by the Tjanpi weavers of Central Australia. It features seven life-size figures standing beneath an elaborate canopy.

One welcome surprise was the space devoted to the work of Micky Allan (b. 1944), an artist who seems to have slipped off the radar in recent years. Allan was one of the stars of the feminist art movement of the 1970s, but her diverse, playful multimedia works are rarely displayed in art museums today. She is exactly the kind of “name” that deserves to be known by a new generation of artists and gallery-goers who may be debating with themselves whether feminism is an historical movement or a living philosophy.

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