Dr Auntie Matilda House spent her childhood on a mission at Yass, in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, with her nine siblings.
Now a leader in her community, her portrait is among the artworks hanging in the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra, as part of a new exhibition.
Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now is a collection of more than 400 works by 170 female Australian artists.
For Dr House, a Ngambri-Ngunnawal elder who began fighting for the rights of First Nations people in the 1960s, the exhibition is symbolic not just of the past, but of her hopes for the future.
“There’s more artists out there, there’s hundreds and hundreds more out there they’ve got their stories to tell,” Dr House said.
“They’ve got their lives ahead of them for the generational change that’s coming.”
Her portrait was taken by Canberra artist Brenda L. Croft, an Indigenous woman and academic who has known Dr House since her childhood.
“I only had to take three photographs and as soon as I saw that one I knew that was it,” Dr Croft said.
“I think the photo really captures her strength, her determination, her sense of humour, so it wasn’t difficult to do.”
‘Why is this necessary now?’
The NGAs head of Australian art Deborah Hart and curator of Australian art Elspeth Pitt at the opening of the Know My Name exhibition.(ABC News: Niki Burnside)
For the NGA, the new exhibition is “a very public demonstration” of a deeper commitment throughout the institution to feature more women, after curators discovered only 25 per cent of its collection was by female artists.
For an institution made up of overwhelmingly female staff members, that statistic was unacceptable.
Head of Australian Art at the gallery Deborah Hart said they had to take a stance against a medium still dominated very much by men.
“I’ve heard, ‘Why a show on Australian women artists?’,” Dr Hart said.
“People have said, ‘Why is this necessary now? Haven’t we gained a lot and done a lot?’
“But over many, many years we didn’t hear too many people say, ‘Why are so many male group shows’?”
The result of the NGA’s efforts is an exhibition that not only takes a stance on gender inequality, but also ensures a diverse range of artists are represented.
Nora Heysen’s self portrait also features a paint palette, gifted to her by Dame Nellie Melba.(Supplied: National Gallery of Australia)
Alongside the portrait of Dr House stands a major commission by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers; a performance piece by Jo Lloyd; and a portrait wall at the entrance of the gallery, installed to catch the eye and featuring nearly 50 artists.
“The wall epitomises the exhibition,” co-curator Elspeth Pitt said.
“This wall is really made up of artists who in many cases have struggled to receive recognition for their work through time.”
Ms Pitt pointed to a 1932 self-portrait by the late Nora Heysen, where she is holding a palette gifted to her by Dame Nellie Melba.
The daughter of a celebrated male artist, Heyson fought to have her work recognised from a young age.
“She really had to fight to forge her own path. I love that clear-eyed scrutiny that she’s looking at herself with,” Ms Pitt said.
Stella Bowen is another late artist featured, who Ms Pitt said had grudgingly pulled herself away from her art to fulfill her domestic duties.
“Stella Bowen complained about having to put her art aside to make dinner for her husband,” she said.
Self-portrait of the late artist Stella Bowen, on display at the National Gallery of Australia.(ABC News: Niki Burnside)
Similarly, an artwork by Dora Chapman is featured. Married to fellow artist James Cant, Chapman too fought to be seen as an artist as well as a wife.
“People didn’t know she was an artist she was totally overshadowed by her husband’s art,” Ms Pitt said.
Reclaiming the past through art
As a collection that aims to right the gender imbalance of the past, the new display includes works that also reclaim historic injustices.
Fiona Foley’s Badtjala Woman came about after she found ethnographic photographs taken of her Badtjala ancestors in the 19th century.
In colonial times, Indigenous people were not photographed as art. Instead, their pictures were taken to record the subject “not as an individual but a type; a subject whose exotic features and behaviour could be scientifically catalogued”.
Nudity was often demanded of subjects of ethnographic portraits, who were powerless to take control of the process.
So, Foley decided to replicate the composition of the portraits, but in a way that empowered her and disseminated the colonial power of the time.
Fiona Foley’s Badtjala Woman reclaims a portrait of one of her ancestors.(Supplied: National Gallery of Australia)
“She’s taking back the image and reclaiming it,” Ms Pitt said.
“It’s a powerful and subtle work at the same time.”
In her artist statement, Foley said she was working to take control of her own identity and image as a contemporary Badtjala woman.
“Like a bowerbird, I’ve collected bits and pieces of history, quotes and imagery, and assembled them as seen through a Badtjala lens,” she said in the exhibition’s accompanying book, Know My Name.
Foley’s work is a fitting message on behalf of all the hundreds of artists being celebrated in the exhibition and as far as the NGA is concerned, it is just the beginning.
“We know there are more names to know, and more work to do, but this is the start of the structural change we need to achieve gender equity in the Gallery and in our sector,” Natasha Bullock, Assistant Director, Artistic Programs, said.
“We know women have been erased from art history for too long.”
Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now opens at the National Gallery of Australia today.