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They Might Have Completely Forgotten Us

Anna Keir Self Image (1981 silk screen on cotton 58x43.5) 
I. How women artists disappear from history

As Sarah Polley said the other day, “It’s really lonely being a female filmmaker, there really aren’t that many women doing this job.” If we can't connect to our women filmmaker histories, it's even lonelier. Women's histories disappear so quickly. We – and our intellectual and artistic achievements – get forgotten. Often because of lack of resources.

The other day I stumbled on a bilingual Canadian Women Film Directors Database filmmakers and was astonished to find it included 975 women who've directed at least one short or feature film. Created in 2006-2007 by Margaret Fulford, a librarian at the University of Toronto, the database provides additional information about 145 of the directors. It states that 'more detailed records will be added over time'. I suspect that one golden year of funding made it possible to get the database this far, and that will be it – a tantalising glimpse into a rich history of filmmakers and films we may never know more about. (Happily I was mistaken: check out Margaret Fulford's comment below!)

Women's histories so often get lost within institutions which, unlike the Canadian database, are not only for women. There, women's work is often entirely ignored, or framed in a way that obscures our contributions. Take, for instance, Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand. Te Papa describes itself as
...New Zealand's national museum, renowned for being bicultural, scholarly, innovative, and fun. Our success is built on our relationships with and ability to represent our community.
But there's strong evidence that the institution hasn't built strong relationships with its communities' women and women artists and fails to represent them adequately. In 2009 I wrote about Te Papa and how it fails women artists in an article about We Are Unsuitable For Framingits exhibition of women's work. But the institution's relationships with women artists' history have also been unsatisfactory in more general exhibitions. For instance, in 2004, Te Papa created an exhibition called Out On The Street: New Zealand In The 1970s. According to Te Papa, this show
...takes in the Māori renaissance of this decade, investigates the radical influence of women’s liberation on Kiwi culture, and canvasses the alternative voices that rose to challenge the Establishment...New Zealand took to the world stage, sending a navy vessel to Moruroa in protest at the continued French nuclear testing on this tiny Pacific atoll...everyone seemed to be out on the street, making their views known on, among other things, sporting contacts with South Africa, gay rights, the Vietnam War, abortion, social welfare benefits, and ‘US imperialism’.
Out On The Street included posters, many of them made by women artists, but as I remember it a high proportion were unattributed. For example, the posters that women's art movement leader Sharon Alston designed were not attributed to her. And a classic Herstory Press poster was displayed without naming the prolific photographer – Mary Bailey – and the women in the poster's photograph. In less than thirty years two accomplished women artists and five women who posed for one of them had become 'anonymous', even though there were many people in Wellington who could have provided names. Can Te Papa's self-description be taken seriously if it isn't scholarly enough to research and provide the names of those who create the artworks it displays? It's possible to argue that posters aren't 'art works' so that it isn't important who created them, and there were probably posters men made that were also unattributed. But I think that if posters are shown in an arts context they become art works and it's important to identify who made them; given the underrepresentation of women in Te Papa's exhibitions and women's somewhat fragile art history the institution should be especially scrupulous in naming the women makers of works it does show.

More recently, last year Te Papa added images from its collections to Google ArtThe selection includes 166 art works. Seventy-eight artists are named, and only two are still alive (both men). Of the named artists, eight are women and seven are New Zealand women — around 10%, a little less than the proportion of feature films written and directed by women, in New Zealand and around the world. None of the named artists were Maori women, although the anonymous works include twenty fabric works which Maori or Pasifika women probably created and forty-five anonymous carvings, any of which a Maori or Pasifika woman might have created. The selection offers nineteen images of women including five of Maori women (plus possibly another within one of the carvings, it's a little difficult to see). A single image of a woman is by a woman: Mina Arndt’s painting Red Hat (c1914). Does anyone benefit from Te Papa’s minimal representation of women artists and their work, and when its images do not represent women as seen by women? And if so, who and why? Did the women’s art movement have no effect at all?

Also last year there was Cushla Parekowhai's talk at Te Papa, followed by some songs from Mere Boynton. Cushla's a long time collaborator with her brother Michael, and Te Papa invited her to speak about Michael’s installation On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, which represented New Zealand at the last Venice Biennale. I went because Cushla's a mate and I knew she'd be interesting. But she wasn't just 'interesting'. It was the best talk I've ever heard at Te Papa, superbly performed with an accompanying pianist and visual images. As a storyteller I was blown away by its mesmerising and intricate structure. It was the first time ever that I felt as though I'd had an experience that matched listening to Homer. So I was shocked to learn that although Te Papa filmed Mere Boynton's performance (with two cameras) it did not record even an audio of Cushla's talk. More women's art and literary history lost: it's impossible to replicate that kind of once-in-a-generation performance.

I hate it that Te Papa perpetuates a long art history where women artists like Cushla are defined as less significant than men, where women's images are represented primarily by men and where women artists are often anonymous. And I'm interested in the role of women there and in other institutions.

Te Papa has always employed and continues to employ women in key roles and I wonder about their decision-making processes, in view of a recent question in the CoUNTess blog, which compiles and reviews gender equality in the Australian art world. The question seems as relevant here as in Australia (and other parts of the world):
CoUNTess wonders why the art world is a place where the majority of administrative, curatorship and promotion positions at art institutions are filled by women (...the top job is more often than not a man) [but exhibits] in the majority male artists, CoUNTess believes, at the expense of their female colleagues?
The 'art world' is not of course the only world where women in powerful positions do not support their female colleagues by seeking out and selecting good work by and about women. Just last week, Margot Magowan responded to a Hollywood Reporter article on the 'female-driven' DreamWorks animation studio, with the question "If DreamWorks is a ‘female driven studio,’ where are female protagonists?", and lists DreamWorks' recent movies, of which two out of twenty-one have female protagonists (that 10% again!).

In her most recent post, the CoUNTess also writes about the role that publicly-funded institutions have in the market, and their influence on women artists' income.
Anyone who visits art fairs, commercial galleries and auction houses can take note how often the price point for women artists is significantly lower than for work by men... One way to influence collector bias is to ensure that public funding of art institutions is shared more equitably. If publicly funded galleries collected and exhibited with equitable recognition female artists, would certainly raise the artists profile and elevate a collectors confidence to buy work by female artists. CoUNTess believes our public galleries should also be taking an interest in collecting and exhibiting art that is representative of what is being produced not just art that is being speculated upon.
This too is as relevant in New Zealand as elsewhere: according to Creative New Zealand's research published in Portrait of the Artist, the median income for all women artists from their principal artistic occupation was  less than a third of the income earned by men from their principal artistic occupation and 7.5 percent of the national median income.

The cumulative effect of the long history of what we see in public galleries, of what art work is bought and sold, and who receives support – including financial support – to continue working, is that stories by and about women disappear from 'the grand narratives'. As Odessa Kelebay wrote recently
The lack of gender equity in filmmaking [and in other arts] is perhaps a self-sustaining cycle. Movies shape the way that people see the world and by extension, the way that people see women.
And the way women see themselves and women's roles in their artistic traditions. What does this 'disappearance', this 'forgetting' do to our individual and collective self image?

I didn't – couldn't – read all of Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton, but one paragraph has stayed with me because it refers to both 'the grand narratives' and control over 'the story':
At the heart of the dispute over The Satanic Verses...was a question of profound importance: Who shall have control over the story? Who has, or should have, the power not only to tell the stories with which, and within which, we all lived, but also to say in what manner those stories may be told? For everyone lived by and inside stories, the so-called grand narratives. The nation was a story, and the family was another, and religion was a third. As a creative artist he knew that the only answer to the question was: Everyone and anyone has, or should have that power. We should all be free to take the grand narratives to task, to argue with them, satirise them, and insist that they change to reflect the changing times. We should speak of them reverently, irreverently, passionately, caustically, or however we chose. That was our right as members of an open society. In fact, one could say that our ability to retell and remake the story of our culture was the best proof that our societies were indeed free. In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased. It was the argument itself that mattered. The argument was freedom. But in a closed society those who possessed political or ideological power invariably tried to shut down these debates...The storytelling animal must be free to tell his [sic] tales.
I limp-and-stumble through this project, but in the last little while I've felt better able to recognise consistent patterns of day-to-day behaviour that control 'the story' and affect the grand narratives and women storytellers' ability to reach audiences. 

I always hesitate to suggest that individuals within institutions and organisations set out to discriminate against women artists and storytellers. Very often, I believe, we all perpetuate the grand narratives benevolently and I've written about my experience of this process elsewhere. But some consistent, institutionalised, patterns of behaviour around women's story-telling nevertheless remind me of the abusive patterns that I learned about as a lawyer working with people who had been abused, in particular some of the more subtle patterns of control that don't leave physical marks but which affect an individual's freedom. These are the patterns that restrict women's freedom to present our stories publicly, 'our ability to retell and remake the story of our culture'.

The MANALIVE list of controlling behaviours specifies the kinds of harmful things people do when they have the power to make decisions that adversely affect others. I found this list in a book (Patricia Evans’– no relation – Verbal Abuse Survivors Speak Out: On Relationship and Recovery) and can't find it online. Here are some of the MANALIVE behaviours with some film-related examples; it’s not hard to think of similar examples in other mediums. There’s the control of time (when for example women become the default and poorly paid carers of the very young and the very old*); the control of space (including intellectual or spiritual space, by belittling ideas, beliefs or capacity and by making our work invisible in public spaces, on gallery walls, on screens, in books); control of material resources (“We can’t risk resources on a film or book or artwork that doesn’t fit our perception of the grand narratives”; not allocating resources to research about women and their creative works); control of speech, body language and gesture (“You can’t have a character/behaviour/structure like that in a script, and even if you could there's no audience for it”); control of reality and motivations by making someone responsible when they are not (“It’s your fault your film can’t get funding”; “You’re not competitive enough”; “You aren’t successful because you’re not prepared to be a writer-for-hire” etc etc); and control by assigning status (“Most women can’t write films that sell/find an audience” etc etc).

In the 1970s and 1980s various women fiction writers and poets addressed similar mechanisms used to underestimate and to undermine women writers [and artists]. Tillie Olsen's classic Silences did this wonderfully and Joanna Russ also identified common strategies  in her How To Suppress Women’s Writing. These included ignoring women writers completely; dismissing women’s work because we write about the ‘wrong’ things, condemning us for writing in the wrong genre, blaming us for what others have deleted from our work, or simply joking about us. All of these mechanisms are generated by fear and themselves generate fear, the kind of fear that makes it less likely that women support one another.

Te Papa's failure to identify women artists and their subjects in Out on the Street is an example of one pattern, because through not allocating resources to the necessary research it denies women access to our history and the opportunity to feel pride in and to build on women-specific traditions. Its Google Art selection is another, because it assigns a lesser status to women every time it prioritises male artists and male images of women and perpetuates a grand narrative of art history where work by and about women is less valued than men's. This too has consequences for women artists and for their potential audiences and income. Its failure to record Cushla's talk is a third example, which uses similar mechanisms and has similar consequences. In all three examples, it's possible that women within the institution were either independently involved in the decision-making or colluded with the men there. (And I too have at times failed to support other women, colluded with behaviours that reinforce the white male grand narrative at the expense of women who tell stories.)

I believe that these patterns of behaviour towards women exist to some degree in all media and institutions though I'm forever grateful that I studied at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), a New Zealand creative writing institution, led by Bill Manhire. IIML welcomes women and teaches us very well. And through its advocacy and strategic partnerships, in particular with Victoria University Press (unfortunately there's no parallel relationship for the scriptwriters: the processes involved in getting a script to screen, stage or game are more complex than making a manuscript into a book); and with philanthropists who provide awards and other support, it helps us make the transitions to publication and to readers. It's thanks to IIML, I believe, that New Zealand's women writers for the page have such a strong presence among our commercial and/or critical success stories. And as a consequence – unlike many other countries – New Zealand has a critical mass of contemporary women writers with strong publication records behind its internationally known names like Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme. It's not matched in film. There's no equivalent critical mass of New Zealand women filmmakers behind our internationally known filmmakers – Jane Campion, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Alison Maclean, Niki Caro and Christine Jeffs.

I often observe the use of the MANALIVE patterns of behaviour when I talk with and about and read about women artists, scriptwriters and directors. But because the patterns of behaviour are endemic it's hard to know how to make change beyond talking and writing about them, wherever they occur. (And I've experienced the effects of some of the mechanisms directly. This being tiny New Zealand I've heard about the language some powerful men within some institutions and outside them use to describe me and my work. And I know about some women who collude with their behaviour. It ain't pretty. Fortunately, I understand the the reasons for the language and the collusion. I'm fortunate too that I also feel much loved and have strong links to allies within and outside New Zealand, some of whom have similar experiences. So even though the language is hurtful, usually I move on quickly from the shock and/or hurt and/or my anger. Especially if I can laugh about it.)

And now,  We Will Work With You: Wellington Media Collective 1978-1998, another local art exhibition.

II. We Will Work With You: Wellington Media Collective 1978-1998

When I saw that the work of the Wellington Media Collective was on show at Victoria University's Adam Art Gallery, I was very excited, because the collective's contribution to the women's movement in Wellington was and is legendary, including its contribution to 'our' tiny bit of it, the Women's Gallery (1980-1984).

Anna Keir, Bridie Lonie and I set up the Women's Gallery as a non-profit, 'to support and promote women artists'. It embraced all media, women who defined themselves as artists and those who didn't, and usually presented group rather than individual artist exhibitions. Many were themed, like Anna's Self Image, Heather McPherson's Women & Violence, Diaries, Bridie's Women & the Environment, the collectively curated Maori Women's Art (both traditional and contemporary), Women's Disarmament and Lesbiana, and Mothers, all of them with extensive associated programmes.

Mothers catalogue (1981) Cover image: Hinetitama by Robyn Kahukiwa (1980 oil on board 1180x1180) photography Mary Bailey, design Sharon Alston
We also counted the gender proportion of artists whose work was reviewed, having learned about the value of counting from (Dame) Janet Paul (1919-2004) and fellow artist Barbara Strathdee, who analysed and wrote about gender and funding at Creative New Zealand (then the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council). Janet – and Allie Eagle – also put us in touch with our 'cultural grandmothers', New Zealand women artists who were unknown to us, like Edith Collier (1885-1964). An exhibition of her work was one of our few solo shows.

Working at the Women's Gallery was never easy, because of the varied expectations of artists and other participants, our lack of money, our own differences, and the antagonism towards our work, sometimes offset by warm and generous support. But for the artists who worked there it was especially difficult, because instead of doing their own work they spent their days and often evenings and weekends supporting other women – the 'professional' artists who saw the gallery as somewhere they could take risks that wouldn't be supported by their dealers, the women like me who didn't define themselves as artists but wanted to make and show their responses to the themed exhibitions and the many women who didn't want to contribute to the exhibitions but were drawn to the associated programmes.

Sometimes artists who worked at the gallery, like Anna and Sharon Alston, got to contribute to a group show. But mostly they had no free time. So it helped a lot that the Wellington Media Collective, especially Dave Kent and Chris McBride, were along the road. Anna and Sharon and others would escape for a bit, walk over to make posters for the Women's Gallery exhibitions and – for a little while – to be artists and have fun. I remember their happiness when they made the posters and I enjoyed it when they asked me to suggest ideas and images. And I loved their posters, the A3 sheets and the intensity of the inks; and the other Media Collective posters around the place, in public and on walls in friends' homes. I especially loved the posters printed on brown paper and on fabric.

So I was delighted when I read about We Will Work With You: Wellington Media Collective 1978-1998. At first, I was so busy I wasn't able to go anywhere and didn't think I'd be going anywhere for a while, so I asked for a pdf of the catalogue and was again delighted when it arrived. A little surprised by the selection of the Women's Gallery posters, which I felt were not the strongest of the many made (and later labelled and deposited  at the Alexander Turnbull Library, the research collection at the National Library – not yet catalogued except for two you can find if you search 'Women's Gallery' on tapuhi). But looking forward to seeing many old favorites from other groups, 'in the flesh'. And then, weeks later, I went to visit someone nearby and got to see the show, which I later learned was sourced only from the Media Collective's own extensive collection.

I didn't look again at the catalogue before I went. Just walked in. It was like a homecoming. A long list of the groups the Media Collective had worked with fell down one wall and through the gallery's two stories and, like the show itself, included many many women's collectives and groups from the Women's Gallery time, like Circle (lesbian magazine), Haeata (Maori women artists), Hecate (women's health), the Lesbian Centre, The Women's Place (bookshop), Women for Peace, Women in Schools & Education, Women in Print, Women Make Music,Women's Resource Centre, WONAAC (Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign), the Working Women's Alliance. There were also posters for campaigns where women's activism was central: campaigns for child care, against violence towards women, anti-apartheid and nuclear testing ('Take the Toys From the Boys! A Feminist World is a Nuclear Free Zone!').  There were posters associated with the Maori Rights movement and the Maori Renaissance, often known as Te Puawaitanga, The Blossoming. There was a fantastic series of photographs and an accompanying text entitled Women Under Capitalism, by Mary Slater, Hilary Watson and Audrey Young. Some lovely limited edition screenprints by Robyn Kahukiwa and Debra Bustin.

And on a large display panel on the end wall, a reinterpretation of the Media Collective's 1982 letterhead, incorporating a Dave Kent illustration from 1981 and a quotation from Keri Hulme's the bone people (1983). I can't see the text clearly on the pdf I have, and the gallery's closed at the mo, but I think it was from THE END AT THE BEGINNING –
They were nothing more than people, by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great. Together, all together, they are the instruments of change.
O, I thought, that's beautiful! And especially beautiful because the book was an instrument of change that linked the women's movement with Te Puawaitanga, through Keri's participation in the Women's Gallery and the connection between the gallery and Spiral which published the bone people.

But then I came to another display panel. It said (and I'm using the words from the catalogue, which I think are the same) –
The Wellington Media Collective will be remembered for its contribution to three major success stories of New Zealand political activism: the anti-Apartheid movement, notably opposition to the 1981 Springbok Tour; the campaign against nuclear testing in the Pacific; and the Maori Rights movement and Maori Renaissance following the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1981. 
I gasped. Surrounded by artefacts from the women's movement, I couldn't believe what I read. Why didn't the curators of the exhibition identify the women's movement as the fourth major activist element, the one which contributed strongly to the success of the other three? Did they not look carefully at the content of the posters and the list of organisations that the Media Collective worked with? Did they not know about – for instance –  Robyn Kahukiwa's and Debra Bustin's connections to the women's art movement through the Women's Gallery, and in Robyn's case also through Haeata, primarily part of the Te Puawaitanga? Or did they decide that the women's movement in all its diversity could not be defined as 'a major success story'?

Women's Gallery collective 1982 l. to r: Celia Elizabeth Thompson, Linda Pearl, Linda Hardy, Barb McDonald, in fron of Debra Bustin's sign for the Women's Gallery 323 Willis Street Wellington photo: Marian Evans
My delight turned to sadness. And I began to notice other troubling details. The inaccurate date given in the catalogue for the bone people's publication. No artists' names attributed to the Women's Gallery posters. (Mechanism: Belittling carelessness with women's work – the date of publication easily established online and the posters' makers readily established through straightforward research at the Turnbull Library or by making a couple of phone calls.) The label for Women Under Capitalism, which referred to its exhibition 'at an event put on by a women's trade union group' – what group? It wouldn't have been hard to find out its name. (Mechanism: Ignoring us.) And the complete absence of posters from at least one outstanding woman poster-maker who often chose to be anonymous. (Mechanism: Ignoring us.)  I went home and DM'd her. Has she seen the show? Was I overreacting? She messaged back –
Yes I felt a bit peeved that [our groups] didn't get a mention, but it was quite a select group of people, not that the other women weren't feminists. I think they might have completely forgotten that we used their resources...
Perhaps the curators forgot about that artist and those groups because they didn't leave copies of their witty and beautiful posters in the Media Collective's collection. Or perhaps because, in controlling the narrative about the historical reality (unlike those who curated Out On The Street, which addressed a similar period and similar themes) those who created the framework of the exhibition completely forgot about the significance of the women's movement and to recognise the Media Collective's contribution to it. Yes, the collective worked with us. Beautifully.

I sent the gallery an email with the details re the Women's Gallery posters, each one of them printed by Sharon Alston. One of them included a Mary Bailey image, one an image from me, with overall design by Sharon. The third – for Sexxuality (sic) – was entirely Sharon. And then I asked Anna if she still had a copy of her Self Image poster. She had, along with some related drawings which she much prefers. The poster arrived in the mail a few days later, smelling of earthquake. I washed it, admired the sprigs of flowers on the cotton, photographed it, pinned it in a prominent place in the kitchen near a big painting by Joanna Margaret Paul (Janet's daughter, 1945-2003). And thought some more about Sharon.

III. Sharon Alston 1948-1995

Sharon Alston 1986? photographer unknown (ahem! – maybe Adrienne Martyn?) - from A Women's Picture Book: Twenty-Five Women Artists of Aotearoa New Zealand eds Evans, Lonie, Lloyd (1988)
According to the National Library catalogue, Sharon Alston was a 'political cartoonist, designer, artist and illustrator for the feminist magazine Broadsheet from 1973 for almost 20 years [and] a lesbian feminist, involved in gay liberation activities in Auckland during 1970's and 1980's.' I think she also toured with the Back Street Theatre Group in 1976, when it 'took a wide-ranging show, emphasising a pro-choice message on abortion, to more than 25 centres from Auckland to Invercargill' (Women Together ed Anne Else, 1993) and probably made their posters. Like two other artist activists whose ghosts accompanied me through We Will Work With You: Wellington Media Collective 1978-1998 – Barb McDonald and Irihapeti Ramsden – Sharon died at a relatively early age, of breast cancer. I've often wondered whether the stress of activism and the strategies used in attempts to silence each of them contributed to their early deaths.

Sharon was, as Aorewa McLeod wrote in an obituary published in Wellington’s Evening Post and in Broadsheet:
… a strong, talented artist, yet exhibited only spasmodically as much of her energies went into political activities and the support she gave to other artists. She put her art into causes. She never lived in a house she owned or travelled overseas.
Aorewa quoted from Sharon’s farewell letter to her friends:
Why haven’t I achieved very much? I haven’t honoured my creativity; I’ve not carved out a fabulous niche for myself in this world. I’ve failed. Not a lot of time left to be a famous painter.
Aorewa also referred to Sharon's passion, compassion, humour and style as qualities which she gave to the lesbian community: “In the lesbian community,” McLeod wrote, “[Sharon] carved out a ‘fabulous niche’ for herself”. Yes. She did.

The National Library catalogue also states that Sharon was artist in residence at the Women's Gallery 1980-1983, which is in some ways inaccurate. Yes, like Anna, Sharon was an artist and like Anna and the other co-ordinators she more or less lived at the gallery, but she was a co-ordinator, invited to replace me when I followed my family to Ruatoki, a very long day's journey away. And she was in many ways a much more effective co-ordinator than I was, meticulous in her care of artists and artworks. And when I returned from Ruatoki a year later, we often disagreed, usually over trivial issues like the wine we provided at openings – Sharon's partner at the time was a professional woman who was used to good wine. But we each vigorously defended the other when it mattered.

Although Sharon didn't have much time for her own art work when she worked at the Women's Gallery, she did contribute to Self Image. She told Tilly Lloyd, in an interview in A Women's Picture Book (1988):
[I used] a mirror, a box shape like the safe house, the free place, the tree house[…I]nside the globe of the world, the trinkets, the shells, glitter, with eggs as the reference point for fertility, birth and death […] It was made to be destroyed, removed. I wanted a kitsch element there because it makes me laugh and it was me not being serious about me. I had charged at the iron with the spray paint […]with a gaudy lime and a bright pink. I loved the rawness of the iron and the patterns that the rips and the rust made. It was like my skin with scars and wrinkles, and patterns of aging taking place…a few laugh lines too.
Sharon Alston Self Image (1981) photographer unknown (ahem! again)

Sharon Alston Self Image (1981) photographer unknown 
Sharon also made an installation for Women & The Environment, 'Frolicking in the Valleys of Death'.

The only documentation that remains about this work is a page listing the days on which flags were flown from government buildings in New Zealand in 1981: saints days; royal occasions, Anzac Day, Labour Day, United Nations Day and so on. It includes as an entry, on 3 November, "Unprecedented Slaughter of 32 million Lambs 1980-81 Season (Victory over N. Z. Lambs)".

Sharon Alston Frolicking in the Valleys of Death (1981) photographer unknown
Sharon loved animals and her dog Basil was an important part of her life in 1981. As she wrote in a letter 20 August 1981 (held in the Women's Gallery/ Spiral collections at the Alexander Turnbull Library)
Basil has been patched up at the vets again. We are not having much luck with his skin problems but keep trying. He is on a Chicken and Rice diet, living like a King on my dole money…It's all very complicated so I'll spare the details[...] Maddening rigmarole we have to go through. With dubious results. But results nevertheless…trying to avoid him having too many more steroid injections with their nasty side effects. He has lost weight but will no doubt gain it again as he HAD to have an injection yesterday. Poor darling. He is so healthy apart from the one complaint. It is so debilitating for him and the steroids are the worst part of it all. I[t]'s a vicious circle he is in. And expensive. Each time I take him to the vet it costs me between $12 and $20. Plus his special Chikky food. One day he will be so bad he will have to be put down if we cannot crack the cycle. But that is a long way off yet.
And later in the same letter
…[Her partner at the time] is very well, very busy, very lovely. As a matter of fact she is lending me the money to buy an old car. I hope to make the purchase tonight. It is $450 a Morris 1100 1964. But not totally useless. Will need to get a new gear box or clutch at a later date but what can I expect for that sort of money? I am getting my practical licence soon as I can come up with my birth certificate (which I have lost) have got the written and oral so am quite excited at the thought of being independent transport wise. Goddess knows how Basil - who has taken to slobbering like a maniac in cars again - will cope. I may have to get a plastic seat in the back.
Towards the end of Tilly Lloyd’s interview of Sharon, interviewer and interviewee refer to the relationship of Sharon’s art to her political activity and why she exhibited only spasmodically:
It demands a certain faith in your intuition to work towards a far away ideal whilst presently undermining what is in the here and now. If I didn’t think this way I couldn’t create an image. There has to be a politically delicious reason why that image has to happen. It’s grist to the mill for me.
Do you think working full time doing design for Broadsheet has taken the grist out of your other mills?
It’s brought them to a temporary halt, but that’s partly in myself as well.
Because you’re trying to outdo Nathalie Barney?
Did she die young?
That’s good.
Not surprisingly, for someone whose personality brings to mind Nathalie Barney and who made work for 'politically delicious' reasons, Sharon was interested in images about sexual identity and in their public exhibition. She co-ordinated the Sexxuality exhibition and invited lesbians and heterosexual women to contribute. And made the show's poster at the Media Collective. Later, she wanted “to begin a series of images containing emotional, sexual, and sensual elements of my own lesbian lifestyle”. But she died young.

When Sharon became ill, her friends organised a fund-raising concert so she could have an overseas trip. I was living in France and for a little while it seemed possible that she'd visit. But she was too ill. Then, after she died, the artist Jane Zusters and poet Sue Fitchett organised an exhibition of her work, with her partner Robbie Champtaloup. At Auckland's Artstation. According to Jane:
The exhibition came complete with misattribution as an Adriana Tuscia was claimed at the opening as hers, not Sharon's. Apart from the great artwork from Broadsheet and the posters we could not track a lot of art and I recreated a piece we had a photo of that she exhibited at the Women's Gallery [Sharon's Mothers sculpture].
The exhibition had no reference to the Self Image and Frolicking in the Valleys of Death, because at the time the slides that recorded them were missing. When by chance I found them in an alien office over a decade ago, I wrote about Sharon in two versions of an essay, one published here, with more slides of her Self Image. And a while back, when I realised that there is video footage of Sharon, I seriously considered making a film about her. She never gave birth to a child, but she is a very special artist activist mother and now an artist activist grandmother. A movie would be good. An exhibition of her cartoons would be good. And her work should be attributed wherever it's shown.

Women's Gallery Collective 23 Harris Street Wellington 1981 l.-r. standing: Sharon Alston, Louise Genet; front: Marian Evans, Bridie Lonie, Margaret Leniston holding Isaac Leniston-Howell, Hilary King, Anna Keir. Image courtesy of Creative New Zealand, Arts Council of New Zealand

(edited 19 January 2013 to incorporate responses in the comments and by DM, Twitter and Facebook. Many thanks to all who helped.)

* footnote
The CoUNTess has just provided an update to her regular analysis of the gender representation at CAOs (Contemporary Arts Organisations Australia), a national network of twelve independent art spaces funded by federal and state governments. And this time, she relates the representation to gender representation at art schools. Here's the infographic.

It reminds me of a statistic from New Zealand's New Zealand Time Use Survey, which I used the other day: it shows that the majority of women's work (65 percent) is unpaid and the majority (63 percent) of men's work is paid. At the moment I have no idea if there's any correlation between the two but I'm thinking about it.

PS 31 January One of the most beautiful responses ever? 

Went out the front door and tripped over a box. This is the front of the card inside the box. 

From Overheard at the Museum series by Judith Henry. Bespoked by a beloved friend.
Also in the box, her homemade jam and some of their freshly gathered honey. And two packs of Moro bars (one already consumed).

Sweet surprises as I plod my way through the second part of the second act of the second draft of Throat of These Hours, my play about Muriel Rukeyser and two women in a Wellington radio station. Hardest thing I've ever done.

Thank you, my very dear friend.


  1. This is amazing and inspiring and sad and wonderful.

  2. Marian, you bring up many good points here. It seems that a lot of women don't value the work of other women, whether it's because they've been socialized to believe that all important work is created by men, or they believe that "women's work" isn't important. And many women don't feel empowered to help other women, even successful women. I recently attended a talk of a very successful producer and although she talked about her mentors, not once did she mention mentoring others. Until we all take responsibility for helping and promoting other women, I don't belive things can change. As my 11-year-old daughter said the other day, "Of course women are important - without us to give birth, people wouldn't exist." We need to own that.

  3. Thanks, Kate. Thanks, Kim. I've been astonished that filmmakers from outside New Zealand have responded to this, here and on FB & Twitter, because it felt like a very local issue and not directly 'movies'.

    Kim, I think that many women in institutions and organisations do just 'forget' about gender. Some don't, like Ruth Harley who used to be CEO of the New Zealand Film Commission and now heads Screen Australia. And some of them have a huge day-to-day struggle to survive and don't have time to mentor. But I wish wish wish that even when women in institutions and organisations haven't got time to mentor, they would consistently keep track of gender within frameworks and policies and allocation of resources, record statistics, ask the hard questions and be strong advocates for women. And let's not forget the men who do all that (which once the habit's formed is not significantly time-consuming!) I know that I've benefitted hugely from generous men who have mentored and advocated for me. And I was interested the other day when Thuc Nguyen (the Bitch Pack, in the last post) named her personal supporters and they too were often men.

  4. Thanks so much for your positive words about, the Canadian Women Film Directors Database. I want to reassure you that the Database will continue to grow. Librarians at the University of Toronto, like professors, can take research leave ("sabbatical") every seventh year; I created the database during my first research leave (2007), and before long I should be able to take my next one, which I'll devote to expanding the content of! I've actually added quite a lot of content since 2007, as time permits (with the help of several terrific "practicum" students from U of T's Faculty of Information) -- but I'm really looking forward to my next opportunity to devote some serious time to Thanks again.

  5. Lovely to hear from you, Margaret! Huge congratulations and many thanks to you on finding ways to keep the database growing! Now all we need is an online source for all those films! I'm still kinda gobsmacked that Canada has so many women directors and hope your work will be replicated in other countries, so we understand more about the range of women's ways of seeing the world.

  6. Tasha Haines sent through this comment. Many thanks Tasha!

    A wonderful piece of balanced and thought provoking writing Marian. The 65% women grads ex art school with 35% exhibiting versus the inversion of that for men, is astounding (when I was at art school, being a white female was about as 'uncool' as you could be). Especially in an art world which prides itself on being cutting edge. It seems even 'cutting edge' is entrenched in power-mongery. I guess however that there is something to be said for the invisibility of women in arts being due to child-rearing. Such invisibility doesn't necessarily equate to 'gone' - but it does for some women as their values change or as they find that society does not make it easy for them to stage a return...The powers-that-be don't typically value or make way for child rearing, and so it isn't easy for women to return and find a place.
    On the balance of things, we need an 'art world' less driven by fashion and the spurious striving for quantity over quality. And one more interested in art that reveals and encourages a realistic breadth of socio-cultural goings on. At least as much as it currently cries out to sidle-up to the ego-centric plottings of an uber-cool minority.

  7. I have a painting that Anna Keir did when a student in Christchurch. Every now and then I see if I can find Anna on the net, in case she would like the painting back. Maybe this will reach you, although it's a year and a half since you wrote this piece?
    My email address is and my name is Jacqui.

    1. hello Jacqui! I've taken a screenshot of your comment and will send it to Anna right now! Thank you.


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