|Anna Keir Self Image (1981 silk screen on cotton 58×43.5)|
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 Framing, its 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. Continue reading