Academic journal article Outskirts

Looking from With/in: Feminist Art Projects of the 70s

Academic journal article Outskirts

Looking from With/in: Feminist Art Projects of the 70s

Article excerpt

Sydney Women's Art Movement (WAM) held its first meeting in April 1974. I was not there for the founding of WAM but joined soon after on my return from an extended period overseas. My memory of how I first heard about WAM is hazy, but as an active member of Women's Liberation (WL) it was most likely that I obtained information from the WL newsletter or via other women's movement networks. My introduction to a feminist approach to art and art history, however, began not with WAM but prior to this while I was in London. It is was here, where I first came into contact with Women's Liberation and, where, inspired by feminist thinking, an artist friend and I began researching the history of women artists.

For those of us who came to feminism in the 1970s, it was an exciting, intense and empowering time. Anything was possible; everything was ripe for discovery, critique and change. We marched, campaigned, organised. Some of us lived in 'feminist households', belonged to consciousness raising groups and engaged with feminism on a variety of fronts. Thus having lived through this period and been familiar with many of the developments of seventies' feminism, the narrative I will construct in this paper interweaves the personal, historical and anecdotal.

Putting myself in the picture

Speaking of my experiences, as an artist, an organiser, and as a 'voice from the field' implies putting myself at the centre of this narrative and speaking with some authority. My authoritative position, however, doesn't come from status, success or expertise but from being a participant. Participation, which can be fluid, can wax and wane and is binarily gendered feminine (de Zegher xvi) (opposed to the masculinity of expert, sole authority, specialist) was an important aspect of seventies feminism. Like collaboration, participation signifies group effort over individualism. Collaboration and participation affirm democratic, supportive and anti-hierarchical structures or organisations and within an art world context, form an implicit critique of the figure of the heroic male artist who is central to traditional art history.

According to Anne Else who writes about the connected self in On Shifting Ground: Self-narrative, feminist theory and writing practice, the self that speaks as a participant rejects the position of 'detached observer' who preserves "distance between observer and observed, knower and known, subjectivity and objectivity" (Else 244). Thus the self that is embedded in this story of feminist art in the seventies is a relational self, a self that is formed by 'interpretation, interconnection and inter-dependence' (Else,"History Lessons" qtd in Else 5). It is about projects and self, formed in relationship to others and the ideas of the time. This mutable self is neither fixed qualitatively or temporally. The self that tells this story, looks back and interacts with the self of almost 40 years ago. What I recall, emphasise, omit or insert is dependent on the contingencies of memory, context and available data.

Collaboration (which again is finding favour in the art world), was perceived as a feminine way of working as opposed to male individualism. Collaborative ventures could be sites of creative empowerment generating new ideas; but the collaborative process could also be laborious, time-consuming and conflictual. That said I found working with others, even during times of tension or conflict, to be a self-affirming and productive experience. According to Diana Meyers in Feminist Perspectives on the Self by "cordoning offa social sphere of mutually attuned, mutually concerned women, separatism in all its forms turns down the racket of patriarchy"(Meyers). Thus separatist enclaves such as consciousness raising groups, WAMs and feminist collective projects that place value on conversation, connectivity and women-to-women relationships provide a foundation for the relational self and "relieve women of the burden of Otherness"(Meyers). …

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