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So Fine: Australian history through a female lens

Alice Stapleton and Beatrice Smith

10 Australian women. 10 artists with different mediums, backgrounds, practices and perspectives. 10 unique works.

This is So Fine: Contemporary women artists make Australian history, the National Portrait Gallery’s (NPG) newest exhibition. Spanning photography, painting and sculpture, So Fine showcases the commissioned works of 10 female artists and their depictions of Australian history through contemporary portraiture.

Though their intention was to create a show which examined, reinterpreted and reimagined Australian history, So Fine curators Sarah Engledow and Christine Clark could never have imaged the exhibition would come together with such impact.

“In the Portrait Gallery’s ever-growing collection, stories combine and recombine to form a national history,” explains Sarah. “So Fine reflects the rich tradition of storytelling in our country as it presents new perspectives on the past.”

The Girls, Zoe Davis and Linde Ivimey 2018 Linde Ivimey, 210 x 63 x 28 cm, Steel armatures, acrylic resin, cast and natural human, sheep turkey, fox, chicken and snake bones, earth, paper, natural fibre, dyed cotton, dyed and sewn viscera. Courtesy of the artist.

Spread across one of the NPG’s largest exhibition spaces, the artists of So Fine were given a year to produce a piece that reflected an aspect or moment of Australian history that moved or inspired them. The result is a multifaceted, ever-surprising collection of artworks across every medium imaginable, exploring everything from colonisation to the modern Indigenous experience.

So Fine reflects a fresh vision of history as ambivalent; comprising fragmentary, contradictory, marginal or many-layered stories, told from many different perspectives and by, or about, figures whose voices were long muffled because of their gender, social position, cultural practice or ethnic inheritance,” says Sarah.

Canberra-based artist Nicola Dickson explains that the inspiration for her So Fine contribution came from delving deep into French colonial records.

Presenting Jean Piron, 1792 – Sauvage des îles de l’Amirauté 2018 Nicola Dickson 91.4 x 76.2 cm oil on linen Courtesy of the artist and Beaver Galleries.

“The works are based on the prints and drawings that were made to record the d’Entrecasteaux Voyage—a voyage between 1791 and 1794 that left France and visited Australia twice and on the South-Eastern tip of Tasmania and also the Western Pacific,” she explains.

“It left a rich archive of historical relics which are particularly fascinating because the crew were meant to record their observations accurately, but the actual things they did see were seen through a very plasticised eye.”

Nicola’s work is immersive and rich, featuring paintings, clothing and even specially-created wallpaper. Everything is layered with meaning, both physically and metaphorically.

Across the exhibition space, images of children dressed in their Sunday-best tower above visitors.

Melbourne-based artist Fiona McMonagle chose the Child Migration Scheme as the focus of her work, and her images—though deceptively simple at first—contrast the hope of the English children sent to Australia for “a better life” with the heart-breaking reality of their lives once they arrived.

Ayrshire Slates 2018. Valerie Kirk 23 x 11.4 cm, gouache on slate Courtesy of the artist.

Curator Christine Clark explains that the diversity of voice in the exhibition creates an unparalleled richness.

“The women—of various ages, cultural backgrounds and demographic groups—present first encounters, convict experience, the suppression and survival of Indigenous people, the betrayal of children, the divided self of the immigrant and the excitement of scientific discovery,” she explains.

Goorra-Goorral (stormbird and Willy wagtail) 2018 natural ochre and pigments on canvas 45 x 45.5 cm Shirley Purdie Courtesy of the artist (Nangari) and Warmun Art Centre.

“The artists contributing to the exhibition are from very different parts of Australia, and of various ages and backgrounds. Aside from gender, their common attributes are a habit of serious thinking and a meticulous approach to creation.

“Their combined works are intricate, refined and affecting objects that will provide unique interpretations of history and biography in this strikingly beautiful exhibition.”

When discussing the title of the exhibition, Sarah explains that the gallery’s desire was to seek out artists “with a particular mode of practice, very meticulous, repetitive, patient… an almost obsessive way of working – that’s where the title ‘So Fine’ comes from.”

“It’s quite a cerebral exhibition, these are intelligent individuals and very independent thinkers.”

Yip Hoy 2017 Pamela See papercut on paper 42 x 32 cm Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer.

the essentials

What: So Fine: Contemporary women artists make Australian history
When: Showing until 1 October 2018. Open 10 am – 5 pm, seven days a week
Where: The National Portrait Gallery, King Edward Terrace, Parkes, Canberra
Tickets: $10 for adults and $8 concession. Children under 18 are free

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Alice Stapleton

Alice Stapleton is a born and bred Canberran woman and soon to be graduate from the University of Canberra with a Bachelor of Journalism. With the world in her hands and a whole lot of life to live, Alice spends her spare time outside of studying and working in hospitality looking for new adventures and opportunities to explore her creative side. More about the Author


Beatrice Smith

Bea loves that her job as HerCanberra’s Online Editor involves eating, drinking and interviewing people - sometimes simultaneously. The master of HerCanberra’s publishing schedule, she’s usually found hunched over a huge calendar muttering to herself about content balance. Otherwise, you’ll find her at the movies or ordering a cheese board. More about the Author