Annemieke Mein: A Life’s Work

The Dutch-born textile artist Annemieke Mein, OAM, moved to Australia in 1951 when she was seven and developed a fascination for the native environment that she has nurtured all her life. Having excelled at art during her school days, the desire for creative fulfilment persisted, and Mein returned to the field in the 1960s. "I was just experimenting; I was trying every type of craft or art I could possibly find, to try and get the skills,” she recalls.

Mein began creating “textile pictures” in 1977, applying an almost forensic level of detail to her exploration of the natural world. She eschewed the “quintessential” faunal imagery, preferring to focus on wetland and coastal species, birds, invertebrates, and the close observation of their diverse habitats. “I like to portray those overlooked creatures that people don’t usually notice, larger than life so it gives them a very strong visual impact. I like to show them to the world, how beautiful they are, and that they’re worth preserving.” Having found her forte, Mein’s practice has encompassed wall sculptures, works on paper, freestanding soft sculptures, wearable art garments, and commissions for figurative bas-relief bronzes.

Despite consistent approbation, both nationally and overseas, Mein believes that the dogmatic fine art / craft divide prevalent in Australia at that time affected the reception of her work. “I learn from the past, that’s a crucial feature . . . I believe that you can’t produce good art unless you’re a good craftsman. Get to know your craft, and then the most important thing after that is a bit of flair and imagination: put that together and you’ve got great art.”

Gender stereotyping associated with the textile medium, and resistance to works perceived as merely “decorative,” was also a barrier to wider recognition from the gallery sector. “Oh, there’s no doubt about that. It was always considered ‘women’s work’ and not taken seriously. The attitude was, ‘oh that’s pretty, that’s lovely,’ but it was not well regarded,” Mein asserts.

Since 1971, Mein has been based in the rural town of Sale, Victoria; she has a deep appreciation and knowledge of the local biosphere. In 1979, she met the environmentalist, artist, and fellow resident Charles McCubbin (1930-2010), grandson of Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917). Mein was tutored by McCubbin who became a close friend and colleague. “I learnt a lot about how to look at things from Charles that you can’t teach yourself, somebody has to show you how to do that. I’m self-taught in everything, from sewing to drawing, and he taught me some wonderful things, so that’s been the only real external influence on my work.”

Mein’s first major exhibition was held at the then Sale Regional Arts Centre in 1979. It is a testament to the enduring popularity of her work that Gippsland Art Gallery has displayed The Art of Annemieke Mein since 2018; ten capsule exhibitions including around sixteen works at any one time. The comprehensive survey Annemieke Mein: A Life’s Work this March will occupy all five exhibition spaces and is curated by Simon Gregg with the close cooperation of the artist. It draws together over 200 works created over a sixty-year period and coincides with Mein’s eightieth birthday. “I’ve been here for fifteen years now, and have been constantly amazed at the endless streams of visitors just coming to see Annemieke’s work. I’ve never seen an artist so loved and adored in their own community, she’s like our local royalty!” Gregg observes. “She’s done so much good for the Gallery over the years, in so many ways, so I see this exhibition and publication as our chance to say “thank you” to Annemieke for all she’s contributed, on the occasion of her eightieth.”

Throughout her career, Mein has felt a responsibility to document and celebrate the landscape: its interconnectedness and increasing vulnerability. At a time of unprecedented debate about climate change, overpopulation, environmental degradation, and Australia’s ignominious status as a world leader in species extinction, Mein’s approach seems both prescient and pioneering. It’s a suggestion she eventually accedes to, “Well yes, a pioneer indeed because I started making works with a strong environmental agenda in 1977. The first big work I did that was really assertive about extinction was Christmas Beetles, 1981. A subject that was not so loveable at the time, but it was all due to human intervention and forest clearing!” A major mixed media piece for the exhibition, A Work in Progress, 2024, will be left deliberately unfinished. It focuses on the Bogong moth, added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature “red list” of threatened species in 2021.

Mein feels as though her artistic sensibility and dedication has been vindicated; she also remains sanguine about her “outsider” status in the national arts firmament. “I’m a very accepting person, I have a beautiful life here, and I make artwork for my pleasure. If I started to worry about that sort of thing, I wouldn’t be able to create what I’m doing because I’d be too worried about what everyone’s thinking,” she contends. “I just ignore all that, and you can do that when you live in a country community. You’re sort of very self-reliant and you’ve got beautiful people around you. You’ve got the environment around you; no one needs all that nonsense of being accepted or excluded. I really don’t care, I’ve done my best in my field that I can do, and I’m proud of that.”

This preview was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 66 

Annemieke Mein: A Life’s Work 
2 March – 26 May 2024 
Gippsland Art Gallery, VIC 

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