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Female Drivers

Madeleine K. Snow's "Female Drivers" subverts the pejorative meaning of its titular phrase. Emphasising the place of women's practice at the forefront of social, political, and cultural life, the exhibition brings works from the Maitland Regional Art Gallery collection together with contributions from artists across the country, including locals. It makes a convincing case for women as drivers of public agenda both within and beyond the arts.

What differentiates Female Drivers from the recent tide of exhibitions of women’s work – represented in their most block-busting form by the National Gallery of Australia’s Know My Name – is that it is not only concerned with presenting the work of women artists, but with presenting work that is in some way about women, as artists and otherwise. Madeleine K. Snow’s curatorial emphasis is on women who represent themselves as agentic, change-making, and self-determining. Snow emphasises women as “drivers” of cultural, social, familial, and political life, against a vision of femininity as an impediment to sound participation in these realms. 

The show has a strong intergenerational scope, with occasional focus on work that takes place between “literal” mothers and daughters as well. Maggie Hensel-Brown’s lacework, with its snippets of the snidenesses that happen to and around women set against the delicacy of its medium, is displayed alongside the work of her mother, Nicola Hensel. Hensel’s work reflects on the mother-daughter relationship itself, glancing at it slant-wise through scenes of domestic life. There is a neat link here, between the two artist’s practices: while Hensel treats domestic life as a rich and richly political subject, Hensel-Brown grasps it as medium, redeploying the “decorative art” of lacework for critical ends. A video work showing a WhatsApp chat between mother and daughter hangs in the room with these pieces, their textual dialogue flitting between wit and the kind of lyricism which is often branded as feminine, and decried as such. This room is book-ended thematically and spatially by Michelle Gearin’s ongoing work R.E.M, which is described in wall text as “generational embroidered textiles.” 

I appreciated the continued thinking-back to decorative or domestic arts undertaken through the rest of the show, particularly through the inclusion of Elizabeth Pulie’s weaving and Bern Emmerichs’s work with shells, as well as the sewn garments in the two Fiona Foley photographs which open the exhibition. The history of the categories “decorative” and “domestic” is not only a history of gendered power and control; it’s also a colonial one, deeply bound up with our ideas of the (anthropological) museum and the (artistic) gallery, and the objects that they might each value and display. Sarah Goffman’s work starts to press on the history of the museum as a site for the establishment and enshrinement of cultural power, and I would welcome further exploration of this thinking. 

Works from the MRAG collection are deftly woven into the show, grounding it nicely in its location. Fiona Hall’s and the late Paula Rego’s works sit well next to each other, showcasing the breadth of the collection, and the uncanny timeliness today of works collected years ago. The great strength of this exhibition is its dealing with an historical feminism which continues to inform debates and action today, around issues like access to abortion, “women’s work,” and sovereignty (I’m thinking particularly, here, of the exuberant collaborative video work by Iwantja Young Women’s Film Project). It’s especially heartening to see the work of women across generations celebrated in this show, given the silencing of women’s voices as we grow older which still persists in our culture. I can, also, imagine a second show to accompany Female Drivers, which looks forward to future feminisms as well as back into history and around us today; one which considers the meeting-points between feminism and other movements towards justice, the work of women in the face of climate crisis, and the limits of the category of the “female” itself, for instance. MRAG and Snow are certainly equipped for this kind of work, given the deftness and strength of this exhibition.

EXHIBITION 
Female Drivers 
28 May – 28 August 2022
Maitland Regional Art Gallery, New South Wales

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