For a new series of public artworks across Sydney, Belinda Mason moves between photographic documentary and social intervention. Mason works not only to register the experiences of unhoused women, but to collaborate with the community that she photographs, amplifying her subjects' voices through a program of workshops and group exhibitions. Here, the 'observed' subjects of photographic documentation become the observers of the society which, every day, refuses their gaze.

To mark International Women’s Day 2021, Mason parked a car in Martin Place.  The car resists observation, wrapped as it is in mirror film to obscure its surface, and reflect light. It can’t be registered; its number plate even reads ‘UNSEEN.’ Instead, we might think of this car as a vehicle through which we – or more particularly, the city’s financial institutions, property development managers, and centres of governance – are, ourselves, observed. From its windows reach the gazes of a group of women who are experiencing homelessness, whom Mason photographed as part of her documentary practice. Perhaps that which is ‘unseen’ in the question of homelessness, this project implies, is not only the human story – the material, quotidian reality – of the experience, but the institutional and state complicity in the conditions of unhoused life.

‘UNSEEN’ is undertaken with collaborative support the Women’s Electoral Lobby and BLUR Projects, which Mason leads. As such, a focus on the gendered experience of homelessness is at the centre of the program. Dr Jane Bullen, a Social Policy Researcher with the Women’s Electoral Lobby, sees that ‘domestic violence, mental health concerns, housing crisis and financial difficulties are just some of the circumstances that can increase a woman’s risk of being homeless. We know COVID-19 has adversely impacted women and their housing security, particularly for women living with violence. 40 per cent of people requesting assistance from specialist homelessness agencies have experienced domestic violence, and these are, overwhelmingly, women and children.’

To this end, Monique Wiseman, of Homelessness NSW, comments that ‘we’re encouraging Australians to forget everything you think you know about women and homelessness, because this is likely the tip of the iceberg. By bringing real women’s experiences to life and sharing their journeys, we can make this hidden issue seen, heard and prevented.’ The narrative content of women’s homelessness in the project – grounded in particularity, logistical and administrative detail, and affect –  is tied to Mason’s documentary impulse. But the work also aims, as Wiseman hints, not just to recount stories of homelessness, but to write better ones in the future tense – that is, not just to narrate, but to prevent homelessness and the conditions at its root.

From March to December of this year, a solar-powered mobile house will move through the sites of social, political, and commercial life in Sydney’s CBD, hosting workshops, performances, and exhibitions for and of unhoused women. ‘UNSEEN’’s artists include First Nations weaver Nadeena Dixon, artists with disability, multi-media artists Belinda Mason, Denise Beckwith and Deter Knierim, the Sydney Street Choir, and Elder in Residence Aunty Dixie Link Gordon.

Fiona, whose face appears in the windows of Mason’s Martin Place car, is proud to be aligned with the project. ‘It is only through being seen, heard and understood,’ she says, ‘that we can prevent so many women from being without a home.’

March – December, 2021
City of Sydney CBD

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