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Alexis Hunter

ALEXA JOHNSTON

At the 1982 Biennale of Sydney, a number of feminist artists represented many participating countries, along with feminist art critics Irving Sandler, the New York art historian, in a Biennale forum on Sign, Symbol and Imagery, discussed the important part played by this art in changing the character of mainstream art and art criticism in the 1970s. He saw it as contributing to a new 'personalist' art practice. British critic Lisa Tickner defined the premises of feminist art as strategic rather than stylistic, and commented on the influence of the feminist assertion that the personal is political. Many male artists have followed women in producing works which criticise male dominance in Western society. And others have joined in the reclamation of the use of fabric, collage, decoration and pattern as respectable elements of artistic vocabulary.

Alexis Hunter exhibited as a British artist at the Sydney Biennale. She is, however, a New Zealander who went to Britain in 1972 (after graduating from Elam School of Fine Art), and she has achieved considerable success in Britain. Her work was shown in the 1977 Hayward Annual in London, and she has represented Britain in several international shows, including Artists of the British Left, in New York. Her reputation as a serious feminist artist is well established.

Hunter works almost exclusively in photographic narrative sequences, in which she attempts 'to exorcise the peculiar notions of femaleness which society foists upon us'.1 In one series of works, Hunter was concerned with women's fears - fear of anger, of violence, of pain, fear of losing control. The series was called Approaches to Fear, and showed women's hands exploring and defeating the sources of fear. Another group of works was about heterosexual relationships, and went under the collective title Romantic Love and Sexual Hatred. In one of her best known political works a woman's hands are seen cleaning dirt from a picture of Karl Marx. The title is The Marxist's Wife (still does the housework).

In 1980 Alexis Hunter stopped exhibiting exclusively in public galleries - where she reached a wide, theoretically educable audience - and began showing some less overtly political pieces with a London dealer. She had wanted to return to using paint and began experimenting with this on top of some discarded photographic sequences. This work she describes as more decorative and ambiguous, emerging from the heart as much as the intellect. She is always aware of her audience: and, in her view, the audience in dealer galleries is more sophisticated, more able to read through layers of paint to the political content of works if they wish to. In doing this, she runs the risk of having her work categorised as radical chic. Certainly in her Auckland exhibition many viewers were disconcerted to see works which were not overtly political in content. Yet she included two pieces which she would normally show only in a public gallery (because they are strongly feminist) and these works attracted considerable attention.

I spoke to her when she was in Auckland.

ALEXA JOHNSTON: How much do you emphasise the feminist label on your work?
ALEXIS HUNTER: When I first started showing feminist paintings in 73-74, I hoped people would recognise the content without my having to state it, but initially. even though the feminism was overt, people couldn't seem to see what I was saying. Finally, I made my work so political that reviewers realised what I was doing. They labelled my work feminist and I accepted the label. Now I can do anything and people will read feminism in it, even though some of my work isn't feminist.
A.J.: But you do see the world from a feminist perspective, so the work must reflect that.
A.H.: Yes, though for me, feminist art is basically educative. It changes people, or that is what it aims to do. That is successful feminist art. But some of my work doesn't have that aim, it is an expression of myself. So I suppose it is the difference between overt feminist work and work that is read in a feminist way. In that sense, if you area feminist, you read everything in a feminist way. I get included in shows as a feminist. Most political art shows in Europe have a feminist section.
A.J.: How do you see women in the art world contributing to feminist awareness among people who are not involved in the arts?
A.H.: There is not much communication. I find that many women in the art world are anti-feminist, because they are token women and very insecure in their jobs. The feminist women I know working in the art scene are mostly what I would call 'closet feminists'. They do their best, but hide their feminist ideas.
A.J.: In New Zealand, there is only one woman lecturing in Art School, and she is in a relieving position.
A.H.: Yes I'd heard that. The majority of art schools in England too, are still pretty chauvinist. I think this is sad, because art should be an avant garde thing; and although the art schools have been a source of new people and new ideas in popular music, in terms of sexual politics they are really behind everything else. It's job protection again.

ALEXIS HUNTER frames form the Dialogue with a Rapist series, 1978 
(RKS Art)

A.J.: In New Zealand we have not really made a clear distinction between women's art and feminist art, and we are still caught in the dilemma of feeling that feminists should be supportive of women's efforts, but being aware of the need for strong, carefully selected shows.
A,H.: Well yes, we are past that; that's going back to the first stage. At first you don't know what a feminist sensibility is, and you don't like using your male oriented training to judge work, but eventually you can sort out the work. Some artists are very naive, almost retrogressive, and produce work which is not sound politically. I wouldn't have an unselected exhibition now.
A.J.: Have you ever been involved in the selection of a show of women's art?
A.H.: Yes. In 1976 I was one of the three selectors for a show of feminist art; it was the opening show of the Women's Free Arts Alliance Gallery. When the first work came in, it was all so naive that we rejected the lot of it. We asked for another submission, and then rejected that. Finally, we went out looking for feminist art in art schools, and asked around artists, and in the end we had a show which was very successful. We found work which was politically intelligent and well thought out. Most of it was postconceptual; one piece was directed towards a woman terrorist in the Bader Meinhoff gang. It was very good.
A.J.: You use serial imagery and a narrative form in your work; and I know you have made slide sequences: have you ever used video? it is a medium which many feminist artists use.
A.H.: No I haven't used video. Firstly, I have seen so many video pieces ruined because the equipment went wrong; and secondly, if you use video, you are competing directly with television which has enormous financial resources. Also, art requires work from the people who look at it. Response to art is a combination of intellect and emotion, and that balance 'IS part of the pleasure you get out of art. It takes time to feel and think at the same time, and people are not used to doing that in front of a television set. But I have made films. When I first went to England and began doing feminist work, I made films about my women friends and myself. It was quite personal work - I do feel that most women artists need to go through a very personal stage in their work, before they can start doing overt political work. It seems to be necessary to find out about yourself before you start making general comments about politics and women's position. My films were about our relationships as friends, our feelings about each other, our insecurity about the way we looked, and the whole problem of sexism as we encountered it. 
A.J.: What sort of responses to your work have you had from men?
A.H.: In Germany, at a University Art Festival, a man ripped one of my works off the wall and tried to flush it down the men's toilet. There were a lot of quite violent reactions, particularly when I first started showing.
A.J.: And what sort of work would they be reacting to?
A.H.: Very ambiguous things that I did on fear. I've got two styles, one that is very clear, and one that is very ambiguous, out of focus: so it's hard to know what's happening. And the men misread the works completely. For instance, I have a woman trimming her nails with a razor blade and the guy thought it was a piece on castration. In fact, it is about the metaphorical castration of the woman's life-style.

ALEXIS HUNTER frames form the Dialogue with a Rapist series, 1978 
(RKS Art)

A.J.: Have you ever been aware of your work making a man understand the reality of women's oppression?
A.H.: Yes that's happened. Many men have told me that Dialogue with a Rapist was a revelation to them.
A.J.: One New Zealand artist came back from America, very disgruntled, saying that in order to get a grant in America now, you have to be a woman. Obviously that is an exaggeration: but do you think that feminist art and women's art is fashionable in America at present?
A.H.: Yes. And I think it has almost changed the whole mainstream, and that's what's really important. We need to change the way people look at art and that means that the mainstream has got to change. It's much more difficult than just slotting into the system, having shows in museums, and being tokenly accepted while it is fashionable. We need to make dealers, artists, teachers and the public, look in a different sort of way. In America it's already happening.
A.J.: How do you feel about Shulamith Firestone's suggestion that by the time woman are accepted in the art world, art will have lost its force as a vital, important element of society?
A.H.: I think there is some truth in it. In some ways, pop music has greater potential for change - it is politically more important. Sometimes I get depressed about the art situation. I wonder what is the point of expressing my ideas in this way. But I am an artist, so I don't really have any choice but to make my politics evident in my work.

1. 'Hands On', by Lucy R. Lippard in Alexis Hunter - Photographic Narrative Sequences, Edward Totah Gallery, London