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
A.J.: How do you see women in the art world contributing to
feminist awareness among people who are not involved in the arts?
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.
New Zealand, there is only one woman lecturing in Art School, and she is in a
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.
frames form the Dialogue with a Rapist series, 1978
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
A.J.: Have you ever been involved in the selection of a show of
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.
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.
frames form the Dialogue with a Rapist series, 1978
A.J.: Have you
ever been aware of your work making a man understand the reality of women's
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?
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.
'Hands On', by Lucy R. Lippard in Alexis Hunter - Photographic Narrative
Edward Totah Gallery, London