Women artists—activism, archives, and ambiguity

by Maggie Finch

There is an inherent questioning of truths in the work of many of the women artists exhibiting in PHOTO 2021, who are living and working in the wake, or the afterglow, of second-wave feminism. Truths have been critiqued, dismantled, laid bare—from gender and sexuality to the personal and identity, to the body, to race and history, to social status and the politics of representation, to information and archives, to community, to humour, to photographic technique and the image itself. Sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly.


The work of feminist photographer Ruth Maddison, spanning from the 1970s to today, is the focus of an exhibition including early hand-coloured photographs, documentary portraits of women at work, as well as recent interventions into family archives. Pat Brassington, whose work shows the enduring influence of psychoanalysis, surrealism and feminism, is presenting a new body of her fleshy, abstract photomontages. Ann Shelton continues her research-based practice drawing on constructions of histories and feminisms with her investigation into the life of the nineteenth-century ‘mercurial figure’ Lola Montez, with a contemporary analysis of Montez’s use of photography for self-promotion. And a complex, idiosyncratic, and, at times tragicomic, view of Australian life today is depicted in the major survey of multi-disciplinary artist Destiny Deacon, a descendant of the Kuku and Erub/Mer people from Far North Queensland and Torres Strait.


These artists are not solely concerned with feminism and gender politics—nor is that the case in a broader discussion of women artists exhibiting at PHOTO 2021. Each artist has a unique circumstance which must be considered. Through these exhibitions, however, we can celebrate the ways in which women working with photography continue, together, to have a profound impact on art histories—through persistent questioning of the status quo, through gentle and fervent agitation, through the revision of archives, and, perhaps most significantly, through the insertion of diverse ideas and experiences. The presentation of these shows acts as a reminder, too, of the continued responsibility within the arts community to uncover and restore the voices of previously overlooked artists (including those identifying as LGBTQ+) from photography’s beginnings.



—Maggie Finch, Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Victoria

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Founding Partners
  • Bowness Family Foundation
  • Naomi Milgrom Foundation
Major Government Partners
  • City of Melbourne Arts Grants Program
  • Creative Victoria
Major Partners
  • Maddocks

PHOTO Australia respectfully acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands upon which we work and live, and the rich and diverse Indigenous cultures across what is now called Australia. For over 60,000 years, Indigenous arts and culture have thrived on this sacred land, and we honour Elders and cultural leaders past and present. This was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

01–24 March