On Saturday the 13th of April, the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery hosted the Feminist Futures event – a panel discussion and Wikipedia Edit-A-Ton on the topic of feminism, art and archiving practices. Aninya Marzohl sat down with panellists Aisyah Sumito, Dunja Rmandic and Gemma Weston and discussed these issues further.
AM: What challenges present themselves for different positions within the arts industry as a woman/gender diverse person?
GM: I’ve actually thought that my position with the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art was really a clarifying moment for me. I grew up thinking of myself as a feminist and reading feminist books, but I think this position is where I really had to clarify daily what it is, and what it means to be a woman in this role, to be a woman advocating for women, and the things that I can and cannot do and the responsibilities that I have. For a long time, I just didn’t want to think that I was subject to any kind of disadvantage on behalf of my being a woman, and I don’t necessarily think that I have, but my experiences do not mean that the structural inequality doesn’t exist or doesn’t need addressing.
AS: I suppose, it is deciding where I want to put my energy: into educating people or having conversations that tend to be quite strenuous, trying to find a level playing ground with someone that is either willing to listen or not willing to listen and trying to figure that out. Just not trying to burn myself out.
DR: I think for me it’s finding confidence, really – for example in meetings, not to feel like you’re being looked at like a young female, who, if you’re being a little bit “aggressive” in your delivery, is an aggressive hysterical woman. And that could be something that’s just in one’s head, because of the commentary that comes across in the media, for example Julia Gillard, or even Julie Bishop came out in red shoes and that was on the news – the red shoes and not what Julie Bishop actually said. It’s those things mostly, regulating your own behaviour, that I find most difficult.
AS: Like even if it’s in your head, it is still a process that you go through that’s really really exhausting.
GM: Yeah like if you walk into a board meeting, or any meeting, counting – what’s the makeup here, who’s got the power, what’s my relationship to them, what are they thinking or assuming about me, whereas other people don’t have to do that.
DR: Because when you talk about power dressing, it’s never about men. Women power dress, and that’s kind of interesting.
AM: Women and queer folk often engage with the arts as a safe space within which they can represent themselves fully. How does that match with the realities of working in the arts industry?
GW: It doesn’t always; I think that’s contextual. It comes back to the last question on the panel about the kinds of spaces that are valuable to have. There are some spaces that are definitely safe spaces –
AS: Yeah, spaces where you don’t have to do that “sizing up”, and then sort of splitting yourself between where you are doing that emotional labour and where you don’t have to think about it.
GW: And there’s lots of different ideas about what art is supposed to do; whether art is a vehicle for social change, whether art is a tax deduction for people with means, whether art performs a lot of different functions in different spaces. Ideally, it is a vehicle for those discussions.
DR: I maybe measure it a little bit differently where I think that concept, for me, only rests if something is being changed for the better. When you asked that question I was thinking about when I was on the board for KINGS ARI, and that it was very comfortable, like once a week we would get together and talk about all these things all on the same level in terms of politics, in terms of what we knew art was, what we wanted for the artists and how much we wanted artists to be paid. But then I would walk away from those meetings and I would be like “Okay, that was a great little microcosm, but where does that extend to and what is the world really like, out there”. So, I think short term pleasure almost makes me sadder, because I realise, that in the grand scheme of things, it’s not really like those utopian moments.
AS: But that can also be really healthy; a little place of rest in the [laughs] big old fight against the powers that be.
GW: I think, as someone that often needs to learn to shut up in a room, that tension is a learning opportunity. Even if spaces are difficult, and they’re possibly difficult because of a power imbalance, representative of a lot of different things, and I am often in the benefit, the work is more difficult for other people in those spaces, and you know, learning is hard and that can be a really valuable thing.
AS: I think that in any capacity or circumstance, confrontation or someone calling you out, or learning, is always really scary, but it’s just all in the way that you deal with it.
GW: People often learn to avoid conflict, and think about it that way, and then put mitigation strategies in place, which don’t help in addressing the source of that conflict. So, it’s often better to have that conversation.
DR: It’s very cultural; I come from a particular cultural background where that’s very normal, but I have to work in a very British mentality where you have to say something nice-
GW: Politeness is the enemy of change.
DR: and then you have to nicely say what needs to change – and how much energy does it take! It just drives me insane. And what we don’t allow for in institutions is cultural perspectives on strategies and doing things differently.
GW: We want cultural perspectives in the gallery, but we don’t see it behind; in the work.
AS: Coming in to the art world, I’ve had this huge amount of anxiety, about how I carry myself and how I’m perceived. I just have to remember that that’s the way I do things, even if it’s different to a lot of other people, and the people that I want the approval of, it’s still valuable for me to do what I need to do. I need to allow myself to speak and feel comfortable in how I communicate.
AM: From the outside looking in, art history is dominated by “genius” male figures. How do we expand this narrative to include women and queer folk, not just within the community, but in public perception more broadly?
DR: Stop employing white, middle-aged men into leadership roles.
AS: And also using existing resources, as well as consultation, having conversations with the people of the background you are trying to represent.
DR: I think there is a generation of white middle-aged men who still feel- and they’re actually a very small percentage of the population- like they deserve leadership roles. And they operate within a paradigm that makes it very difficult for them to try and engage with another paradigm. And when people speak of male leaders and female leaders, I think women are more inclusive and I just have to say that. Every time I’ve worked with a woman there’s been a lot more inclusion and a lot more respect for different perspectives, whereas men feel like they have to lead and be firm in their leadership. Which all goes back to the expectations we have of men and women in society.