In Her Words—
The Power of Women’s Self-Representation and Storytelling

Dr Athena Bellas

Being able to control your own story – how it is represented, how it is told, and what images it is associated with – is a source of power. For many women artists, this process often involves reclaiming their narratives, bodies, and personal and collective histories from a determining patriarchal lens. In her work on the female gaze and selfie culture, Mary McGill writes that ‘[w]ithout the ability to look, and to have that look acknowledged, expressed, represented, women in culture can never be subjects, only objects.’1 Being behind the camera and controlling the production and dissemination of their images, female photographers can powerfully represent and assert their role as subject, rather than simply object, of visual culture. Kawita Vatanajyankur, whose work is exhibited in In Her Words, states, ‘[f]eminism seems to have always been the key message to my work. My work focuses on valuing women’s everyday work and labour while offering a powerful examination of social and cultural ways of viewing women’s work.’2 In Vatanajyankur’s work, we see a desire to move beyond the patriarchal lens invoked earlier in this essay, and a move to represent women from a different angle, one that may subvert existing assumptions and encourage us to think anew about gender and power.

For several artists, including those featured in the exhibition, this patriarchal lens is entangled with other oppressive structures such as colonialism, racism, and imperialism. Therefore, there is much at stake, both personally and culturally, in women’s representations of themselves, their heritage, and their imaginaries.

In a recent interview, Karla Dickens commented on what is at stake in her artistic practice:

I’ve been angry, shaking my head, wanting to step
up, you know, have a big voice. Wanting to stick my head in the sand […] You look at Indigenous history
in this country and sometimes you hear things that happen; nothing changes. And for us, we have to keep questioning and being really honest about what’s going on.3

Dickens’ comments remind us of the power of art to articulate things that may otherwise go unsaid, or enact something that may otherwise not have been thought of.
Her work often explores the intersections between sexual violence and racialised violence, giving voice to experiences that are often left unspoken or indeed suppressed. Her photographic work entitled Exposed II (Unspoken) 2016 features brightly lit images of women’s underwear half-buried in dirt, gravel and grasses, conjuring the aesthetic of crime scene documentation. This work is accompanied by a poetic description that includes the phrase: ‘not white enough / not black enough / yet a perfect shade of dishonour,’ distilling in one devastating turn of phrase the way in which Indigenous victims of sexual violence are failed by sexist and racist Australian institutions. This artwork is an unearthing, a refusal to stay silent, and a protest against those structures.

By memorialising that which is usually wilfully ignored, celebrating that which is most often devalued, reclaiming that which has been wrongfully taken, and imagining alternatives to existing systems, art-making can become an act of resistance, a remedy, a disruption, a method for generating new articulations that go beyond prescribed limits. Representations that go against the grain of the dominant, offer us ways of seeing ourselves and others in new ways, and this is vitally important to the process of envisaging and enacting social change. However, we still
have work to do when it comes to valuing artworks created from these diverse perspectives, and this can be seen in statistics regarding both the production and reception of works created by women. For example, based on data collected in Australia in 2014, Elvis Richardson found that while 73% of art school graduates were women, over half of artists exhibited in commercial galleries and state museums were men.4 Additionally, a comprehensive 2017 analysis of 1.5 million art auction sales showed that works created by female artists sell for almost 50% less than paintings by men.5 While women account for half of moviegoers, only 8% of directors of 2018’s top 250 grossing films were women.6 In American prime time television programming and streaming services 2017-18, women accounted for 40% of all speaking characters, the majority of which were white; and women undertook 27% of key production roles.7

I linger on these statistics because they reflect how our culture fails to fully value women’s perspectives, voices, ideas, competencies, works and practices. What echoes across all of these statistical findings is a lack of opportunity for and funding of female creative works, as well as both conscious and unconscious bias that is detrimental to both the evaluation and reception of women’s creative work. Art historian Griselda Pollock writes lucidly on this question of bias:

[T]he terms ‘art’ and ‘artist’, seemingly neutral terms,
in fact register, without having to advertise it openly,
a privileging of masculinity as synonymous with creativity because in order to indicate that an artist is a woman, the neutral term artist must be qualified by an adjective. The effect is, in fact, to disqualify the woman artist immediately from being treated as an artist. Artist/ woman artist, artist/black artist, artist/queer artist:
any qualification has the effect of marking the second term, loading it with local particularities while leaving unspoken and unmarked the privileged and seemingly universal term, artist, as the space for masculinity, whiteness, heterosexuality.8

Thus, art created by men is generally seen as of interest
to everyone while women’s art is often coded as ‘special interest.’ If we are to shift this pattern, it is not only important for individuals to seek out women’s art, but perhaps most importantly, for cultural institutions to confront biases that may exist in their exhibition practices. This is why exhibitions like In Her Words are so important; they both acknowledge and work to remedy this paradigmatic problem. When cultural institutions not only recognise but also give prominence to women artists who take up the power of the photographic gaze, they give us the opportunity to think about women as cultural producers, as subjects, as more than objects of this gaze. They present us with knowledges, histories, legacies, that we may not previously have understood. Their interventions into visual culture challenge us to go beyond everyday assumptions and carve out space to counter these norms. The more this occurs, the more likely we are to approach a critical mass where significant changes to these old paradigms of subject/object can take place. This is such invaluable and exciting work because it increases the depth of our vision, the texture of our worlds, our resolve to resist harmful structures of the status quo, and our capacity to imagine and enact alternative ways of being in the world.

1. Mary McGill, ‘How the Light Gets In: Notes on the Female Gaze and Selfie Culture,’ 01 May 2018, MAI Feminism, < the-female-gaze-and-selfie-culture/>, accessed 23 Jan. 2019.
2. Kawita Vatanajyankur, Antidote, < au/artists/kawita-vatanajyankur/>, accessed 23 Jan. 2019.
3. Karla Dickens in conversation with Penelope Benton, Jan. 2019, NAVA In Conversation, Episode 38 <https://visualarts penelope-benton/>, accessed 28 Jan. 2019.
4. Elvis Richardson, ‘The Countess Report,’ Feb. 2016, CoUNTess: Women Count in the Art-World, <http:/ FINAL.pdf>, accessed 15 Jan. 2019.
5. Renee B. Adams et al., Is Gender in the Eye of the Beholder? Identifying Cultural Attitudes with Art
Auction Prices
, 6 Dec. 2017, < ssrn.3083500>, accessed 15 Jan. 2019.
6. Dr Martha Lauzen, The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250,
and 500 films of 2018
, Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, < content/uploads/2019/01/2018_Celluloid_Ceiling_Report pdf>, accessed 20 Jan. 2019.
7. Dr Martha Lauzen, Boxed in 2017-18: Women on Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television, Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, <https://womenintvfilm In_Report.pdf>, accessed 20 Jan. 2019.
8. Griselda Pollock, ‘A Lonely Preface,’ in R Parker and G Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (New Edition), I.B. Tauris, London, 2013, xix.