Artists: Alison Alder, Alex Martinis Roe

Dates: 6 March to 10 April 2021

The artists in First, Firsts practice “alternate feminist history”: a feminism that sets out to write its own history — aesthetic, social, and organisational — from often fragmented and contradictory archives and sources. Each artist has made significant contributions to  modes of engaging with political histories. They are all colleagues.

 The title First, Firsts is taken from art historian Joan Kerr’s essay “Three Firsts”, the introductory chapter to the book “Past Present”, a set of essays and a compendium of her 1995 National Women’s Art Exhibition. Joan Kerr’s essay reflects on a pattern of forgetting and loss of important works of art: perhaps part of the great national amnesia about discrimination and oppression. Kerr charted three great feminist exhibitions from the First Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work at Melbourne’s Exhibition Building in 1907: none citing the other. Exhibitions about women’s contribution to Australian modernism were noted but derided as ‘feminine’ (images of fans, fabrics and tea sets).

 The exhibition First, Firsts began in response to Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now at the National Gallery of Australia. (In this two-part project, more than half of the work is from the NGA collection and the balance is commissions or loans.) Names determine visibility. Women are 25% of the NGA collection and the gallery publication prints its affirmative action policy. Yet the title is positioned for #meto movement contemporaneity not feminism’s bitter history of force-feeding suffragettes and damp picket lines at museums.

 The title’s other nod is to melodrama. Tracey Moffatt’s tongue-in-cheek photo series “Fourth” (about the Sydney Olympic Games 2000) is, in Moffatt’s words tragic, “Fourth means that you are almost good. .. Almost a star!” Moffatt points to the canonical power relations that still underwrite galleries and museums. An accompanying conference session called Alternate Histories (held by AVL and chaired by Catriona Moore), discussed the impact of this disguised operation. 

 Alison Alder’s project Still Waiting for Tomorrow tackles social change ephemera: low cost, do-it-yourself posters, placards and flyers and their embedded often hand-drawn graphics as a window into how women imagined what the future may look like. The material supported activist communities and enabled the generation of discourse between groups outside of the mainstream. Alder says, “These cultural products, and their activist strategies, recontextualised, are important to share in times of climate-induced catastrophe, global pandemics and weakening democratic processes – all of which negatively impact upon women.”

 The ephemeral, occasional, fanciful, prosaic and at times mundane printed images found in the archive are more recently evidenced by the contemporary resurgence of placards used both in situ and online as potent methods of communication. The new works aim to continue and enhance the legacy of truth-telling and idealism whose power is still palpable.

How has feminist art practice and curatorial archival research evolved in recent years, and how do we remember and re-present exhibition ‘firsts’ and the blurring of in and out of sight.

Art Exhibition at The Cross Art Projects. Next, 2021

Alison Alder, Still Waiting for Tomorrow (2021). Work in progress, “First, Firsts”, 2021.

Art Exhibition at The Cross Art Projects. Next, 2021

Alison Alder, Still Waiting for Tomorrow (2021). Work in progress, “First, Firsts”, 2021.