Feminist Street Art

I was glad to have seen Hosier Lane on Thursday. Not for the crowd of high school students milling in the famous blue stone lane. Not for the vacuous schmaltz and wastes of aerosols that the greedy el Rolo or Culture Kings spray on the walls. Not even for the aerosol paint but for the little pieces, the stickers (there is now a dedicated section of wall in Rutledge Lane), the paste-ups and the small ceramic pieces (glued to the wall with liquid nails or superglue).

Many of these little pieces espoused feminism — a doilly cross-stitch embroidery of a quote from an advocate for survivors of sexual assault Grace Tame. Street art in Melbourne is at its best when it is raising issues that are both political and aesthetic. As one of the ceramic pieces stated: “Feminism is for everyone”

“Spastic Society opposes women. Lesley Hall St. Kilda 1981. Disability is a feminist issue.” 1981 was the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons; it was also the year that Hall went on stage at the Miss Australia Quest with that sign: “Spastic Society opposes women”. The image is from the 1981 Miss Australia Quest, where Hall’s protest pointed out the contradiction of the beauty pageant raising money to support children with cerebral palsy. The Miss Australia Quests’ idea of beauty excluded people with disabilities. For more, read Hall’s article on “Beauty Quests: A Double Disservice Beguiled, Beseeched And Bombarded – Challenging The Concept Of Beauty”

It also reminds me that street art is a very ableist activity. 

It was good to see all these pieces, to know that more women are doing quality work as street art should not be just for the boys. I went on to Presgrave Place, where I saw more pieces by women street artists. Stencils by artist and jeweller Edie Black, cutouts by Manda Lane and more stencil paste-ups by Vikie Murray.


Burn City

Looking down on an entire laneway painted blue from the pavement to the third storey. Pieces in Melbourne’s Hosier Lane don’t last very long before they are tagged or painted over. Getting photographs of fresh street art is an art in itself, requiring dedication and a commitment to following social media.

Lou Chamberlin Burn City – Melbourne’s Painted Streets (Hardie Grant Travel, 2017)

Books of photographs are an established part of the street art scene, and publishing about street art is a crowded scene. And Melbourne based writer and photographer Chamberlin has created several books on street art: Urban Scrawl: Street Art Text in the City (Hardie Grant 2019), Street art international (Explore Australia Publishing 2016), Street Art: Australia (Explore Australia Publishing 2015), Street Art: Melbourne (Explore Australia Publishing 2013), Street art: Rio (Blurb Creative Publishing, 2012), and Street art: Melbourne (Blurb Creative Publishing, 2012). She provides more text than Land of Sunshine but less than most books; chapter introductions and then a paragraph here and there with a bit more information about one or two of the artist.

Burn City is organised into chapters by content: face, fauna, abstraction (and there is a surprising amount of abstract work, an antidote to all the aerosol realism). Then there is the artist’s intention to create an illustrative storytelling style. Or to raise social and political issues (politicians are as proud of their representations in street art as they are of political cartoons). And finally, two chapters on the structure of the street art in the streetscape, one with images of painting whole buildings and pavements, bins, and traffic signal boxes. And the other looks at the same wall with new paint; this final chapter emphasises the ephemeral aspect of street art, justifying the photographic record of what once was.

It is worth pointing out that this is a travel photo book about an attractive aspect of a place at the intersection of art and travel. The spectacle of urban murals as a tourist attraction, a destination to visit, something to see and photograph. And although the foreword is written by David Hurlston, the Senior Curator of Australian Art at the NGV, he does write about the geographic spread of Melbourne’s street art and how it reaches walls and silos in regional Victoria.


Posts on prison art

Painted in February 1961 by an inmate of Pentridge Prison who signed his name J. G. Cust. Earlier this year, I was sent these photographs by a man whose father had been a warden at Pentridge in the 1960s. We know nothing else but hope to find out more. Please comment if you have any information.

I live close to the stone walls of the former Pentridge prison. I was living there when it was still operational. So my interest in this area is partly due to proximity (the rehabilitation of this former 19th-century prison is another story). I’m interested in art outside of the mainstream, from alternate exhibition spaces to graffiti.

The politics of prison art has three parts. Firstly, who is incarcerated? In Australia, Indigenous people are disproportionately incarcerated. What is the purpose of incarceration, and what is the purpose of art? Is it therapy, education, recreation, job training, or culture? These definitions are political and, in a prison, become structural and institutional.

Finally, there is the issue of who should profit from the art or literature created by prisoners. This final question only worries shallow vengeful politicians (of which there are many in Australia) who cannot separate the crime from the incarcerated person.

In this state, the Torch provides art training and the opportunity for sales to Indigenous people who are incarcerated and post-incarceration. I have been writing about their annual Confined exhibitions and other exhibitions organised by the Torch.

Here are all my posts on the art of the incarcerated (I must try to keep this up dated).

Prison Art @ Pentridge

Pentridge – more on prison art

Teaching Art in Prison memories from Chris Dyson

The life and art of Ronald Bull

Confined 8 2017

Yannae Wirrate Weelam and prison art

Confine 9 2018

No Turning Back at Deakin Downtown Gallery

Confined 10

Confined 11

Confined 12

Banj Banj/nawnta at the Counihan Gallery

Confined 13

Thelma Beeton

Two Exhibitions at the Counihan

Ancient mythology is full of sewing metaphors. The words ‘sutra’ and ‘suture’ share a common Sanskrit origin, a thread. Atropos, the eldest sister of the three ancient Greek fates, cuts the cord of someone’s life.

Pimpisa Tinpalit Silence #1.6.1

“Silence #1.6.1” by local artist Pimpisa Tinpalit is a meditative consideration of mortality. Tinpalit can create spectacular arte povera pieces using simple ordinary non-art materials like ropes and old pillows. The golden colour of sweat-soaked pillows glows in contrast to the black ropes. While tying up loose ends in knots, the other end of the rope is cut.

It is not all made from arte povera non-art materials. There is a video going forwards and in reverse, as the artist covers her face with gold leaf. And there are three ink paintings on large sheets of paper. I saw an earlier one of her Silence series at Yarra Sculpture Gallery in 2018

Two exhibitions at the Counihan Gallery opened on Saturday afternoon. It was the first exhibition opening that I’ve attended in years. The first time the Counihan has held a catered exhibition opening in years. The food was from Zaatars, and the wine was made by a former detainee, Farhad Bandesh. I went back for a second glass of the smooth red. 

Held over from last year was “Means Without Ends” by local documentary photographer Hoda Afshar: two series of photographs, Remain (2018) and Agonistes (2020). What these series have in common is that they depict people who have suffered at the hands of the Australian government. Cruelty is the point, amoral demonstrations of power by elected criminals desperate to feel in control. 

On one wall, Agonistes these “3D photographs” that look like images of white busts, like rough 3D printings of scans of heads of whistle-blowers. Recognisable even though the eyes are blank and there is no colour. Under each portrait, a panel explains what crimes and abuses of power the person reported and what was then done to them. Some of these whistle-blowers exposed abuses of refugees linking to Afshar’s other series of photographs.

On the other wall, Remain a series of black and white photographs staged images of refugees who were indefinitely detained in conditions equivalent to torture. Large-format inkjet prints of men who remained in detention camps on Manus Island for more than six years. The focus varies from sharp to blurred; is the image of the individual or a person? What would be the point of making them recognisable or identifiable?


Norma Redpath and the Higuchi Sculpture

If you have visited the NGV or studied pharmacy or microbiology at Melbourne University, you would have seen a sculpture by Norma Redpath. She has public sculptures in other cities, including the Treasury Fountain in front of the Treasury building in King Edward Terrace, Canberra, the Extended Column for the school of music of the Australian National University in Canberra Sculpture Column for the Reserve Bank of Australia in Brisbane.

Norma Redpath, The Higuchi Sculpture

I had seen The Higuchi Sculpture many times from the tram. It is easily seen high up on the blank cream brick wall of the Manning Building facing Royal Parade of the Victoria College of Pharmacy. The Victorian coat of arms on the NGV above the water wall is another notable Redpath sculpture on a plain modern wall. Redpath’s sculptures have a relationship to architecture, mediating modern architecture. She was amongst the first generation of sculptors to be site-specific.

I was walking past this time, so I ducked in to look at the accompanying bronze plaque beside the basketball court. It gave appropriate credit to the artist, the Pharmaceutical Society of Victoria, and the American pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co provided financial support. Unveiled on 23 February 1972 by drug thermodynamicist Takeru Higuchi, ”the father of physical pharmacy.” 

“The sculpture is made up of a disc and a rectangle. The gap between the two pieces represents the time students spend on placement gaining vital practical experience. The ridges on the disc represent the main streams of knowledge taught in the pharmaceutical sciences. These ridges fuse together in the rectangle to denote the competent pharmacist, when academic, practical and professional experiences become integrated into the whole and complete pharmacist. A fourth ridge appears on the left hand side of the rectangle to represent administrative pharmacy and pharmacy management. The total design suggests an inverse mortar and pestle, and the symbolism is that of the heraldic academic medallion.” (Alchemy, Faculty magazine issue 21, summer 2011

So many Australians are familiar with sculptures by Norma Redpath (1928 —2013). Still, few would know the name of this leading modern sculptor. Redpath studied at sculpture Swinburne and Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT). Taught by George Allen and Stanley Hammond, she is a link between the anti-modernism of Paul Montford and Italian mid-century modernism. Redpath had close ties with the Italian art scene.

There is an absence in Redpath’s monumental sculptures, a part reduced to an absence, fragmentary forms. For abstract means to remove. The gap or lacuna is like the slashing of Lucio Fontana’s paintings (she had met and worked with the Milan-based artist).

There is an absence in Australian art history regarding this significant woman sculptor. The ABC has neglected to make a documentary, and the NGV to have a retrospective exhibition about her. Even my own book, Melbourne Sculptures, only mentions her three times.

Reading Jane Eckett’s essay “Man sights an object in space: Norma Redpath’s approach to public art.” and Redpath’s obituary by Kenneth Eugieniuz Wach’s “Australian sculptor who was enamoured with Italy” helped me understand Redpath’s life.

Norma Redpath, Flying capital – Sydney Dattilo Rubbo Memorial, 1970-74


Deaccessioning is part of collecting

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) website tells me that it has “over 65,000 artworks spanning thousands of years”, but it doesn’t tell me why. To what purpose have they put together this collection. National (state) art galleries are like their counterparts in the computer game Civilisation. Collect the set in your city to advance to the next level. The purpose of these institutions was to provide education and, failing that, an alternative leisure activity, infotainment. Major galleries become part of tourism with destination architecture; the Guggenheim in New York and Bibloa are paradigm examples. These institutions are about providing a tourist attraction in a spectacle based economy.

Jeff Koons, Venus 2016-20 at the NGV

I haven’t seen a full acquisition policy for the NGV, but it gets mentioned in passing in some of its annual reports. A proper acquisition policy would be transparent, accessible to the public, and include a deaccession policy.

However, deaccessioning is almost a forbidden topic of discussion in Australia; consider the following statements. “Deaccessioning is crazy”, declared John Payne, Senior Conservator of Paintings at the NGV, at a talk (Saturday 13 October 2012, Johnston Collection). And when Joe Eisenberg, former director of NERAM in Armidale and now head of MRAG, was asked by Anna Waldman what he thinks about deaccessioning? (Art Monthly Australia, June 2015, p.25)

“Don’t believe in it – Armidale has actually sold some works that I collected, and tears well in my eyes just saying a thing. A curator’s or director’s choice is just that, and because times and tastes change, you don’t sell off their selections. Most major Australian galleries clean-out the storeroom every so often, and I think that is criminal. It should all remain part of the collection to represent an important piece acquired at a specific time and place.”

The assumption that the collection has been acquired legally and ethically is being challenged in the post-colonial world. The conservative anti-deaccessioning position wants to keep the collection as a treasure horde regardless of its acquisition. If a state gallery can make mistakes about provenance, it can also make mistakes about aesthetic merit or historical importance. Their accession policy is not error-free, and deaccessioning is part of the process of correction.

Another assumption is that the acquisition choices are based solely on artistic quality and not popularity or displays of political allegiance. “Does the object lack sufficient aesthetic merit or art historical importance to warrant retention?” (Assoc of Art Museum Directors’ position paper on deaccessioning

The giant KAWS statues at the NGV, Bendigo and Pt Leo Estate Sculpture Park were not acquired because the directors thought they were great art. Instead, they claim that the popularity of KAWS will attract new visitors to the gallery. If this were true, would it be appropriate to sell these statues when his popularity declines and before the market crashes? But this is not the case because these institutions also support the neo-liberal idea that private ownership of art is the cornerstone of the art world. By retaining the work in their collection they will endorses the value of those owned by private collectors. 

This again raises the question of the purpose of the gallery’s collection. Supporting private collectors? Displaying part of a treasure horde? Playing some game of interstate rivalry? Not knowing the purpose of your collection is crazy. Not deaccessioning is crazy.

Temporary replica of Keith Haring’s painting on the NGV’s waterwall 2019

Visiting old lanes

I’m checking out the craft market in part of one of the sheds of Victoria Market, looking for a few gifts. So I have to go and see the graffiti in Lovelands. Loveland’s was a mass of lanes off Franklin Street, and it was one of the best places in the city for street art and graffiti. I last saw its aerosol covered walls back in July 2021, just before Melbourne went into its long final lockdown, and there was construction going on. 

There has been a lot of construction in the area, and so much has changed. Memories from the late 90s of having lunch with Stephan Schutt, Juan Ford and the Looksmart editorial team at the Mercat. 

After the crowds of the market, it is almost empty. A trio of women take photographs of each other at the entrance to the little parking lot.

Recent street signs designated that it has become Kulinbulok Lane and Kulinbulok Place. New places created in the ever-expanding apartment building boom in Melbourne.

Melbourne doesn’t have many squares because its original designers believed that they would promote democracy. Now there is this odd little square at Kulinbulok Place. It was empty, but it looked like a discreet place to drink. But what are they expected to them to do with the empties? What it needs is a bottle recycling bin. Aside from bike racks and seats, there are no other amenities. 

It doesn’t look like there has been any fresh graffiti or street art since I was last here.

Around the corner is another fading location for street art. Blender Lane used to house Blender Studios (now located in West Melbourne). There is still a construction site down the end, and it, too, is looking a bit old, and GT Sewell’s dragon/clown has been damaged. It is empty, apart from a couple of construction workers leaving the site. Memories of it packed with people after an exhibition opening or a far better craft market than was offered at Victoria Market.

Like Lovelands, very little has changed in the lane in the last year, but someone had added some surreal framed works like they do in Presgrave Lane. “I believe”, “I wonder”, and lots of eyes. But if my eyes want to see any fresh work, I will have to go elsewhere.

What is the future for these two lanes? I don’t have crystal balls, so I don’t know. Presgrave Place became disused for a couple of years only to start again, largely due to the efforts of Kranky. Reviving them would only take a couple of artists.


%d bloggers like this: