15by Petra Mosmann
Girls at the Tin Sheds: Sydney Feminist Posters 1975–1990
Curated by Katie Yuill, University Art Museum, Sydney: 24 January–24 April 2015
Girls at the Tin Sheds (Duplicated)
Curated by Louise R. Mayhew, Verge Gallery, Sydney: 26 February–21 March, 2015
The Sydney University Art Workshop, known as the “Tin Sheds,” was an experimental art space established in 1969. From a series of dilapidated tin sheds on the edge of the Sydney University campus, artists taught an alternative radical arts program; musicians played at legendary dances; potters worked a kiln; activist/artist collectives screen printed sophisticated posters, bypassed the gallery, and pasted them across Sydney. Women’s Liberation was integral to the Tin Sheds experiment. In 2015, two sister exhibitions at Sydney University acknowledged this influence. Girls at the Tin Sheds: Sydney Feminist Posters 1975–1990 was curated by Katie Yuill at the Sydney University Art Gallery. Girls at the Tin Sheds (Duplicated) was the second iteration, curated by art historian Louise R. Mayhew at Verge Gallery, which is located on the site where the Tin Sheds once stood. The two exhibitions presented a selection of screen prints by women who worked at the Tin Sheds workshop. They were developed to coincide with the 40-year anniversary of International Women’s Year. Both exhibitions were curated by relatively young curators and consciously renegotiate feminist activist/art legacies. Rather than being viewed through a postfeminist lens, these exhibitions invite feminist art/activism in the present.1
Across Australia, several exhibitions have included a significant number of feminist posters from the 1970s and 1980s. Curator Macushla Robinson included several in See You at the Barricades at The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney in 2015. In Adelaide in 2014, Celia Dottore prominently featured feminist prints in Mother Nature is Lesbian: Political Printmaking in South Australia 1970–1980s at Flinders University Art Museum. Like Girls at the Tin Sheds, each of these exhibitions was curated by relatively young curators without first-hand memory of Women’s Liberation. In each exhibition, the curator expressed hope that past activisms can inform the present.2 Despite significant differences between each exhibition, they shared a common thread; the political and visual possibilities of feminist protest posters are stressed rather than their specific historical context.
As sister exhibitions, the two iterations of Girls at the Tin Sheds are related but different. Girls at the Tin Sheds: Sydney Feminist Posters 1975–1990 carefully represented key women artists working at the Tin Sheds and included a chronological poster hang, with calendar posters acting as date markers. The chronological hang subtly tracks the visual development of feminist poster-making in Sydney. An exhibition catalogue with essays from both curators provides some historical context. Screen printing produces multiple copies of the same image for presentation in different contexts, and the second exhibition Girls at the Tin Sheds (Duplicated) played with this concept, drawing on the duplicates collection held by Sydney University Archives. The exhibition did not include a salon or poster hang; instead, posters were presented individually, focusing attention on each poster as an artwork. Furthermore, instead of presenting the posters chronologically or thematically, the posters were categorized by color. This reduced the possibility of reading posters in terms of the development of feminist poster making.
After the formal speeches concluded at the joint-opening of Girls at the Tin Sheds: Sydney Feminist Posters 1975-1990 and Girls at the Tin Sheds (Duplicated), Anne Bickford hijacked the microphone. Bickford was part of Sydney Women’s Liberation and sang at the Tin Shed’s dances in a band called the “Early Kookas”; she is also an established archaeologist and museologist. Mayhew braced, expecting criticism. During Bickford’s rowdy intervention in the formal proceedings, she drew attention to “The oo oo ah ah oo ah ah Dance” poster, produced by Jan Mackay and Chips Mackinolty, which had not been included in the exhibitions.3 This beautiful five-colour screen-printed poster was created to advertise a dance at the Tin Sheds, but the poster was and is understood as an artwork. Furthermore, for people who were part of the Tin Sheds crowd in the late 1970s it has a specific meaning. The “Oo oo ah ah oo ah ah” in the title refers to a song, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, which was originally recorded by Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers and covered by Bickford’s band in the late 1970s. Bickford then sang the “oo oo ah ah oo ah ah” section in the gallery. The band’s name refers to an Australian made stove, the Early Kooka, which featured an Australian bird called the kookaburra. In an Australian context “oo oo ah ah” is reminiscent of a kookaburra’s birdcall. A series of Kookaburras are printed on the poster, across the man’s jacket.
The decontextualization that Bickford reflected on at the opening at Verge Gallery seems somewhat deliberate. In recent years there has been renewed interest in the Women’s Liberation archive, and Girls at the Tin Sheds seeks to redeploy past feminist activism in the present. This remembering in a Sydney gallery context is part of an international shift in western feminist memory. Despite curatorial differences, Mayhew and Yuill speak with the same intent. Mayhew writes: “the posters function as time capsules of vitality, conviction and earnestness. To consume them is motivating and uplifting. They beckon us to dance, panic, kiss and sabotage . . . again. In a similar manner but with a different focus, Yuill hopes that “such exhibitions re-engage with feminism and activism in the digital age”. Each exhibition, like other recent memory practices, renegotiates feminist activist legacies, but rather than framed by “third wave” angst and critique or by a sense of failure, there is a celebration of 1970s and 1980s activism. Recent practices scramble rather than reiterate the waves model. For example, women working at the Tin Sheds during the 1970s and 1980s would have resisted the term “girl”. As Bickford said in the interview, “we were girls,” but the term was used to trivialize adult women and was therefore resisted. “Girl” and “grrrl” are mostly associated with third wave feminisms, but here the term is applied to second wave feminist poster makers. Although the specificity and context of posters dissolves in the exhibition space, the emphasis is on the visual and political possibilities in the present. Rather than reading through a post-feminist lens, these two exhibitions invite contemporary feminist readings and tentatively call for action. Quite suddenly, it has become possible for younger women to celebrate rather than ironically perform liberation.
This exhibit review originally appeared in Volume 3 of Museum Worlds: Advances in Research.
- Thanks to Anne Bickford and Louise R. Mayhew for their contribution to this review.
- The Melbourne University Archives also held an exhibition titled Protest!: Archives from the University of Melbourne that also included feminist posters, but it was framed differently to the other exhibitions referenced here.
- Jan Mackay, Chips Mackinolty, and Earthworks Poster Collective, “The oo oo ah ah oo ah ah Dance”, screen-print, MAAS: 2007/56/72. MAAS Collection Search. http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=365455#ixzz3quY0QXXL (accessed 9 November 2015).