Allie Eagle in the NZ Women’s Art Movement

Allie studied under Rudi Gopas at Ilam Art School in Christchurch in the 1960s and was early to recognize that female artists did not seem to receive the same recognition as male artists. This position informed her feminist art practice and encouragement of other woman artists.

In her post-graduation position as exhibitions officer (see photo) at the McDougall Gallery in Christchurch (1974 – 1977) Allie used her influence to try and change women’s situation. This included her curation of a retrospective of women’s art (A Survey of New Zealand Women Painters 1974) which was comprised of art from the gallery’s permanent collection of women water-colourists. These women were working from early to the middle of the 20th Century. Olivia Spencer Bower (see photo), Margaret Stoddart (2 , 3 ) and Rita Angus (2 , 3) were included, and Allie also produced an essay (see Woman’s Art pdf) that considered why were there no great women artists, reflecting on Linda Nochlin’s earlier work. Allie also curated an exhibition featuring the work of artist Olivia Spencer Bower (1977).

Allie curated two influential group exhibitions of contemporary artists at the McDougall. Woman’s Art: an exhibition of six women artists (1975) (see catalogue), was the first contemporary feminist art exhibition in New Zealand, and marked International Women’s Year. The exhibition notes for Six Women Artists identified the inequities faced by female artists (see Woman’s Art pdf). The artists included were Helen Rockel, Jane Arbuckle (Zusters), Joanne Hardy, Stephanie Sheehan, Rhondda Bosworth and Joanna Paul. Three Women Artists (1978) included the work of Allie, Jane Zusters and Anna Keir and was curated collectively by all three (see Empathy for a Allie also contributed to a curation of a huge national contemporary women artists show that hosted 5000 women at the Canterbury Society of Art. The CSA exhibition was later part of a collective show in Freemans Bay in Auckland and again at the WEA in Auckland.

As a curator Allie was instrumental in buying the first piece of contemporary women’s art for the McDougall, a painting by Gretchen Albrecht. Contemporary collections in most New Zealand galleries in the 1960s and 70s did not include women’s work.

The most famous work Allie herself exhibited in this period was an installation titled Empathy for a Rape Trial Victim (1978) (see photo) which was part of the Three Woman Artists exhibition. This exhibition also included the water-colour painting This Woman Died I Care, the piece which Allie revisits in Allie Eagle and Me. However, Allie’s founding contribution to the Women’s Art Movement is marked by her curation of the all-woman retrospectives and contemporary group shows, which represent all the elements of the Women’s Art Movement.

While she was a student in the 60s Allie acknowledged her struggle with her own sexuality and came out as a lesbian. Later in the 70s her newly realised politics and her sexual identity were expressed when she further identified as a lesbian separatist. She and her close friends challenged existing ideas about women’s roles and family formation by rejecting relationships with men, and their writings, music and art, and focusing on ideas and texts created by women, as well as living exclusively with women (although Allie was bringing up two male children with her partner during this period, which prompted changes later on). Allie was involved in setting up the first Christchurch Refuge Center and was a founding member of both Circle and Spiral collectives.

As for many feminists, abortion was a really important issue to Allie, located around the idea that women should have the power to define what was happening to their bodies. The tragedy of women dying through bungled back-street or self-administered procedures or because of complications from them, was very real for this generation of women. Allie addressed the abortion issue in her painting This Woman Died I Care which she included in several 1970s exhibitions, and which has become possibly her most well-known work. The image of the woman in this piece was taken from a poster (see photo of poster), made by the Broadsheet Collective who used a photograph from a police report on a woman who died while trying to administer an abortion to herself. The painting is a political piece in which Allie attempts to get others to think about the risks women take on when safe, legal abortions aren’t available to them. It also reflects Allie’s former position that sleeping with men was a risky activity, one that could be avoided by the lesbian path (see interview with Allie). This Woman Died I Care is part of the Auckland Art Gallery’s permanent collection, reflecting its importance to the Women’s Art Movement and this period in New Zealand’s history and art history.

Like all of the women involved in the Women’s Art movement, Allie has moved on in her art practice and in her beliefs. The Women’s Art Movement was an important moment in New Zealand’s art history, just as the Women’s movement was an important part of our social history. Allie was an early innovator in the movement and she was also one of the first to move on and find a new artistic, philosophical and spiritual direction.