The New Zealand Women’s Art Movement

During the 1970s women in New Zealand were coming into contact with the ideas of second-wave Australian, American and British feminists like Germaine Greer (2), BettyFriedan (2 ,  3), Gloria Steinham (2  ,  3) and feminist art historians and artists like Lucy Lippard and Judy Chicago (2 , 3). This began to affect the way that some of the women making art understood the gender politics of the art world.

Linda Nochlin, in her essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists, suggested that women were prevented from becoming recognized artists throughout history because they did not receive the training or encouragement that male artists did.       Juliet Batten (see her  Emerging from Underground essay) and Allie Eagle (see her Some thoughts on Women’s Art essay) herself  suggested that during New Zealand’s colonial history women generally failed to become significant artists because they were expected to put everyone else’s needs and their domestic duties first.  It was difficult to balance the competing demands of work and family responsibilities because any resulting domestic shortcomings were judged so harshly, by families and by women themselves.       Feminists have suggested that in pre-twentieth century times women baked, cooked made embroidery, and made small water-colour domestic scenes or still-life, as well as knitting, sewing and flower arrangements in lieu of “professional” painting, writing or art making. Much of women’s art was contained within their domestic accomplishments and was not generally recognised publicly.  The occasional professional woman who made it in what was very much a man’s art world was the exception rather than the norm. Notable examples include Frances Hodgkins (2 , 3) and Margaret Stoddart (2 , 3 ). Women were also excluded from equal opportunities in education, sponsorship and funding and it was usually only well-off and very gifted women who could pursue full time art making.

In New Zealand, individual women began to become recognized as artists more readily through the early to middle of the 20th Century.  They were able to paint and exhibit and be identified as artists.  However it wasn’t until the beginnings of feminist “counter-culture” in the 1970s that the idea of art and art practice specific to women was introduced and the Women’s Art Movement came into being.  Up to this time women artists in New Zealand had all produced work that fitted within what feminists came to recognize as a male-dominated set of subjects, practices and styles.

The Birth of the Women’s Art Movement

Women who identified as feminist artists¹  began to challenge existing ideas about what was considered good art, beginning in the early 1970s. They revisited art history and reclaimed earlier female artists who had often been neglected in the history of art. They attempted to provide women artists with separate spaces away from male dominated environments so that women could make their own lives the focus of their art both as exhibitors and audience. They made art that specifically explored their experiences as women and included craft skills, materials and exhibition formats that countered the established  and mostly masculine model or canon of working.  In the later part of the movement feminist artists identified that women were being excluded from many of the main exhibitions and held women-only exhibitions to address this. Feminist artists also rejected art as the exclusive province of a genius working alone, by starting to work collectively.

One of the first feminist art events was put together by Allie Eagle, in her curatorial role at the McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch.  In 1974 Allie ran an exhibition of works by earlier women artists from the gallery’s permanent collections, A Survey of New Zealand Women Artists (see reference list).

However it was exhibitions of contemporary feminist art and the actions of contemporary women artists that really sparked the Women’s Art Movement in New Zealand, beginning with the Women’s Art: An Exhibition of Six Contemporary Women Artists (see exhibition catalogue), also curated by Allie Eagle in 1975.  Women around the country were becoming politicised.  In 1976 Spiral magazine grew out of a women writers’ group.  It was founded by Heather McPherson with Christchurch women artists, including Anna Keir, Kath Algie, Phil McLean, Allie Eagle and Paulette Barr. Members of the collectives involved with Spiral changed, as did its location around New Zealand over following years.  Wellington Spiral collectives, initially based at the Women’s Gallery, included Anna Keir, Marian Evans, Irihapeti Ramsden and Miriama Evans.

In 1977 the Canterbury Society of Arts Women’s Art Show was held in conjunction with the United Women’s Convention.  Allie Eagle, Anna Keir and Jane Zusters collectively curated Three Women Artists in Christchurch in 1978 (see exhibition catalogue).  Joanna Margaret Paul organised A season’s diaries which was shown at Victoria University of Wellington in 1977 and in Christchurch and Hamilton in 1978.  This was a benchmark for feminist art as it was presented in an academic environment and signaled an awakening of Wellington feminists.  In Wellington, a collective called Nga Tuahine Marama operated a gallery for women only  from about 1977-1979 and in 1980 Anna Keir, Bridie Lonie and Marian Evans founded the Women’s Gallery, with support from others, to present the work of women artists in a public space. The gallery also provided contextual — and often themed — programmes, including workshops, seminars and forums.    In 1981-1982 the Women’s Gallery toured Mothers to public galleries throughout New Zealand and to Sydney. From 1983 the Maori women’s collective Haeata, including some women also involved in Spiral and the Women’s Gallery, initiated numerous projects including group exhibitions like  the touring Karanga karanga and the groundbreaking Te Tiriti o Waitangi at the Wellington City Gallery, and a major group exhibition with Waiatakoa, the Auckland collective of Maori women artists and writers.

Defining the Women’s Art Movement

Juliet Batten (see reference list) identifies that the content of the art made by feminist artists is what unified it as a movement, above any particular aesthetic or formal approach, because these were varied.  She lists politics and domesticity, sexuality and spirituality, identity, female heritage and relationships, personal revelation and collectivity as themes that artists in the New Zealand Women’s Art Movement have addressed or used in their art (see Spiral article). The 1977 Canterbury Society of Arts Women’s Art Show (see flyer & photo), held in conjunction with the Women’s Convention that year dealt with issues that had never been dealt with before. This was a revolution, as prior to this moment subjects like the joy and trauma of menstruation (see Stone Belly Woman photo), childbirth, motherhood and women’s experience of intimate relations had not been part of mainstream art practice.  Neither were issues like abortion (see Risk photo), incest, lesbianism or rape (see Rape Trial Victim photos 1 & 2), addressed in the mainstream (mostly male) canon.  Choice of subject is significant in setting feminist art apart from art that is made by women.  Only some art made by women addresses feminist issues or women’s experience. See comments on why individual women have identified as feminist artists here: Broadsheet article What is a Feminist Artist. Feminist artists also pushed the edge of acceptability in their choice of media.  One of the more radical materials used was menstrual blood.  The installation pieces (see photo) created by feminist artists in the 1978 exhibition Three Women Artists (see catalogue), curated collectively by Allie Eagle, Anna Keir and Jane Zusters (see  Woman’s Art: an exhibtion of 6 women artists), were then a new experience for most art-lovers and were resisted by the New Zealand public. Women’s exhibitions were not universally well-received by the art establishment either because they represented a strong challenge to existing ideas about art and because of their explicitly feminist politics.  During Three Women Artists, a member of the public wrote to Allie to tell her she was crazy (see photo) and an even-handed review by Michael Thomas of the Christchurch Press was mysteriously lost prior to publication.

Later moments in the Women’s Art Movement

In the 1980s, after the opening of The Women’s Gallery in Wellington there were a number of exhibitions, touring exhibitions, publications and other events that focused on increasing exhibition spaces available to women and supporting them to make art.  Over this time collectives sprang up throughout the country and there were supportive groups of women artists and writers producing work, teaching each other skills and generally mobilizing themselves to be more strongly evident in the general art world and art institutions.  The Spiral collective ran for a number of years, focusing on various aspects of feminism and art from different locations around New Zealand.

The most comprehensive document over this period of the 70s and 80s is encapsulated in A Woman’s Picture Book where most of the main ideas and politics are expressed.  (The position of Maori women artists who were developing strong ideological thinking around women’s art-making did not get published in this volume.  However it remains one of the more comprehensive texts on feminist artists available.)

The Wellington Spiral collective published books from 1981, as publishers of last resort.  Titles included Heather McPherson’s A figurehead: a face;  Jacquie Sturm’s The house of the talking cat and Keri Hulme’s the bone people.  Wellington collectives also organised New Zealand women writers’ participation in international feminist book fairs. Using the Spiral imprint, later collectives continued to publish books.  Spiral/Women’s Gallery projects from 1997-2006 were based at Gender & Women’s Studies Victoria University of Wellington. Details, including many images, are available at:

At the beginning of the 1980s the Association of Women Artists formed.  This was less radically feminist and focused on helping women artists make art.  At this time there was a strong divide between women artists who identified as politically feminist and those who were recognized as artists by the art establishment.   Juliet Batten has commented that throughout the height of the Women’s Art Movement there has been a general discomfort with the concepts of feminism and of political work (see What Is a Feminist Artist).  This has perhaps only abated as the commitment to a strongly feminist polemic in artwork has given way to a situation in which women, including self-identifying feminist artists, make all kinds of art, without necessarily referencing feminist themes.

Feminist artists in New Zealand who were prominent in the Women’s Art Movement include Allie Eagle, Juliet Batten, Jane Arbuckle (now Zusters), Helen Rockel, Rhonda Bosworth, Heather McPherson, Marian Evans, Bridie Lonie, Stephanie Sheehan, Joanna Harris (later known as Joanna Margaret Paul), Louise Lewis, Claudia Pond-Eyley, Jacqueline Fahey, Vivian Lynn, Carole Shepheard, Anna Keir and Sharon Alston.  Previous female artists who were inspirational included Frances Hodgkins, Olivia Spencer-Bower, Grace Butler, Rita Angus and Margaret Stoddart.  Maori Women artists, like Robin Kauwakiwa, Shona Rapiria Davis and many others emerged during this time too, in collaboration with the Women’s Gallery but developing a separate standing for themselves over this time.

More information about some of the artists prominent in the movement can be found in A Women’s Picture Book online and at a library.

The continuing influence of the Women’s Art Movement

Despite the art establishment and New Zealand society’s hostility towards the Women’s Art Movement, it broke open the art world for women, and allowed them space and freedom to create art works in a way that had not been possible before. The Women’s Art Movement issued a significant challenge to established thinking on art and also women’s place more generally as women working and occupying public space outside the home were both unusual in New Zealand at this time. The women’s art groups (or ones like them) that started up during the 70s, continue to provide a context for women to make art in today.

Like many art movements, the Women’s Art Movement has been most prominent at a particular point in history. It was arguably one of the first major critiques of modernist art, although many people consider it to be a part of this moment.  Changes to Western society made possible by the Women’s and Women’s Art Movements have ironically made second-wave feminism less relevant to women, just as corresponding changes to the art world have made a Women’s Art Movement less resonant with many artists.  In many ways women are able to take certain freedoms for granted now, because of the changes that both movements made to society as a whole.

With the high level of participation of women in all aspects of public life in the west, including New Zealand, there is less immediate need for women to band together to get recognition in a male-dominated world.  Women in New Zealand and elsewhere still face challenges posed by a complex gendered representation, the pressure to balance paid work and childbearing, lower rates of pay, sexual assault and domestic violence, and male artists do appear to get more funding and more recognition in the art world.  However what has changed is the push for collective action.  Briar addresses this specifically in Allie Eagle and Me when she talks about the way artists of her generation don’t want to be boxed up and defined exclusively in relation to their gender or any collective political agenda.  Like most creatives working in the postmodern era, individualism and the ability to find a unique voice is an important part of their art practice.  The collective umbrella of feminist art is no longer enough to contain the many different aims of female (or transgender) artists of many different social and ethnic backgrounds.  Political action and political beliefs in art-making are more fluid and expressed more individually than would have been appropriate at the height of the Women’s Art Movement, but it is precisely the Women’s Art Movement that made this type of work possible. The focus on expression of experience and the feminist conception of the personal as political have contributed to the post-modern emphasis on creating a personal narrative via art.  They have also made it possible for artists to not be labeled according to ethnicity, gender or sexuality but to be allowed to explore fully what these plural aspects of identity might mean.

¹ Not all women who make art understood themselves to be feminist artists. Some critics would argue that any woman who makes art in the public sphere is a feminist, but not all women artists agreed with the political ideas of feminism or the women’s art movement.