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By Natalie Mell, Digital & Social Media EditorISSUE #025 WE RISE TOGETHER | Community

Artist Yvette Coppersmith & Dr Deborah Hart On Women In Art And The Importance of Never Giving Up

The National Gallery of Australia’s powerhouse exhibition Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 To Now was due to launch in May, but 2020 had other plans. With the gallery doors open once more, we spoke to Archibald Prize-winning artist Yvette Coppersmith and the NGA's Head of Australian Art Dr Deborah Hart about the significance of the exhibition, which celebrates women-identifying artists and encourages ongoing recognition of the instrumental role they have played in shaping Australian culture.

Yvette Coppersmith

Talk us through the past year for you...

As the 2018 Archibald Prize winner, I’d just come out of the most social time of my life, so I was wanting to slow down and rekindle my relationship with myself and my work. Over the past 20 months I’ve been based in the hills, so I’ve felt a deeper connection to the environment around me. It’s given me space to shed a skin, but in the context of my nude self-portrait, there wasn’t really much left to shed!
And while being in Melbourne’s lockdown was pretty raw and challenging, I’m aware of the immense privilege that comes with working in isolation.

Yvette Coppersmith, Nude self portrait, after Rah Fizelle, 2016, private collection (left) and Yvette Coppersmith, 2020, photo by Martina Gemmola

What does the Know My Name exhibition mean to you as an Australian female Artist?

I’ve been so inspired by visits to the NGA over the years, so to be included with artists who’ve been some of my biggest influences is very significant. The inclusion of an artist in an institutional context bestows a level of industry credit that’s generally been the domain of male artists throughout art history, so Know My Name is a huge step forward in the ongoing battle to rebalance the historical inequality of our industry. Patriarchy is still our cultural structure, so the move towards lasting change will be ongoing. To quote artist Eva Hesse; “The way to beat discrimination in art is by art. Excellence has no sex”.

Who are the Australian women who have inspired you throughout your career?

There have been many, but a key influence has been Grace Crowley (1890-1979) whose practice spanned portraiture to abstraction. Her travels overseas allowed her to study with some of the great European modernists, developing her understanding of cubism and making her a pioneer of the Avant-garde in Australia. Crowley established an art school with Rah Fizelle in Sydney, and while it’s Fizelle whose work I’ve referenced with the pose and stylisation of my painting, the background is indebted to Crowley’s influential geometric abstraction.

Tell us about your piece of work that features in the Know My Name exhibition?

I’ve referenced Rah Fizelle’s Morning 1941 because it’s such a beautiful painting – I would love to take it home from the Art Gallery of NSW! The model in the Rah Fizelle painting is not named and her gaze isn’t meeting ours, so while I love the painting there are things I found uncomfortable to inhabit. This was an opportunity to make my own version.

Dr Deborah Hart

Talk us through the past few months at the National Gallery of Australia...

These past few months have been challenging and have required us to think creatively to find solutions to issues that have arisen. Our presence online is more important than ever, and we have worked a lot in the digital space to create things like the Know My Name microsite. There is also, of course, something special about experiencing the real thing—to feel the presence of the works and to see them in relation to each other. Gradually, our visitors have been able to return to the building, and it is so special and joyous to see people of all ages coming back in to enjoy the art in our gallery spaces.

Deborah Hart, Henry Dalrymple Head of Australian Art and co-curator of Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Are there any initiatives that the National Gallery of Australia has undertaken to adapt the Know My Name exhibition to these changing times?

We’ve been very mindful of selecting key works of art and considering the relationships between them across different media. There are so many diverse artistic expressions and we needed them to work together, so we decided to present the show in two stages. The first part of the Know My Name exhibition opened in November 2020, and the second part will open in July 2021. This allows us to present an amazing depth and array of works by women artists at the National Gallery of Australia for the next year. The silver lining, with restrictions continuing to ease, is that more people will be able to enjoy and celebrate the achievements of remarkable women artists.

What does it mean to the National Gallery of Australia to reopen and launch the Know My Name exhibition after the year 2020 has been?

As we were installing the Know My Name exhibition, there was this gradual realisation that it was actually coming together, it was really happening! Over the past year, it has been important to adapt to the times, and throughout this period the works of art themselves have carried us through. Not giving up has become the new norm for many people—and we are no exception. We are grateful to all the women artists who have made this exhibition possible by never giving up.

Read more about our cultural partnership with the National Gallery of Australia here.

Dr Deborah Hart is the Henry Dalrymple Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. With over 30 years of curatorial experience, Deborah has worked with countless significant, well-known and lesser known artists, to bring their art to the forefront of Australian culture. Deborah has curated many major and smaller exhibitions including Joy Hester and Friends, The Ned Kelly Series Touring Exhibition, Hugh Ramsay, and now, Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now. Deborah has also contributed her expertise to several arts publications.

Yvette Coppersmith is a Melbourne-based artist. She graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts and then began painting as a portraitist working in the realist tradition. In the 21 years since her first portrait in oils, her visual language has expanded to include still life, abstraction and an interplay of these genres combined with the figure. Her work is characterised by an enduring fascination with representations of the feminine and the influence of psychological processes on selfhood. Yvette exhibits nationally and internationally and has been commissioned for portraits for public and private collections. In 2018 she won the Archibald Prize the fifth year being included as a finalist.