the girls from Oz
reported by ALISON COTES
The Sunday Mail, Brisbane, Australia
It's a warrior maiden with a trident. It's a bare-breasted Greek goddess. It's a sphinx, a vampire, a nursemaid. No, it's not—it's the Commonwealth of Australia!
When the first Commonwealth Parliament was opened by the Duke of York in 1901, the walls of Melbourne's Royal Exhibition, where the mostly male dignitaries gathered for the ceremony, were covered with paintings of idealised women symbolising Britannia, the former colonies as her daughters, the Muses, and the female figures of Truth and Justice.
But even though this was an age when there were no women in either the judiciary or parliament, and where only in South Australia did women have the right to vote, the irony of these allegorical representations went unremarked.
Women have always been symbolically associated with the civic rights and responsibilities that in practice they have been denied; and Europe is full of classical female figures symbolising both civic virtue and nationhood. The fledgling Commonwealth of Australia followed this tradition and, in the words of a local bard whose patriotism outdid his poetic skills:
The fair new nation cometh, drawn
By six states so proud and tall.
She was their child; now strange to tell,
She is the mother of them all!
Radical cartoonists in the republican heyday of The Bulletin made great sport with this concept, parodying Britannia as a fat, ugly, old hag by the side of the young and beautiful figure of Australia, who was usually represented as Liberty.
Although the use of women as the image of the nation died out in the 1930s, the tradition continues today in a different guise. Actual women are now given allegorical significance; the exhibition includes Bill Leak's 1997 cartoon of Cheryl Kernot as a modern Liberty leading Labor to victory over the corpses of the Liberal hierarchy, and John Spooner's 1990 depiction of Joan Kirner as Victoria, dressed in an Aussie Rules footy jumper and holding the ball called Budget.
The exhibition offers a new slant on Australian history, for the way female figures have been used in graphic material in the past 200 years is ambiguous, to say the least.
The suffragette movement of the 19th century gave rise to some savage attacks on early feminists, who were without exception depicted either as dried-up spinsters, dominating wives or sexually ambiguous figures in trousers.
There is also a significant collection of banners from the Australian Labor movement, where the same dysfunctional irony is apparent; even though women were increasingly being employed in industry and being recruited into the unions, they were, as the exhibition catalogue points out, "depicted more often as the allegorical representation of civic virtue on trade union banners, rather than being recognised in the ranks of the eight-hour marchers themselves."
Women have often been represented by male artists as ciphers, their bodies used to project a range of values both positive and negative, but this exhibition with its accompanying activities puts the issue in a new context, and raises questions that need to be addressed.