International Women Day

“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (Linda Nochlin)


Every 8 March International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrates the achievements of women of past and present throughout the world. The first International Women’s Day was run in 1911 in some European countries such as Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. More than one million women and men rallied to campaign for women’s rights to work, vote, education access, equality and end discrimination. By 1975, IWD was officially recognised by the United Nations and has continued to gain international recognition. In some places like China, Afghanistan, Russia and Burkina Faso, IWD is a national holiday. This day is also an occasion to inspire commitment to the future challenges that women face in making further progress.

If great improvements have been made, we must be aware that everywhere around the world women are still victims of many injuries and parity is far from obtained. It is important to remember that in Australia Indigenous women are the most vulnerable and marginalised group in Australian society, routinely subjected to violence.

Today, there is certainly strong evidence indicating the prevalence and intensity of family violence against Indigenous women. Data from the Victoria Police indicates the rate of domestic violence-related assaults is nearly 5 times higher than for non-Indigenous women.

Moreover, we must recognise that prejudices affecting Australian Indigenous women are a relatively new phenomenon. As Carol Thomas and Joanne Selfe said in their paper Aboriginal women and law, Aboriginal society was one which gave all members equal importance. Men and women had different roles, but those roles were equally significant and both genders contributed equally to society life. When the Western men/people arrived, they brought with them a new value system which saw a different type of gender, placing men at the top of the ladder. Along with this they installed a new way of thinking that women did not have the same importance as men in the society. As a result, Aboriginal women and women’s expressions were denied a place in the new patriarchal society.

During the last half of the 20th century female Indigenous artists were under-valued, and perceived as an insignificant artistic expression on the international art market. They were paid significantly less and they were also considered less talented than male Indigenous artists. Women were encouraged to weave batik items for the Australian tourist industry while men depicted important topics on bark. However, while acrylic painting became mundane in the 1980s, Australian scholars such as Francoise Dussart encouraged the women to pick-up paint brushes. The diversity of expression in the art of Indigenous women artists reveals a rich diversity of their culture. The topics of many women’s paintings traditionally have to do with their view of their land, water, the flora and fauna,  child caring, and food gathering. Painting and other art forms allow the women’s stories and knowledge of country to be passed on through the different generations. The women artists have interpreted themes in their own style and participated to the creation of stimulating innovations. Women are also venturing out on their own, painting their personal stories, designs and view of their world. International Women’s Day is a most appropriate moment to celebrate the fabulous artistic sense of creation of Indigenous women artists. Over the past thirty years women have been a leading force in the Australian Indigenous art movement. Since the 1980s and 1990s, more scholars acknowledged the creativity of women Aboriginal artists. Women’s representations of Dreamings have been considering as a radical aesthetic departure from men’s. For example, we can see this distinct difference in style as Shana Klein says:

“when comparing Michael Japangardi Poulson’s “Honey Ant Dreaming” to Ada Bird Petyarre’s “Aweyle for the Mountain Devil Lizard”. Petyarre’s painting shows how women apply paint more thickly and liberally than male Aboriginal artists. Some women artists like Petyarre paint in this manner because they are treating the canvas as if they were painting the body for ceremonies. Petyarre’s painting also reflects how Aboriginal women incorporate a wider palette to include pinks, blues, and oranges, instead of the traditional red, brown and black ochres that men use”.

However, we must remember that Indigenous societies are plurals and non homogeneous and there is no single model. Of course, sometimes we can clearly observe differences between women and men in their choices of art forms and subjects of representation, but this is not true for all the communities.  The proportion of women artists in the Indigenous contemporary art is today really significant. Following the steps of the great Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Judy Watson Napangardi or Dorothy Napangardi, many talented Indigenous women artists need our support and admiration…

More specifically and to conclude, I would like to speak about the Tjanpi Desert Weavers women from the Central and Western Desert region of Australia who are in my opinion, a significant example of the Indigenous women artists’ expression in Australia. Tjanpi Desert Weavers was created by the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council in 1995 in response to the need expressed by Anangu women for meaningful and culturally appropriate employment. Tjanpi has established a reputation for artistic excellence and cultural integrity, and the artists are represented in public and private collections around the world. I support with admiration the Tjanpi women for the beauty of their work and the fervour with which they maintain the integrity of their culture. Tjanpi is a women initiative which encourages new fibre artists and participates brilliantly in the success of Aboriginal art, as recognised by their 2005 win of the prestigious National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award.

Alexiane Henry


1) Linda Nochlin is an American art historian, university professor and writer. Leader in feminist art history studies, she is best known as a proponent of the question “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”
2) Women’s Aboriginal Art: Negotiating Two Cultures by Shana Klein, UCLA Center for the Study of Women, UC Los Angeles.
3) op. cit. Shana Klein.

About the Author:
Alexiane Henry is the Art Administrator and Curator at IDAIA.