Image credit: Trish Clark Gallery and Alexis Hunter Estate
How many New Zealand artists can you name?
It’s a confronting question, sure. Gottfried Lindauer usually comes to mind for most people. But can you name anyone else? And how many women artists can you name?
Let’s just be honest: probably not many.
Which is a great reason to become familiar with Alexis Hunter.
But don’t take our word for it – just listen to curator Elizabeth Eastmond, who fondly recalls the late painter, who passed away in 2014 in London.
“[She was] always engaging – and often powerfully, effectively, challenging in a radical feminist sense!” recalls Eastmond. “She could, however, range from non-controversial landscapes and conventionally feminist ‘empowering’ goddesses to urgently shifting gear to goddesses dynamically deleting representatives of the patriarchy, or, say, to a woman, axe in hand, slashing at a wedding photograph. The expression of (unfeminine) anger – with a message – was liberating.”
Sounds badass, right? But Eastmond – who knew Hunter – says there’s more to her work than just general kick-assedness. “Alexis Hunter might have become, in recent readings of her work, a kind of iconic figure for feminist art. And yes, she was in many senses ‘ahead of her time’, but at the same time she was no ‘textbook’ feminist artist.”
But make no mistake: Hunter’s art was political. Which pissed some people (“some people” usually being insecure men) off. As Eastmond tells it: “[The] Women’s Gallery in Wellington in 1980 was roundly dismissed at the time for ‘grumpily’ merging art and politics – in fact one reviewer proclaimed that art and politics didn’t mix – while the historic London Hayward Gallery exhibition featuring women artists including Hunter was mocked for being ‘disgusting’ and ‘wayward’ (according to The Guardian). At one exhibition venue Hunter’s works were torn from the wall and stuffed down the toilet. That women could define their own identity and critique patriarchy was threatening to many then – and of course still is in certain sectors of Western and many sectors of other societies today.”
Eastmond says Hunter was a prime example of an artist who was using her art to push for positive change and strike back against oppressive systems that keep women down. “Their art was groundbreaking because it departed radically from practically all available representations of women in the mass media and in the fine arts at the time. Not only did these feminist artists depict ‘real’ women for a change, they raised so many issues regarding the position of women in patriarchal society: the arts/crafts dichotomy, collaborative versus individual art-making, for instance.”
While many artists seemingly live in their own realms, Hunter stayed grounded in the rapidly changing environment around her.
“She was an example of someone who kept on being very much engaged with what’s going on in the world, not only issues around the arts, women, but everything! Alexis was very astute in her analysis of (global) politics, maintaining her socialist-feminist analysis. Her concerns also included a long-standing interest in psychoanalysis, especially the theories of Melanie Klein – all these things feeding into and enriching her work.”
She also read widely, Eastmond says. “Angela Carter to Borges, and loved film. The punk movement was pretty important – the bands like Blur that played at her husband’s pub (The Falcon) and the whole anarchic ethos of punk appealed to her personality and her challenging of conventions around enervating middle-class gentility. She also kept up her connections with her friends in the UK and NZ. I for one miss our meetings, especially those at the pub!”
To recap: Alexis Hunter = artist, activist, and a woman who didn’t care what others thought of what she was doing. A real punk’s punk. And an inspiration for us all.
This was the woman who said: “I think feminism is too radical, even for liberalism.”
Badass, thy name is Alexis Hunter.
And her life begs this question: what other amazing women artists might be out there – especially right here in Aotearoa – whose stories are simply not being told?
Alexis Hunter’s exhibition “Estate” is on at Trish Clark Gallery, 1 Bowen Avenue in Central Auckland, as part of Artweek Auckland, currently taking place until October 15. http://artweekauckland.co.nz/Support Villainesse