Robert Brain And Kate Just Present 'Needleman, Feminist Fan'

Feminist idols meet tongue-in-cheek reflections on sexuality, in a new exhibition opening tomorrow at Melbourne’s Chapter House Lane.

This curious show brings together richly imbued art tapestries by 85-year-old needleman Robert Brain and feminist visual artist Kate Just – we’re head-over-heels!

Elle Murrell

‘Needleman, Feminist Fan’ by Robert Brain and Kate Just opens on March 1st at Melbourne’s Chapter House Lane gallery Pictured here is Robert’s artwork ‘Robert with Girlfriend, Anne Padavini, Dancing in the Belvedere Ballroom, Hobart’, 2008–2012, pure wool, 94x92cm. Photo – courtesy of Maunsell Wickes.

Robert’s ‘Mardi Gras’, 2012, pure wool, 100x 140cm. ‘Well the Mardi Gras has it all… jokes, size, stolen references from Verlasquez’ portraits of the kings and queens and infanta of Spain,’ he tells. Photo – courtesy Maunsell Wickes.

Blue Mountains-based Robert and his partner Neal Blewett in the camellias, alongside a portrait of Robert in London in 1960. For the artist, this show is an opportunity to present his works to a wider “street” public who wouldn’t normally see them. Photos – courtesy of Nick Brinley, and Louise Bennett, respectively.

Using eight-ply wool, Robert often starts by working on a plain area, such as the sky, as he plans a finished picture in his head. Then he will begin stitching in outlines. When ‘plagrising’ he jokes, he will use a technique of hatching a reproduction and reproducing on a canvas (10 holes to the inch). ‘I can do it watching TV, on the beach, on a plane (if the flight attendants don’t take away my “dangerous” darning needle), anywhere except in the dark,’ he adds. ‘If things go wrong I am prepared to undo (rub out) large stretches or work.’ Robert’s ‘London Threesome: Margaret, Robert and Richard’, 2008–2012, pure wool, 94x92cm. Photo – courtesy Maunsell Wickes.

Kate’s ‘Feminist Fan #15 (Claude Cahun, Self Portrait, 1927)’, 2015, hand knitted wool and acrylic yarns, 46×35.5cm. Photo – courtesy the artist.

‘I love the queerness of his work, and the sense of history exploding in each picture. I think we are a perfect match,’ says Kate of Robert’s art. Photo – courtesy of Jenni Mazaraki.

‘I like the idea that the women in my works, which gaze out at you, will be part of the City of Melbourne through the passageway of Chapter House Lane – seen at all hours of the day and night.’ says Kate. ‘Feminist Fan # 18 (Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1965)’, 2016, hand knitted wool and acrylic yarns, 46×35.5cm and ‘Feminist Fan #17 (Kate Beynon, Self Portrait with Guardian Spirits, 2010)’, 2016, hand knitted wool and acrylic yarns, 46x41cm. Photos – courtesy of the artist.

Inside Kate’s studio in St Kilda, which coincidentally is an old knitting factory! Photo – courtesy of Jenni Mazaraki.

Kate’s favourite work and ‘toughest image’: ‘Feminist Fan #22 (Sarah Maple, Self Portrait with Melons, 2012)’, 2016, 59×35.5cm. ‘Sarah Maple risked a lot of critique from the Muslim community in this work, in which she explores her own relationship to Islam and her relationship to feminist art (through a reference to a Sarah Lucas self-portrait with melons),’ details Kate. ‘She is young, fearless and funny.’ Right: ‘Feminist Fan #27 (A portrait of the artist Orlan by Fabrice Lévêque in 1997)’, 2016, 51x38cm. Both feature hand knitted wool and acrylic yarns. Photos – courtesy of the artist.

Elle Murrell
28th of February 2018

Woolworkers Robert Brain and Kate Just have been joined quite ‘felicitously’, as Robert puts it, by curator Louise Klerks of Melbourne CBD gallery Chapter House LaneKate is embarrassed to say that she wasn’t aware of Robert’s astounding tapestries before they were introduced for this remarkable exhibition, opening March 1st. Now mutually enlightened, both gush about eachother’s art, echoing compliments: ‘honoured’, ‘gifted’, and ‘match made in Heaven’.

The doting duo’s awe is contagious. Robert, an anthropologist, has led a fascinating career teaching in universities in the UK and Italy and also working as an ethnographer in African countries including Congo, Mali and Cameroon throughout the 1950s to 1970s. ‘In fact, it was during long isolated periods “in the bush” that I started doing needlework; fortunately, this was considered “men’s work” in the society I studied. The women were the farmers.’ he tells.

Kate, half his senior, took up the craft in her mid-20s while studying art at VCA. ‘After the death of my brother, I returned home to visit my parents. My mother taught me to knit and it felt like all the world’s stories could be contained in those loops,’ she recalls. ‘I returned to art school with ideas for how to use knitting to make art.’

In ‘Needleman, Feminist Fan’ Robert uses a running-stitch to juxtapose autobiographical narratives with elements ‘stolen’ from more celebrated art icons. ‘Obviously, the gay side of my life enters into my tapestries; In ‘Robert with Girlfriend, Anne Padavini, Dancing in the Belvedere Ballroom, Hobart’ I show myself doing a slow waltz with a token girlfriend while having “broken dreams” of same-sex desire,’ he explains. In the other autobiographical work on display, ‘London Threesome: Margaret, Robert and Richard’, the artist depicts himself as a young, attractive Aussie male, ‘enthroned on the London swinging sixties stage’ and flanked by fantasy portraits of male and female partners. ‘I should like to point out that making fun and introducing jokes are also an important part of my work,’ adds Robert.

Co-exhibitor Kate has been working on her ‘Feminist Fan’ project for three years, and each artwork involves 10,000 stitches, taking around 90 hours of work! She interrogates histories of gendered representation and, by drawing on the craft processes of knitting and sewing that are themselves historically associated with women, seeks to unravel new possibilities for the future. Each of her pieces is an homage to a feminist artist, from Cindy Sherman to Yoko Ono, and has a corresponding fan letter you can discover via #feministfan. ‘When I began knitting my heroes, I didn’t have to look far, I had held them all in my head and heart for a long time,’ she tells.

Following this must-see exhibition, Kate will fly ‘Feminist Fan’ to the US for a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Richmond, Virginia. Meanwhile, Robert will be traveling vicariously through his newest tapestries, including one of Japanese Sumo wrestlers and Kabuki performers. ‘When I have finished a tapestry I am more than at a “loose end”, but frantic to start another. At this very moment I am sketching out the brindled legs of a faun “stolen” from Leon Bakst’s programme drawing for Debussy’s “L’apres-midi d’un faune…’ he tells. ‘We will see what happens to them… (the legs I mean).’

‘Needleman, Feminist Fan’ by Robert Brain and Kate Just
March 1st to April 28th
Opening night talk with Robert Brain, March 1st, 5:30-6:00pm
Chapter House Lane gallery
Chapter House Lane, Melbourne

Kate Just is also currently exhibiting as part of ACCA (Unfinished Business: Perspectives on Art and Feminism). Next, she is off to Beijing for an artist residency and will have new neon works opening at RMIT Project Space, be a part of a group show of women artists at the Australian High Commission Atrium Gallery in Singapore, and another show at MARS gallery in May. Find out more at

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