7 Women Shaking Up The Australian Art Scene

The art world has been, and sadly continues to be, a man’s. This isn’t a feisty feminist generalisation, but a well-documented case across the globe. And from representation to remuneration, Australia is no exception.

Championing the progress that has being made, here we highlight seven women artists making their mark on Australia’s creative landscape.

Elle Murrell

Del Kathryn Barton at ‘The Highway is a Disco‘, her incredible solo show at NGV Australia, which ran from November 2017 to March 2018. Photo – Eugene Hyland for NGV.

My Frogs Are Blazing artwork by Del Kathryn Barton. Photo – courtesy of Del Kathryn Barton.

The Fever Is Here artwork by Del Kathryn Barton. Photo – courtesy of Del Kathryn Barton.

Elle Murrell
15th of January 2019

Del Kathryn Barton

Mid-May 2018 saw a historic moment for Australian Art. Del Kathryn Barton’s artwork Of Pollen (2013) saw her bust through the glass ceiling, into what has historically been an exclusive boy’s club. Changing hands for $378,000, this, among other six-figure sales, propelled Del into the elite echelon of Australia’s top 10-selling living Australian artists.

Last year, the Sydney-based painter exhibited The Highway Is A Disco at NGV’s Ian Potter Centre (from November 2017  to March 2018), and also unveiled a commercial show in New York, before focussing on art films. Nevertheless, the highlight for Del has simply been ‘surviving while being a working Mum!’.

This year, she is looking forward to a solo show in Albertz Benda in New York City in February, followed by another solo exhibition in Sydney at Roslyn Oxley 9 Gallery alongside a group show in London, both in October. She’ll also be making films and caring ‘more for [her] mental health!’.

‘It has never been MORE meaningful for me to be an Australian female creative, especially in the context of showing more internationally. I am passionate about growing our undernourished cultural pride across all creative sectors!’ Del explains. ‘And the only way I can do this is just… f*cking heads-down and keep doing the best work that I can, day, after day, after day!’.

For young women aspiring to follow in her colossal footsteps, Del’s advice is simple: ‘give everything to the work, let the work sustain you. If you can live without making the work, live without it!’

Melbourne-based artist Esther Stewart. Photo – Caitlin Mills.

Esther works on her exhibition for 2018 Melbourne Art Fair. Photo – Caitlin Mills.

Esther exhibited with at Sarah Cottier Gallery and took out the inaugural YarraBend Stand Prize. – Caitlin Mills.

Esther Stewart

After a two-year hiatus, Melbourne Art Fair returned as the flagship event of the 2018 Melbourne Art Week. The most buzzing stand was that of Sarah Cottier Gallery, exhibiting a solo exhibition of new work by Esther Stewart.

Focussing not only on her canvases but the experience of the entire booth, Esther designed an innovative and extremely Instagram-able space, featuring structures that provided multiple discrete displays for complicated paintings and textile works. Among the high calibre of Australian artists represented, Esther and Sarah Cottier Gallery took out the inaugural YarraBend Stand Prize.

With her distinctive geometric works bordering on optical art, the VCA-trained creative has established herself as one of Australia’s most collectable and celebrated young contemporary artists. (We can’t say we didn’t call it early!)

Next up, Esther will unveil new work at Gertrude Contemporary’s Glasshouse on March 7th. We can’t wait to see how her architectural considerations, from paintings to space design, come together at this location. Along with countless other exhibition-goers, we will again be lining up for a closer look!

Kaylene Whisky is represented by Iwantja Arts and a member of the APY Art Centre Collective. Photo – courtesy of APY Art Centre Collective.

Wonder Woman from Kaylene’s series: Seven Sistas (2018) Acrylic on Linen, 51 x 76cm. Photo – courtesy of the artist and Iwantja Arts.

Dolly Parton from Kaylene’s series: Seven Sistas (2018) Acrylic on Linen, 51 x 76cm. Photo – Courtesy of the artist and Iwantja Arts.

Kaylene’s Sulman-Prize-winning artwork, Kaylene TV (2018), acrylic on Linen, 76 x 101cm. Photo – Courtesy of the artist and Iwantja Arts.

Kaylene Whisky

Represented by Iwantja Arts and a member of APY Art Centre Collective, Kaylene Whisky took out the 2018 Sulman Art Prize for her imaginative and empowering portrayal of two strong kungkas (women): Dolly Barton and Cher in a lounge room, entitled Kaylene TV. This bright, boisterous scene instilled joy, and opened minds to the vast, diverse possibilities of Indigenous Australian art.

In the work, Cher is seen singing a song on a microphone, ‘having a great time because her boots have silver spurs and are really tall above her knees’, while Dolly, in pink overalls with pockets, has arrived after skateboarding at the shops. ‘She must have bought that Christmas present for Cher because they are good friends, they like to sing together!’ details Kaylene, whose music TV program is playing in the background, beside ‘a big mingkulpa (local native tobacco) plant growing underneath the good boomerangs’.

Along with a prize of $40,000, winning this prestigious accolade has given Kaylene’s art wide exposure. ‘It was a huge surprise to win and to have all these other artists wanting to meet me and say, “Well done Kaylene!”, she recalls.

Looking ahead, the artist is proud to be included in The National at the MCA this year, alongside many other great Australian artists.‘Where I live in Indulkana Community on the APY Lands there are a lot of strong women artists,’ Kaylene tells. ‘We all support each other, sometimes the older ladies will look at my paintings and say “Kutjupa Way! Wiru!” (“Wow, that’s something different! That’s great!”). I think that’s important: being yourself and finding your own way with art.’

Installation view of Patricia Piccinini’s joint exhibition Through Love at Tarrawarra Museum of Art. Kindred displayed alongside works by Australian modernist Joy Hester. Photo – courtesy of Patricia Piccinini.

Patricia in her Collingwood studio. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

With artwork, Kindred, in progress. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The Skywhale in flight. Photo – courtesy of Patricia Piccinini.

Patricia Piccinini

One of the most talked about Australian artworks, Patricia Piccinini‘s The Skywhale (2013), flew again late last year! It took to the air to coincide with the artist’s current Tarrawarra Museum of Art exhibition, Through Love, alongside one of her heroes, Australian modernist Joy Hester. This show, on until March, follows the staging of the biggest exhibition Patricia has ever unveiled: the immersive Curious Affection at Brisbane’s QAGOMA. Prior to that, there was her key inclusion in The National Gallery of Australia’s mind-boggling blockbuster, Hyper Real, along with other major art institutions and fairs, from the United States and Austria to Turkey and New Zealand.

This year will see the industrious artist tread new ground once more, with her first major solo museum show in Scandinavia at Arken Museum, Copenhagen, before unveiling new work at Cairns Art Gallery, which will address the local ecology and climate change.

With her life-like sculptures of hybrid forms, often fusing together human and animal characteristics to examine the increasingly blurred boundary between the artificial and natural worlds, Patricia sees her practice as ‘definitely feminist and very much also female’. ‘This is more a reflection of what I’m interested in, rather than my professional status as a woman, which, to be honest, is not something I think about much,’ she clarifies. ‘However, the statistics tell us that there is still a distance to go on an institutional level. As a young artist, I guess you need to have one eye on that, but you can’t be blinded by it’.

Patricia stresses having the conviction to stay focused on your personal artistic goals and work towards them. ‘Ultimately, it’s all about the work, and working, and it always has been’.

Endangered 3 by Tamara Dean. Photo – Tamara Dean.

Endangered 7 by Tamara Dean. Photo – Tamara Dean.

Photographic artist Tamara Dean.

Elephant Ear (Alocasia odora) in Autumn. Photo – Tamara Dean.

Tamara Dean

Tamara Dean is one of an increasing number of young creatives exploring critical social and environmental concerns through art.

Last year brought about life-changing career highlights for the Sydney-based photographic artist. Foremost, a trip to Heron Island with The Climate Council led her to embark on an exciting ongoing series, Endangered. Prior to this, Tamara was selected by curator Erica Green to create two new major works – the photographic series In Our Nature and multi-sensory installation Stream of Consciousness – for the 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art.

This year she will venture to Illaroo’s Bundanon, the cultural and environmental asset gifted by Arthur and Yvonne Boyd, for an artist residency in April, before exhibiting Endangered at Martin Browne Contemporary in August.

For Tamara, talking about being a women artist in a male-dominated occupation is a complicated subject. ‘I have had to work harder than many of my male contemporaries. But I am happy with where I’m at in my career and can see a long and inspiring journey ahead,’ she tells. ‘I would advise other female artists that tenacity and perseverance pay off.’

Artist Yvette Coppersmith. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Yvette Coppersmith Self-portrait with red and ochre (2018). Photo – courtesy of Yvette Coppersmith.

Yvette’s Self-portrait after George Lambert saw her take home The Archibald Prize last year. Photo – courtesy of Yvette Coppersmith.

The Melbourne-based artist in her studio. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Yvette Coppersmith

Last year, Melbourne-based artist Yvette Coppersmith took out Australia’s most prestigious portrait painting award, The Archibald Prize. From 793 entries, her ‘Self portrait after George Lambert saw her take home the $100,000 accolade. In her acceptance speech, the Melbourne-based creative thanked other artists and the community for their support, identifying that ‘the most important things in the art world are the conversations you have with other artists’.

As the 10th female prize winner (in the 97 years that the award has run) Yvette recognises she is now in a privileged position. She praises The Countess Report, a brilliant research project counting gender representation during 2014 in the Australian visual arts sector, which identifies that though the pool of Australian artists comprises a lot more women than men, there are many more men showing in our galleries and museums. The Report advocates for ongoing research and education on the topic, and compels ‘stakeholders in the Australian visual art sector [to] promote and advocate for gender equality in their management activities, operations, and programming’.

Throughout her career, Yvette has been fortunate to paint some brilliant, pioneering women: the late Justice Rosemary Balmford, who was the first female judge appointed to the Supreme Court of Victoria; Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs, who was  President of the Australian Human Rights Commission from 2012 to 2017; and Emeritus Professor Anne Green, who was the first woman PhD candidate and first head of the Department of Astrophysics at the University of Sydney (this artwork will be unveiled this year).

After what feels like an ‘overshare’ of herself and her work in the wake of the Archibald win, Yvette is keen to become more fully engaged in her practice and find time for herself in 2019. She will take up a residency through Byron School of Art later in the year, as well as run a series of drawing sessions at NGV, and partake in the not-to-be-missed group show, Fem-Affinity, at Arts Projects Australia in June.

‘Any artist in Australia aspires to have the means to make work and pay the bills, simultaneously,’ she concludes. ‘All I can advise is that it takes persistence, resilience, and development of other areas to support one’s practice for the lean times’.

Art photographer and activist Leila Jeffreys pictured with Ivy. Photo – Bo Wong.

Rainbow Bee-eater from Leila’s 2018 exhibition at Taronga Zoo. ‘Leila’s art will help connect or reconnect our zoo guests with birds and create advocates for their conservation,’ said Elle Bombonato of Taronga Zoo. Photo – Leila Jeffreys.

Leila’s art as part of a display at Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York City. Photo –courtesy of Leila Jeffreys.

Leila highlights endangered bird species through her astounding exhibitions and books. Photo – Leila Jeffreys.

Leila Jeffreys

Another lens-lady worthy of highlighting, and one who we have followed enthusiastically over the years is Sydney-based Leila Jeffreys. From introducing us to the incredible story of Penguin Bloom (see Leila photographing Penguin below) to highlighting endangered bird species through the astounding exhibitions and books she pours her heart into, Leila has become an unofficial poster girl for native Australian bird life.

While bird-art seems to be in abundance, from the nationalistic to replica decorative and kitsch illustrations… Leila’s meticulously staged portraits offer something more. They command your attention for their tremendously beautiful detail. They offer a powerful conservation message, bringing us eye-to-eye with these flighty, feathered subjects, at human scale.

In October last year, Leila held her first exhibition outside of Australia, Ornithurae, at Olsen Gruin Gallery in New York City. It garnered rave reviews and will see Leila return for another show in November 2019. This body of work will first go on show at Olsen Gallery in Sydney in October, marking her first major Australian showcase in five years.

‘I will never forget that feeling, after years of being unimpressed with my photography, capturing my first bird portrait. It was an excitement that is burnt into my memory,’ reflects the artist. Surrounded by a wonderful community of both female and male artists at her galleries, Leila feels supported, with everyone treating each other with respect, ‘just how it should be’.


As is the nature with brief lists, there are many other exceptional women artists we haven’t had the chance to include. If you know of someone, we’d love to hear – please drop an email!

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