Women's Work

This essay was written for the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Jacqueline Fahey’s Suburbanites at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata, 1 August—1 November 2019.

Women’s Work 

There are verbs that we unthinkingly write—not clichés as such, but rather language that is so ubiquitous that it is unquestioned. For example, people never simply live in obscurity, they have to languish there. “The artist languished in obscurity for many years,” is a familiar phrase. It makes the obscurity sound more decadent and exotic than it probably was; as if the artist spent their time lounging on a chaise longue and eating gold-wrapped chocolates.

Suburbia, similarly, comes with its familiar modifiers. The suburbs never simply grow or expand, they have to sprawl—unchecked and undignified, this verb connotes an embarrassing flabbiness. Suburbia is also surrounded by adjectives of enclosure and oppression. In a 1983 edition of Broadsheet (a feminist magazine that ran in New Zealand from 1972­ to 1997), artist Juliet Batten sent a questionnaire to women artists around the country in an attempt to answer the thorny question: What is a feminist artist? In her introduction to the published results of this survey, Batten describes Fahey’s early paintings as produced at a moment when the artist was “trapped in suburbia”. Fahey, too, perhaps unconsciously, adopts this terminology when, in her reply to Batten’s question, “When you use the term “feminist artist” for yourself, what do you mean by it?” Fahey wrote, “When I use the term “feminist artist” I mean a) I am a woman (and that helps) but by marrying, having children and being confined by that experience I am leading the life most women lead.” Confined, trapped, isolated, cut off—suburbia understood as a prison.

“Women at the Sink”, painted by Fahey in 1959, reflects this conception of suburbia and depicts a downcast woman washing dishes in a dull light. This work was painted when Fahey was newly married and her husband, psychiatrist Fraser McDonald, was working with suicidal and depressed women, often living in new suburbs such as Porirua, which, though connected to Wellington by train, as yet had no shopping centre or shared community spaces.[1] Isolation and entrapment were very real in the brand new swathes of state housing of Wellington’s northern suburbs.

However, Fahey’s paintings from the 1960s onwards, which feature in the exhibition Jacqueline Fahey’s Suburbanites, contradict the language of entrapment and banality that is typically used to describe suburbia and they move away from the potent despair in “Women at the Sink”. From their dining rooms, highchairs, and laundries, the subjects of Fahey’s paintings fight, think, advise, and glower. They mourn each other and blame each other and obstinately confront the viewer’s unwelcome intrusion. They inhabit psychedelic, expansive gardens and the skate parks of Grey Lynn. Everyday objects—carpets, piles of washing, shrewsbury biscuits—are painted thickly and generously, giving them a new beauty and significance. Fahey’s painted rooms are often so elaborately patterned and busy that the objects slide off the edge of the picture plane, suggesting that the images could go on forever, unconstrained, not trapped as such, but, yes, perhaps sprawling. In Fahey’s depictions, suburbia is a drama-filled, colourful, and often subversive place, where antagonisms and allegiances are played out and unpicked.

In her commitment to the Pākehā suburban home—its contents, surrounds, and inhabitants—as the subject of her painting, Fahey holds a singular place in New Zealand’s art history. Her paintings, from the late 1950s through to the 1980s, exemplify many of the messages now closely associated with second-wave feminism: Why is women’s work—traditionally the domestic labour of the house and childcare—so undervalued? Why are women in art confined to the role of the muse or the passive subject of paintings, rather than the creators? Why are traits of submission and silence considered desirable in women, rather than confidence and agency? And why is the public, professional world, a space from which women are excluded, considered the only sphere in which significant decisions are made?

Even in the left wing and progressive circles that Fahey and her family moved, she encountered opposition because of her choice of subject matter. The leftists of the ‘60s and ‘70s considered “work” to be solely the hard labour of men, and saw the socialist artist’s role as being to express its importance. In an interview for her 2017 exhibition, Say Something!, at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, Fahey noted, “…they said that if I was a socialist I should be painting men digging holes in the road or working-class men. And I said, so women slaving in the house aren’t workers? Is that it? They don’t work? Just men are working? Whereas a working-class woman would be working twice as hard as a man. She often had other cleaning jobs and all sorts of other jobs.”[2] 

Such criticism or misunderstanding is common for an artist such as Fahey, who, in her validation of the lives and realities of herself and her family, was ahead of her time. In “High Culture in a Small Province”, a 1973 essay by Wystan Curnow that discusses the structure and tenor of culture in New Zealand, Curnow describes sociologist Morse Peckham’s definition of “high culture” as a level which is “marked first, by extreme richness; it contains in solution innumerable ambiguities and ambivalences and puzzles and problems. Anyone who lives at that level is as much involved in discovering and creating problems as he is in solving them.”[3] Although the pronouns in this quote feel particularly misplaced in discussing Fahey’s painting, Peckham’s definition is an apt description of her practice. The “puzzles and problems” that Fahey sought to solve were perhaps very different to those envisaged by Curnow—a critic with a commitment to modernist abstraction—but nevertheless, just as difficult: the hard graft of carving out a new visual language to depict women in painting—one that showed everyday suburban existence as messy, crowded, intellectual, and beautiful, and dispensed with the tropes of women as seductive muses or doting madonnas.

Curnow goes on to say in this essay that some of the problems posed and solved by the highest level of culture will go on to appear and populate what he calls the “lower levels of culture”.[4] This stratified language reads somewhat anachronistically today, as the lines between pop and high culture fade in the content streams and blurry margins of the internet. However, Curnow’s theory manifests itself in the current wave of mainstream movies, books, songs, and poems that uncover the stories of women, many of which were previously misrepresented, overshadowed by those of men, or simply unknown. We’re living in what has been described as a “golden age of feminist storytelling”.[5] At the time of writing, a quick canvas of cinemas and other popular streaming platforms reveals that they’re promoting a range of movies and series that refocus the camera’s lens on women’s stories and experiences: Roma, Colette, On the Basis of Sex, Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen, Fleabag, The Letdown, Workin’ Moms, and Vai, a film about “female empowerment that spans the breadth of the Pacific”.

Similarly, contemporary novels and pop music are positioning women at the centre of their narratives, reclaiming formerly marginal characters, and exploring the nuances of women’s subjectivity. To select two fairly disparate examples from many: British author Pat Barker’s recent novel The Silence of the Girls retells The Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, the woman over whom Achilles and Agamemnon fight. And popular Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett sings about violence against women on her latest album: “I want to walk through the park in the dark / Men are scared that women will laugh at them / I want to walk through the park in the dark / Women are scared that men will kill them / I hold my keys between my fingers.”

All of these new books and movies and songs stand against the backdrop of the work of first-, second-, and third-wave feminists, such as Fahey. We are, therefore, at an interesting moment in which feminist storytelling, for the first time in Western history, has a traceable, documented lineage. So, what should we make of the pervasive mainstreaming of feminist values? Of the cast of Ghostbusters being replaced entirely by women? What does Beyoncé dancing in front of an enormous neon “FEMINIST” sign really mean? Or the cooption of woke (slang for “enlightened”) liberal values by brands such as Dove and Keds, into messages of supposed female empowerment? And, for the purposes of this essay, how might this change our reading of Fahey’s paintings, as brought together in Jacqueline Fahey’s Suburbanites?

Firstly, and perhaps most simply, the current efflorescence of stories about and by women in mainstream culture would simply not have been possible without artists such as Fahey. In her deliberate avoidance of the Anglo-American twentieth-century painting trajectory from figuration to abstraction, she expanded the subject matter considered worthy of art. Fahey has commented, “They said to me, you’ll have to change, old girl, or you’re out. So I said, sadly I’m out. I tried to see something in abstract art, but what I was looking for wasn’t there.”[6] What Fahey was looking for was herself: her experience as a Pākehā wife, mother, and artist, which she knew was shared by other women, and which remained little discussed, unrepresented, and largely ignored in art and culture. It’s all very well to paint neutral abstract squares when your history and experience of the world has been the subject of Western art for two thousand years. Fahey knew that, from a woman’s perspective, there was so much more that had to be said, and by saying it in her paintings, she contributed to opening the way for the current wave of women’s stories, contrary viewpoints, and bold feminist proclamations in both the visual arts and more mainstream culture.

Further, viewed in the context of some of the more banal strands of 2019’s millennial-consumerist feminism, Fahey’s art begins to appear even more nuanced and radical, because, not only does Fahey paint women and their lives into the picture, but she also watches herself doing it. Fahey’s own presence in her paintings is a common thread that can be followed across the decades of her work, from her most well-known and critically discussed paintings of the 1970s, through to her more recent work, where she has moved outside of the house and painted the skate parks and streets of Grey Lynn, or the strip clubs of Karangahape Road. She appears in the background of paintings, such as “Drinking Couple: Fraser Analyses my Words” (1978), critically surveying the antics of the arguing couple; and, decades later, in street scenes such as “Apparition on Williamson Avenue” (2003), where she hovers at the bottom of the painting, benevolently gesturing to the scene behind her. Therefore, even though many women see their households and familial experiences reflected in Fahey’s paintings, Fahey’s deliberate placement of herself throughout her oeuvre reinforces herself as the centre and creator of her art; she isn’t attempting to speak for others or to suggest her experience is shared across race and class, but rather, simply shows what has happened to her and how she perceives the world—so much so that she is often right there, in the paintings, looking out at us.

Throughout her body of work, Fahey’s repeated tactic of self-representation prefigures fourth-wave feminism with its focus on intersectionality and its examination of the societal structures that oppress and stigmatise groups of people on the basis of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Fahey knows that every “I” and every “eye” projects its own brand of power and that the most effective way to argue for the validity of women’s lives and voices is to simply speak your own truth in a way that neither marginalises nor disempowers the voices of others. As such, her paintings come with a healthy dose of self-reflection and self-critique, such as “The Passion Flower” (2009), in which an exasperated portrait of Fahey asks herself, in a painted speech bubble, “God! I can hardly remember what I was on about.” Her frequent use of mirrors, windows, doorframes, and occluded spaces, such as in “Self Portrait in Augusta’s Bedroom” (1976), also contribute to the sense of her paintings’ self-questioning; the works double back and abruptly edit themselves, thereby acknowledging the artist’s subjectivity and the limits of both her sight and comprehension.

In a recent New Yorker article on the author Rebecca Solnit and feminist storytelling, journalist Moira Donegan writes skeptically about the assumed power of telling women’s stories, when women continue to be oppressed and stigmatised in many parts of society, “…having the power to speak” Donegan concludes, “is not the same as a guarantee that you’ll be listened to.”[7] 2019 provides an interesting vantage point not only to look back at Fahey’s oeuvre and consider the important contribution she has made across second-, third-, and now fourth-wave feminism and the representation of women’s experience in Aotearoa, but also to acknowledge the political and societal inequality that many women still face today—how far have we really come? Does the internet, for instance, improve the often isolated experience of caring for young children in suburbia? Or, does it simply allow for motherhood to be branded, commercialised, and overlaid by the pseudo-nostalgic filters of Instagram?

Against contemporary contradictions such as this, the paintings gathered together in Jacqueline Fahey’s Suburbanites contradict themselves too, and both celebrate and critique. They are celebrations of families, relationships, children, and the complex human substance of suburban life, but are, at the same time, also critiques of a moment when feminist values are being increasingly coopted by businesses intent on projecting their woke understanding of how women think and what they value. Fahey is still a radical and her paintings, gathered for this exhibition across an impressive eight decades, continue to warn against complacency: look closely at the structures that restrict us, they seem to say, don’t unthinkingly accept the language you inherit, and, above all, don’t pull the ladder up behind you. 

[1] “Jacqueline Fahey”, artist’s talk to accompany the exhibition Say Something! at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. Retrieved 25 March 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvSghsumlXs&t=1470s

[2] “Jacqueline Fahey: In her own words”, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, https://christchurchartgallery.org.nz/multimedia/artist-interviews/jacqueline-fahey-in-her-own-words. Retrieved 18 March 2019.

[3] Morse Peckham, quoted in Wystan Curnow, “High Culture in a Small Province” in The Critic’s Part: Wystan Curnow Art Writings 1971–2013, eds. Christina Barton and Robert Leonard, with Thomasin Sleigh (Wellington: Adam Art Gallery and Victoria University Press, Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 2014), 29.

[4] Ibid., 31.

[5] Claire Murdoch, “We’re living in a golden age of feminist storytelling. And it’s only beginning”, The Spinoff, https://thespinoff.co.nz/parenting/25-09-2018/were-living-in-a-golden-age-of-feminist-storytelling-and-its-only-beginning/. Retrieved 18 March 2019.

[6] Fahey, quoted in Gregory O’Brien, Lands and Deeds: Profiles of Contemporary New Zealand Painters (Auckland: Godwit Publishing, 1996), 129.

[7] Moera Donegan, “Rebecca Solnit’s Faith in Feminist Storytelling”, The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/rebecca-solnits-faith-in-feminist-storytelling. Retrieved 1 May 2019.

Thomasin Sleigh