- Pictures at an ExhibitionThe Year in Australia
Each July the Archibald Prize (aka the “Archie”) triggers debates about biographical representation here in Australia, and in a good year 140,000 visitors go to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney between July and October to view this annual celebration of the portrait as a work of art.1 As Cynthia Freeland points out in her philosophical approach to portraiture, questions about social performance, gender identity, and the relevance of cultural frameworks for defining the self and personhood have historically been attached to this art.2 In 2016 gender parity was reached for the first time in the prize’s ninety-five-year history: twenty-five women and twenty-six men were selected as finalists whose work was exhibited at the gallery. Louise Hearman’s Barry, a portrait of the celebrity Barry Humphries, a “frighteningly brilliant individual,” was the prize winner (“Winner: Archibald”). Humphries is immediately recognizable as an Australian icon, even when painted in character as Dame Edna Everage or Sir Les Patterson, and in his various manifestations he has been a popular subject for Australian portraiture. Questions of gender parity extend to the art on the walls: women tend to paint men more than men tend to paint women, and so the “face value” of Australia exhibited at the Archibald reflects the grim picture of gender balance in Australian visual arts. As the recent Countess Report revealed, despite women dominating visual art degrees, commercial galleries and state museums and awards such as the Archie continue to underrepresent them.3 [End Page 565]
These critiques of gender and auto/biographical representation connect to a wider campaign to recognize the presence and “face value” of women and their work, and to question how literature and the arts more generally are recognized and valued in life narrative. In 2013 a new literary prize was introduced to recognize, celebrate, and promote Australian women’s writing in both fiction and nonfiction: the Stella Prize. The Stella joins the Kibble Literary Awards for women writers, with a particular focus on life writing: “novels, autobiographies, biographies, literature and any writing with a strong personal element.”4 Larger questions germane to life narrative—on canvas, screens, and page—across visual and textual cultures are at stake here. What cultural frameworks for defining the self and personhood become available now? What are the culturally prevalent discourses of truth and identity, and how are they interrupted? This year the Kibble was awarded to Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger. This collection of essays on addiction and illness is one of a series of life narratives this season where women write openly of grief and loss—for example Cory Taylor’s thanatography, Dying: A Memoir, and Elspeth Muir’s memoir, Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Death and Grief in Brisbane, which was triggered by the drowning of her brother and his addiction to alcohol. In a recent essay on public grief in the United States, Leigh Gilmore questions how memoirs “map the movement of grief” (611) in both the public square and literary publics. By tracking the movement of grief narratives into the public sphere, she suggests, we can trace the work of mourning in both confirming and questioning how some bodies matter.
“Mapping grief” is a useful tool for tracking the ebb and flow of Australian memoir now. As a glance around bookstores or online booksellers this past year suggests, Australian popular and trade biography remains immersed in nation and narration with numerous war-related life narratives commemorating the centenary of World War I. Military history thrives on diaries and letters, biography and memoir. In Australia, this finds particular expression, for the Gallipoli campaign of April 1915 is the focus of a narrative of national identity focused on the Anzac legend, which combines grief and mourning with nation building, and it remains a dominant expression of Australian nationhood. Recently, biographical writing has become more relational, collective, and inclusive—for example, a collective biography of women war reporters (Baker), a new biography of the journalist C. E. W. Bean drawing on the evidence of diaries and photographs...