Eat me Love me SEE me: Hotham Street Ladies
by Klare Lanson
“Let them eat cake.” – Marie Antoinette
I remember receiving a text message back in 2007 from a girlfriend requesting I reply with my favourite recipe; to be used for an inner city community cookbook planned by a group of local ladies. As I was pregnant and currently being deprived of soft cheese for the best part of that year, I sent through my favourite recipe for a large round of Brie baked in garlic, rosemary and a bucket of red wine. Peel the top skin for warm crusty bread dipping, knock back a few choice glasses of vino and BAM, you’re sitting in your slinky 70’s jumpsuit and you’ve made it to fondue heaven without even a hint of dishwashing or cleaning up. It’s goodbye to those over rated household tasks that serve only as mindless interruptions for every single woman that I know.
Since 2004, creative collaborations such as these have paved the way for the Hotham Street Ladies (HSL), a collective of women who stem from the same inner city share house in Melbourne. The HSL talk to us with food related art and they critique contemporary feminist thought in a way that doesn’t inhibit the viewer. It’s this sort of organic and inclusive communication practice that makes these ladies stand out in a crowd. It’s fresh, it’s fun and their use of humour in the work is a strong means towards sharing ideas of gender in the workplace, the art world and at home. They’re referencing feminist art from the second wave and peeling back the top skin of contemporary art making; dipping into ideas around domesticity and life at home, collaborative processes, the meanings behind craft and public interventions that continue to sing of our need to resolve issues of gender inequality. They communicate these ideas directly and publicly, with no cloaking device, no hidden agendas. And they’re becoming well known to the general public, thanks to their inclusion in the Melbourne Now exhibition currently on at the National Gallery of Victoria, with a work in the foyer of The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia called At Home with the Hotham Street Ladies. So don your apron and break out your fondant and buttercream, icing is what is needed right now and these are the ladies to do it.
There’s something meditative and nostalgic about preserving and baking. It makes me feel safe, melancholic and settles my mind into a step-by-step task oriented activity. Up here in country Victoria, the Country Women’s Association (CWA) still play a huge role in supporting women and children within community, disseminating information through group meetings, craft activity, baking and above all, helping people recover from natural disasters like drought and flood. I was a recipient of a hand-sewn bag during a recent natural disaster and it contained incredibly thoughtful items such as tampons, lipstick, cotton buds and moisturiser. I still quote it to my friends as being one of the most helpful and timely gestures I received during the recovery period. There’s still a respite in the city of Melbourne where CWA members can stay cheaply if needed, it’s been open since 1948. The Hotham Street Ladies are certainly paying homage to this amazingly vital organisation but they are also playing with ideas of what it means to be a woman in contemporary Australia. They’re interested in baking and celebrating the act of inclusivity with food. Simultaneously, they’re engrossed in ways to work with icing that extend the boundaries of cake; the cake becomes a powerful metaphor. They take it to the gallery, to the streets, to the Royal Show and each time they venture into the public arena they talk about the multiple and equally important roles women play in society. Artist. Mother. Wife. Lover. Cultural Critic. Girlfriend. Best Friend. Career Woman. Student. Renovator. Lady. These roles are in constant motion, feeding each other, the real cake of our lives, and for the modern woman, there’s not much time left for licking the bowl.
Using icing as a medium for their art is captivating to me as it’s also layered with thinking around ideas of beauty and social conformity. Unlike the work of Chicago based Jeanne Dunning, where icing is used alongside the body to provoke thinking on gender and sexuality (Icing, 1996), there’s camaraderie at work here; it encompasses both artists and audience, allowing genuine participation. I’m also a fan of the graffiti and stencil art depictions of the many sugary HSL performative antics in the public realm; whilst it’s sweet, pretty and hardly intimidating, the work evokes very clearly the conflict of working in this way, the way it frames the medium and message, often for just a moment before being washed away by rainfall or the calculated sweep of a flock of birds. It’s feminist in terms of it being a reaction to what is already constructed as masculine; a good example of this is a previously exhibited piece entitled bakesy, a work in direct reference to Banksy, the street artist who rose to the male dominated rock star status in the art world with his tongue in cheek referencing and proficiency with street art.
There’s a strikingly sentimental quality to their current installation in the foyer of the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia. The dining room is hysterically funny, a chaotic share house dinner party construction that we’ve all experienced at some time or another in our lives, with it’s patterns of repetition, intricately designed leftovers, empty beer bottles and side plates full of hastily extinguished cigarette butts. The cultural cringe of lipstick marks on the teacup. The high art space foyer of the gallery is transformed using materials that unequivocally hold associations to housework and the feminine, this curatorial placement is thoughtfully provocative. There is also a beautiful attachment to family (and the family we construct) when we see and smell icing. I can’t help wishing I was one of the gallery punters who were around whilst it was being installed, the performative element to this installation seems to go hand in hand with the messages it pertains. The exhibition also resonates beautifully in the children’s book HSL created in collaboration with the NGV for the exhibition, simply entitled A Book for Kids! The book is a sweeter than sweet treat and an excellent way to share ideas with children – from cooking to ecology, it encourages art making, reading and story telling, all wrapped up in a way that makes you feel like you’re sitting at a leisurely luncheon with the artists themselves, chatting about hilarious situations and freely sharing stories like the kid in all of us.
As an audience member or viewer of their work I feel like I have participated. I see the tactility of the objects, I feel at home. I have eaten my fill and now I will kick my heels up and keep talking. On Saturday March 8th, we celebrate International Women’s Day. And here it is folks, a new and clever visibility of feminist issues within contemporary art. It hollers out that the roles that women play in society should be treated with equal respect, we have choices and we know how to laugh about them. Family and children are so very important, but so are our choices around these ideologies, in this day and age we should be free to make them however we see fit. Yet somehow this is still not the case. There is so much disparate thinking around feminism and gender politics; the one thing that symbolically and gastronomically brings it all together is cake. So I will celebrate with the ladies. I will eat it, love it and see it. ′
The Hotham Street Ladies are Cassandra Chilton, Caroline Price, Sarah Parkes, Molly O’Shaughnessy and Lyndal Walker. They have taken over the foyer of the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia for the Melbourne Now Exhibition, until 23 March. You can follow their projects at hothamstreetladies.com
Klare Lanson is a writer, poet, performance maker, sound artist, data consultant, arts worker, past editor of Australian Literary Anthology Going Down Swinging and presents Turn Left at the Baco on Castlemaine Community Radio WMAfm. Her current project is #wanderingcloud.