Self Love

Contemporary Art, Lesbian, New Zealand art, photography, Selfies

I am not sure I even remember my first selfie. It was definitely taken on a 35mm semi-automatic film camera, and definitely using a timer. It probably involved precarious balancing – both of the camera, and of me. I was probably 19. While I may have taken self-portraits at most twice a year, millions of people now take multiple self-portraits daily. As a genre, selfography bloomed in the 2010s. It found a home in social media, travelling from MySpace, to Facebook and beyond. But it’s not the internet that makes today’s selfies different from the self-portraits I took as a young woman; its little things like face recognition, auto-focus, and the ability to reliably take photos at close range.

Charlotte Museum Trust poster girl

Charlotte Museum Trust poster girl

The bathroom or public toilet has become a ubiquitous setting for selfographers worldwide. Well lit, often private, with a nice big mirror. Why weren’t we all taking photos in bathrooms when I was in my teens? Because most of us couldn’t afford the macro lenses that allowed you to take a photo in such a small space, and even if you could, you never knew what the camera had focussed on while you were smiling hopefully into its big black eye. Digital cameras and their user-friendly technology have created a new genre in photography that plays to the advantages of auto-focus, auto-exposure, face recognition, and close range. Selfies quickly became a visual style, where subjects often photographed themselves looking upwards at the camera creating a flattering distortion of the face. Then came the duckfaces.

With informal, popular standards for selfie taking, comes the possibility for selfie subversion and selfie play. For at least my first year as a facebook user, I rebelled. I tried to look bad in selfies to break the monotony of smiling eyes and strategically blown out complexions. I used tomato sauce and chicken feathers to create a Halloween selfie for my profile picture that was also a tribute to Anne Noble’s photography. And I don’t even celebrate Halloween.

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Tribute to Anne Noble, 2009

In 2013 the National #Selfie Portrait Gallery, at the Moving Image Contemporary Art Fair in London, became one of the first exhibitions to take selfies seriously. Two years later the Charlotte Museum Trust is doing the same with our ‘Me Myselfie I’ exhibition, due to open at the Charlotte Gallery on 16 August.

As many in our community know all too well, lesbians don’t always get the opportunity to define themselves for the world: to put their real selfies forward. Lesbians have been medicalized, stigmatised, pathologised, categorised, and misunderstood for years. In 1886 Richard von Krafft-Ebing published Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study where he identified lesbianism as pathology. For Kraft-Ebing, sexual inversion (the reversal of gender roles) was the result of poor breeding and poverty. A little later in 1897 Havelock Ellis published Sexual Inversion. Ellis associated lesbianism with sadism and bestiality as sexual deviations. For Sigmund Freud, who began writing at about the same time, all humans were born bisexual, where proper healthy psychological development resulted in heterosexuality, not homosexuality. When teenagers Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme conspired to kill Parker’s mother in New Zealand in 1954, their apparently lesbian relationship was used as evidence of a medical illness during the trial. Internationally, this postwar period saw women who loved women medicalised as promiscuous, predatory, and psychopathic. Many of us live and have lived under this shadow.

In a world where others have always had the job of defining us, the Charlotte Museum Trust believes the selfie is an awesome medium for reclaiming ownership of what it means to be a lesbian.

And selfies are also a whole lot of fun. Let’s not forget the fun.

And thus The Charlotte Museum Trust wants your selfies! As an added incentive we are also offering a tidy little competition. Our judge Jac Lynch will select two selfies to be professionally printed and mounted by Imagelab, to be sent to the winners at the close of the show.

Selfographer and CMT judge Jac Lynch avoiding the paparazzi

Selfographer and CMT judge Jac Lynch avoiding the paparazzi

Entries for both the exhibition and the competition close 29 July. Email us at charlottemuseum@gmail.com for an entry form, but do be quick!

Open to New Zealand residents only. Terms and Conditions apply.

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Jumping on board the flag wagon: union jacks and rainbow stripes

flag, union jack

Flags are an excellent way of identifying things from a distance – Raleigh Choppers parked at the end of a suburban street – for example. Flags are especially excellent ways of identifying things that can change ownership – like castles, parliaments, borders – anything of strategic significance during times of warfare, times when you need a rough and ready way of letting people in the distance know who is now inside the building (so back off), or on the other side of the border (or we will shoot you). White flags of surrender are also useful. But these days, what flags seem to be really good at, is attracting controversy.

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‘Colours of NZ’, Designed by: gaygamesblog from Auckland, submitted as a new flag design by Lisa McFarland.

For reasons unknown and unfathomable to a large percentage of the New Zealand population, we as New Zealanders are currently being asked to design a new national flag. The current flag was first used on New Zealand ships in 1869 and became New Zealand’s official national flag in 1902, and there are great reasons for keeping it as it is. It’s an honest depiction of our past, for one thing. But does it really represent contemporary New Zealand? Or is there a better way of depicting our bicultural past – or of symbolising our multicultural present? While these issues are gaining traction, the most controversy a flag has brought to New Zealand was probably in 1845, when Hone Heke cut down a flagpole displaying the British flag – and it wasn’t because he didn’t like the design.

Oddly in synch with New Zealand politics, the USA is also debating flag appropriateness, but for somewhat different reasons. When Dylann Roof recently killed nine at the African American Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he did so in an attempt to reignite the American Civil War. He did so to honour the ‘confederate’ flag, a flag flown across America, and a flag which is a relic from the American Civil War. As Sidney Blumenthal describes it, the confederate flag is an “ensign of a slaveholders’ republic, revived a century later as the symbol of massive resistance to civil rights, [which] became an iconic code for the Republicans’ Southern strategy.’ That is, the ‘confederate’ flag is associated with racial oppression, and as such Americans are currently arguing for its removal from public buildings.

In response to the push to have the confederate flag removed, Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Association, recently declared ‘if we come to the point where we say any flag that represents bigotry, any flag that represents hatred, any flag that represents slavery or oppression needs to be removed, then I want to suggest to you that the next flag to go ought to be the rainbow flag of the Gay Reich.’

The rainbow flag has, of course, become a widespread symbol of pride for LGBTIQ communities. The Charlotte Museum Trust has a rainbow flag within its collection. But who knew – or remembers – that “hot pink stood for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, turquoise blue for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit.” Rather than being uniquely ‘gay’, or collectively queer, the rainbow flag was designed to symbolise the kinds of things that any 1970s free-spirit would aspire to embracing. The flag was designed by Gilbert Baker in the late 1970s to replace the pink triangle popularly used at the time. The pink triangle, much like the confederate flag (and Bryan Fischer’s remarks), has its origins in oppression and hatred, where the pink triangle was the symbol used by Nazi Germany to stigmatize homosexual men. While the pink triangle had been reclaimed by gay communities as a symbol of identity, the rainbow became the official symbol of gay activism after San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk’s assassination in 1978.

While our government insists we reassess our national flag here in New Zealand, I wonder if we might reassess our LGBTIQ flag in New Zealand too. Like any exercise in rebranding, the shift to a rainbow flag in 1978 obscured one thing in favour of another – it shifted our gaze from the pink triangle of bigoted hatred, to a rainbow of joyful resistance. Changing the flag of course, didn’t actually make bigoted hatred go away.

Moreover, since the rainbow flag became widespread, variants appeared for bisexuality, pansexuality, and asexuality, among others. Lesbians have also used interlocked female symbols on their flags instead of rainbows. The Charlotte Museum Trust has one of these, too.

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Asexual pride flag

bi pride

Bisexual pride flag

However the full rainbow flag remains the symbol most synonymous with LGBTIQ pride across New Zealand. Any regional festival proves as much. But should it? Does a rainbow of joyful resistance still work in 2015?

And more importantly, does a flag originating with 1970s American gay activism, best symbolise LGBTIQ pride in New Zealand in the 2010s? Is it time we jumped on board the flag wagon and reassessed our own symbols? Or should we keep the rainbow… just so people like Bryan Fischer can see when the Gay Reich have stormed the castle.

The Charlotte Museum Trust welcomes information about flags used in New Zealand as part of lesbian activism over the years, if you have photos, even better! Contact us at charlottemuseum@gmail.com if you have information to share, and don’t forget to follow us on our facebook page.

A little something we like to call volunteering

Cataloguing, Mosaic art

Who keeps the cogs turning, the balls rolling, and the gears oiled when it comes to the Charlotte Museum Trust? In this blog we let you in on a little secret… it’s out volunteers. Ever wondered who our volunteers are and what they do? Then read on. Here is an abridged interview with Tash, the woman behind Charlotte’s facebook page, library, and our future Mosaic workshop. Tash became involved with the Charlotte Museum Trust shortly after the Museum relocated to its current premises at 8A Bentinck Street, in fact, she arrived while they were still unpacking…

How did you become involved with the Charlotte Museum Trust?

Tash: I went to a Heroes Out West event, and Miriam [Saphira] was on the door, and so when I was leaving I actually asked her if there was any lesbian events around Auckland that she knew of, and she told me about – I think it was the newsletter she told me about – and then she talked about the Museum, and how this was here, and she gave me a card. Two weeks later I rang up and asked when it was open and what was happening, and she told me the times, and so I came in, and she showed me around the bottom room, started at the Sappho cabinet and just worked her way around, telling me the herstory and stuff, and then we were having a cup of tea and she said she was needing to put some stuff up in the garage, and I said ‘do you need a hand’, so yeah, I was helping her that day and then the next week I came back and then just kept coming back

So had you not been here long when you..?

Tash: In Auckland? No, no I had been here maybe two months? Two or three months, yeah so not long.

So she caught you really early?

Tash: Yeah I guess so, yes, yeah she did

How long ago was that?

Tash: Two years, or something… so I would come in when Miriam was here and then I would help her with stuff, and then I ended up in the library. With the library I am still sussing it out as I go.

So when you started, the books were all in boxes?

Tash: They were in boxes, and so we had to put them from A to Z [on the shelves] … and I hadn’t done that before, and it took ages, it just took me so long…. It was a real mission to learn that one. And then there were bits of paper lying around, and I would have no idea what to do with bits of paper… and then it was magazines, you know, looking through boxes of magazines and sorting out American magazines, and the different kinds – because when you sort out the boxes of magazines you have to put them in order from the most recent, and that’s really time consuming, and there are missing copies, and they could be in another box….

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The Charlotte Museum Trust’s research library contains five floor-to-ceiling bookshelves of lesbian fiction and nonfiction, and a smaller bookcase housing a New Zealand collection. And then there is a smaller lending library collection housed in the meeting room.

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What would your favourite event at the Museum have been?

Tash: I don’t know actually, there are two that I really liked… one was a printing workshop, which Miriam ran. It was really cool to use the mangle; I thought that was really wicked, I got really inspired. And then there was this discussion one night… there were like three speakers, and one was a transgender woman, and they were speaking of their stories, you know, growing up and stuff, and I just found that really interesting… it was really cool.

You must enjoy…?

Tash: I do enjoy working here, I really love it… I love working in the library, I like learning new stuff and then getting inspired and taking that further. I like networking with other people as well, like the Lilac Library, and Jenny [Rankine]… I like coming in here and shelving the books, and writing the new books down, and putting them in their places.

I like working with Miriam – Miriam’s got a lot of knowledge, you know, so when I ask her a question she can give me a really good run down of stuff –

She’s like the lesbian google of New Zealand

Tash: I know!

I like it how whether they are big or small, I do like the gatherings and exhibitions and stuff, I do like that, I think that that’s really cool.

You are also interested in running a mosaic workshop for us?

Tash: Yes, yes I am

So how did you get interested in mosaics?

Tash: It was when I was living in Colville, we put on an art exhibition… and I used to work with kids out there, so we were part of a youth programme – which was a really cool programme – and I ran a mosaic workshop with those kids. So that’s when I started to actually do mosaic… and how I got interested was through my friend Sarah, she had this mosaic hand that she made and I thought that was really cool and I wanted to do that with the kids. And then also my boy’s Dad, his mum, was a mosaic artist as well, so I got inspired by a few different things.

Is there any mosaic project that you have done that you particularly enjoyed doing?

Tash: Yeah, when I was living in Colville, I got commissioned to mosaic some chairs, you know those old-school wooden chairs? So I did a few of those, and I really enjoyed that, and it was really cool. What I liked about them was that I could put whatever I was going through or whatever I was inspired by, or anything, [onto the chairs] and there are a couple of people mosaicked onto those chairs, but not actual people, it sort of takes a different form. I really liked doing those chairs. That was cool.

It’s going to be in the Spring? The workshop is going to be in the Spring?

Tash: Yes, and we are playing around with ideas for what to do with that workshop, if it will be a collective thing.

Do people need to have an idea to come into it, or will you help them through the finding an idea process?

Tash: Just whatever, if people want to come in with their own things then that’s kind of cool, you know, and just to be around other women, that’s kind of cool. If people don’t know how to mosaic I can help them with that.

Will you do one as well, or do you just instruct?

Tash: I don’t really have time to do – you don’t really have time to do your own. I could probably bring something in that was mine, because I am working on something at the moment as well. It was with a friend of mine, and we have started to mosaic on a mannequin torso. So I’ve started half of that, and then she was going to do the other half. So yeah, I could probably bring something in of mine. But people who don’t know how to mosaic, you actually have to be a bit more hands on, you know, just instruct… but you don’t get too involved, you actually just let people go.

Thanks Tash!

If you are interested in meeting Tash and enrolling in her Spring workshop, keep an eye out for future events on Charlotte’s facebook

And if you live in Auckland and want to volunteer at the Charlotte Museum Trust, then send us an email at charlottemuseum@gmail.com, we are always interested in people who might help us run events or work with us to preserve our collection. It’s a great way to gain skills for your cv, or to fill in some spare time in the company of great people like Tash 🙂

For lesbian lips only.

Genderqueer, Herstory, History, Lesbian, Transgender

The Charlotte Museum Trust contains within its archives a selection of lesbian feminist newsletters and magazines from the 1980s. Run by collectives and penned by volunteers, these publications were hell bent on, wait for it, a lesbian revolution. Lesbian Lip and Circle moreover were explicit in their preferred readership, featuring the censoring ‘For Lesbians Only’, and ‘For Women Only’, on their covers. Why such exclusivity? Why such separatism? A lesbian revolution required an authentic (patriarchy-free) sense of womanhood (womyn/wimmin/womon, et al, hood), so these magazines embraced the idea of women-only and lesbian-only spaces. Gawd, if you wanted to know what women were really capable of, best you figure it out without men telling you what to do, right? Right on sister!

As a director becoming newly acquainted with the Museum’s collection, flicking through the articles featured in Lesbian Lip and Circle coincided for me, with what we might call the ‘Bruce Jenner Effect’ imploding upon the interwebs on the one-hand, and the related correspondence received by the Museum regarding lesbian-only spaces, and how they might be preserved within wider issues of queer and trans politics, on the other. An intersecting juxtaposition you might say, and one that got me thinking about the relationship between lesbians (or lesbian-feminists), and transgender issues, from within the archives of the Charlotte Museum Trust. So what can the Museum’s collection tell us about this relationship, or at least, what are a few of the many things it can tell us? I thought I would reflect on two counts, firstly, on the perspectives found within 1980s lesbian feminist newsletters and magazines, and secondly on the scope of the collection itself.

Who has lesbian lips?

For some of the writers of 1980s Circle, intent as they were upon moving beyond heterosexuality and patriarchy alike, a bloke was a bloke was a bloke, and nobody raised as a boy was welcome within the closed circles of political lesbianism. However I would like to pay more attention to the articles featured in Lesbian Lips in the May-June newsletter for 1982, because in this issue the lesbian feminist authors contemplated the relationship between ‘women’s liberation’, and ‘lesbian liberation’, arguing in turn for a new definition of ‘woman’, one which would incidentally lead to that lesbian revolution they were looking for. To be fair, I am myself taking a liberal interpretation of the political position expressed by these women, however, one way of understanding lesbian politics, is to understand the need to redefine ‘woman’ in a way that breaks free from heterosexuality (women attract men and breed: full stop) and patriarchy (men are normal and make all the rules; women are not and need to be taught the rules). Under the heading ‘lesbian and queers’, one author argued that ‘woman’ exclusively meant white, middle-class, and heterosexual. In turn lesbians couldn’t be women. They may be either invisible or hated, but they were not accepted as women. Aberrations – sinners – perverts, but not women. So lesbian feminists of the 1980s? Some argued against their white cis-gender middleclass heterosexual feminist peers to create a utopia where ‘woman’ could mean non-heterosexual, and moreover, where ‘woman’ existed outside of patriarchy, that is, outside of the rules created by men.

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If we fast-forward through to 2015, then one way of understanding the relationship between lesbian and transgender politics , is that transwomen are, like cis-gender lesbians of the 1980s, capable of redefining ‘woman’ in ways that are neither patriarchal nor heterosexist. Should she want to be, a transwoman lesbian feminist may be the most radical revolutionary of them all. So trans politics and lesbian politics? Yes. But wait, there’s more:

Lesbian lips in drag: what we collect

From the perspective of a historian, lesbians are always hard to find. That’s not because they didn’t exist, it’s because they didn’t always go by that name, and sometimes straight women behave like they might be lesbians. Gender and sexual identity are what historians like to call ‘historically contingent’, which means what counts as being homosexual for one generation, doesn’t for another, the edges shift, and if you go far enough back, no special category for lesbian sexuality even existed.

Reflecting this situation, the collection of lesbian culture at the Charlotte Museum is not clear cut in its inclusion of lesbians and its exclusion of all others. It couldn’t be. There are too many grey areas in the past for it to be otherwise. Take the case of Amy Bock, popularly described as ‘a Tasmanian-born New Zealand female confidence trickster and male impersonator’. Amy was a con-artist, participating in criminal activities that culminated in her attempt to marry Agnes Ottaway in 1909. Having used many aliases throughout her life, Amy lived as Percy Redwood until she was caught out in her attempt to secure access to generous patrons through her marriage to Agnes. Some consider Amy Bock’s 1909 cross-dressing marriage as proof of Bock’s lesbianism.

Postcard depicting Amy Bock as the Female Bridegroom, collection of the Hocken Library, University of Otago.

Would we include her in a lesbian museum? Sure, because we may never know if her feelings for Agnes were sincere, or if given the opportunity she would have chosen to live as a lesbian, but we do know that she is part of lesbian culture, for she did seduce and marry a woman, and thus she fits within the bigger grey edged picture.

But Amy is also in one of our grey areas for another reason. In living as a man to marry a woman, Amy is both a historical lesbian and transgender man. And its often the case that our lesbian heritage does include women who may have lived as women their entire lives, but expressed their lesbianism in terms of being ‘born with the soul of a man’. In a way, our collective understanding of lesbian heritage is deeply entwined with the experiences of people we might now think of as being trans men. Our collection has favoured the experiences of people raised as female, who then went on to love other people raised as female, irrespective of whether or not either party may have wished to be identified in that way had they been given the choice. It’s a clumsy way of expressing it, but it’s how it works. In a sense, historians are bound to the nuances, or lack thereof, that made up the lived experiences of those in the past. When bodies are allocated one sex or the other upon birth, and peoples’ lives were explained in terms of their ability to fulfil or otherwise, the roles of that sex, then ‘lesbian’, ‘spinster’, trans man or gender queer, are all going to look pretty much the same when we look backwards. In turn the ‘lesbian space’ created by the collection, reflects the past, and as such already includes the history of trans politics within it…

For more on contemporary trans politics see http://frufruscrub.tumblr.com/post/91765505896/language-tips-for-cis-feminists-speaking-on-trans

For more on gender and safe spaces see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rdua6xvcalg

For more on Amy Bock see http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2b30/bock-amy-maud

For more on Circle and Lesbian Lips see The Charlotte Museum Trust collection in person, 8A Bentinck Street, New Lynn, Auckland. Open Wednesdays and Sundays 1-4pm.

We also welcome comments on this and other blogs.

Colour glaze and venereal disease: food for thought

Art, Contemporary Art, Crown Lynn, Herstory, Museums, New Zealand art

Recently I had the pleasure of playing tourist in the fine city of Auckland, casting aside my commuters’ hat in favour of walk socks and sandals – metaphorically speaking – I don’t actually wear sandals. As such I defied the laws of nature to attend the dawn blessing and subsequent opening of Te Toi Uku (destined to be known as ‘the Crown Lynn Museum’). Later that day I heard Lisa Reihana in conversation with Rhana Devenport (Director of the Auckland Art Gallery), participating in an event scheduled for the opening of Reihana’s exhibition, In Pursuit of Venus [infected]. Both were worth the early start. And because you never really stop being a museum director, both got me thinking.

Te Toi Uku is The Charlotte Museum Trust’s sister museum in New Lynn. Currently it is open as a research centre only, and sports a flash building in which to house its collection. In time it hopes to be open to the public, as we in our less flash building already are. Small display cases show iconic swans, and colour glaze tableware. Having been a collector of Crown Lynn for over ten years, I am embarrassed by how excited I was to be able to attend the opening of a Museum which to be fair, I had only just heard existed.

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In Te Toi Uku is housed a collective heritage that we can all understand – who hasn’t eaten off Crown Lynn dinner plates?! In my family, being bought a Crown Lynn dinner set upon leaving home was a rite of passage. And at the same time, Te Toi Uku is an integral part of a distinctively New Lynn heritage: Crown Lynn isn’t called Crown Lynn for nothing.

After attending both Te Toi Uku’s dawn blessing and opening, I pulled my socks up, and dashed back into town in an attempt to make that afternoon’s event at the Auckland Art Gallery… in spite of traffic.

Lisa Reihana’s talk about her work In Pursuit of Venus [infected] was also well worth attending, albeit I arrived late and missed the beginning. I did however trip over a number of people in the dark which I think made up for coming in late. In Reihana’s panoramic video, spanning an immersive 26metres of gallery wall, the artist recreates Joseph Dufor’s 1804 scenic wallpaper. The original wallpaper focussed on the savages of the Pacific for its design motif, and Reihana’s video recreates this through a series of vignettes using actors, which is shown at approximate life size. It’s very impressive and worth a visit. In her talk, Reihana drew attention to her desire to be both respectful and inclusive in her use of Pacific culture in the work. While Dufor’s wallpaper told the story of an exotic, utopian Pacific, a fantasyland awaiting discovery, Reihana rewrites that history into something more substantial, human, and, well… ‘infected’. Listening to Reihana, I was reminded of how contemporary New Zealand art so often utilises New Zealand history; how our past is regularly being written by historians, but also by artists.

800px-'Sauvages_de_la_Mer_Pacifique',_panels_1-10_of_woodblock_printed_wallpaper_designed_by_--Jean-Gabriel_Charvet--_and_manufacturered_by_--Joseph_Dufour--

Part series of the 1904 Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique

What does this have to do with lesbians, or the Charlotte Museum Trust? Both events raised issues of respect and inclusion, and speak to the question of how we might best represent the past in the present. Te Toi Uku preserves a predominantly Pakeha New Zealand treasure. It tells a national history through crockery. In Pursuit of Venus [infected] also offers a history, one which aspires to Pacific inclusion and respect. And this made me think, is it possible to tell a national history through lesbians at the Charlotte Museum? Can we do that and also be respectful and inclusive? When sometimes, respecting lesbians means keeping them invisible?

Reihana’s work is on show at the Auckland Art Gallery until 30 August. For more on Reihana’s work see http://www.inpursuitofvenus.com/

Te Toi Uku is open by appointment only. For more on the Crown Lynn Museum see http://portageceramicstrust.org.nz/

Compulsory Invulvament

Art, Feminism, Guerilla Knitting, Herstory, Museums, Patriotism, World War One

Over the last few weeks I learned a number of valuable lessons – the plural of vulva is vulvae, Hamilton is the knitting capital of New Zealand (closely followed by Wellington), and also that it’s hard to stand still in a strongly flowing stream, let alone walk against the current. For weeks prior to the opening of the Charlotte Museum Trust’s ANZAC Day exhibition, I was absorbed by a vulva-poppy mania. What newspapers would have referred to in decades past as being absorbed by an ‘orgy of knitting’. Lynda messaged me photos of her knitting from Dunedin, Jacqui handed over a bag of crochet poppies when we met for brunch, Colleen was unsure how to finish her vulvae so I sewed them up, Ineke passed a sample over at bookclub, all the while my partner was overcome with a knitting frenzy resulting in a growing pile of unsewn vulva-poppies piling up higher and higher on my desk. I knew why I was doing this particular exhibition, and wit aside, I believed in it. But as we got closer and closer to ANZAC Day, and I watched the little videos showing the making of Te Papa’s ‘The Scale of Our War’, I began to waver: was my vulva-poppy mania (masquerading as a women’s commemorative campaign) getting in the way of the ‘real meaning of ANZAC Day’? Golly, was it?

On ANZAC Day I drove up to the Charlotte Museum, wending my way north from the knitting capital of New Zealand. A scattering of people in formal regalia were preparing for an ANZAC commemoration at Gordonton, farmers had planted oversized poppies in their roadside paddocks around Huntly, and the ANZAC Day speeches were already being aired on the radio. I began again to feel the pull of public sentiment, a creeping feeling that maybe I was missing out by refusing to attend a dawn service.

When I spoke about the vulva-poppy installation at the Museum later in the day, I dwelt on the tension in feeling a love for one’s country, when you know that the country being commemorated is not the country you love. I love New Zealand, but the New Zealand I love has knitters and mothers and nurses and ambulance drivers and prostitutes as well as soldiers in its history for the period 1914-1918. That is, it has women, too.

panoramic for blog

 

During World War One women knitted, and their knitting kept men in the army. Trench foot was a constant threat to soldiers exposed to wet environments, where feet basically began to rot if left uncared for. Soldiers with rotten feet couldn’t fight well, and you know what slowed down trench foot? Clean dry socks. Simple really. Women’s knitting kept the troops on active service. And they knitted a lot.

During World War One mothers were encouraged to ‘give’ their sons to the war. Those little bundles of joy raised and cherished and taught to do good? Now they were being sent to die and you weren’t allowed to say a word in opposition. This was the maternal sacrifice of women. But there was also a second layer to the maternal sacrifice. In New Zealand and Australia maternal mortality was high, and if you didn’t die during childbirth, there was a really good chance you would be left with ongoing pain and debility. In the 1920s when soldiers were fast becoming memorialised as superstars of the ANZAC nations, some women responded, ‘you know what? we die for the good of the nation too, and we do it giving birth to those flaming soldiers’. Or something to that effect. Some reports suggested that while 30% of returned soldiers were on invalid pensions, 50% of mothers were invalided through childbirth, but with far less fanfare.

It must be said, there are no bronze statues to the women knitters and the dead mothers.

Record numbers attended ANZAC Day services on the centennial of our ill-fated landing at Gallipoli on 25 April, services commemorating our numerous soldiers and a scattering of nurses.

Charlotte strode against the current to commemorate the thousands of knitters and, yes, the mothers of World War One.

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‘Invulved’ is an exhibition of beautifully knitted poppies, vulva-poppies, and vulva, arranged in the shape of a silver fern, open Wednesdays and Sundays at the Charlotte Museum Trust, 1-4pm, until 13 May.

When lesbians knit.

Feminism, Herstory, World War One

You know that feeling when you come across a photo of a woman knitting and you know you know her partner from somewhere but for the life of you can’t remember where in your research career you came across her? That feeling? When you’ve spent the past ten years of your life researching women, and now they’ve all blurred into one? Kate-Sheppard-Cora-Wilding-Edith-Grossmann-Jessie-Mackay-Annie-Fraer-Rosa-Sawtell-Dora-Laura-Paula-Flora-Mary-Jane-Sue, was there a Sue? It probably doesn’t help that they have all been white women with English names. And, they are all dead, making them as indistinguishable as ghostly sheets of blank paper.

I was provoked into this reflective reverie whilst sourcing knitting related material for the Charlotte Museum’s knitted vulva installation, which opens on 25 April. You see, the object that set me flicking unsuccessfully through the lists of women’s biographies in my head, was a photograph depicting the Spinsters’ Club knitting for the soldiers of World War One, which is held in the collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library, used on their website, and reproduced above.

On the top left of the studio photograph, Daisy Isaacs is captured mid-stitch, knitting for all intents and purposes what might best be described as a small knitted vulva (masquerading as a sock). Below the photograph, Alison Laurie explains how Daisy Isaacs and Amy Kane (not shown) were a female couple. Until I found the photo on www.teara.govt.nz, I hadn’t known that there was an awesome precedent for lesbians knitting vulva-poppies, and needless to say I was well pleased to have found it. However until I read the blurb below the photo I also hadn’t known that Amy Kane preferred the company of women, or at least of one woman in particular. I had not heard of Daisy Isaacs. But for some reason, I had heard of Amy Kane… if only I could remember why.

A good half hour of ruffling through hand-scrawled notes later, I realised that I knew Amy Kane as an interwar president for the National Council of Women, and as a spokesperson for rural women through her involvement with the Women’s Institutes in New Zealand. That is, she was a member of the feminist elite, successful, and as it happens, literary. One extract that I had ferreted away concerned her 1929 report on the status of women in the Press, which was put before the annual meeting of the National Council of Women for that year. A fan of quality over quantity, she not altogether enthusiastically noted in her report that, ‘the past year while showing no production of special talent has been marked by an increase of publications by New Zealand writers’. And as is so often the case when it comes to historical traces, nothing I had stumbled across during my research into the Women’s Institutes or the National Council of Women had suggested she might have been a lesbian. AGM minutes seldom begin with ‘Amy Kane and her wife Daisy Isaacs were in attendance’, more’s the pity.

CHP19330725_2_4_1-a1-693w-c32-949-4105-1385-1900

Miss Amy Kane, of Wellington. Press, 25 July 1933, p.3

Apparently Kane had been born in Wellington in 1879, where her social standing and literary inclinations led her to help establish the Pioneer Club in 1909, a woman’s club, where she acted as president for over thirty years. She had also been a columnist for the ‘Women’s Pages’ of the New Zealand Free Lance from 1914. Kane died in 1979. I don’t know if Kane helped Isaacs knit for the soldiers during World War One, but I do know she was an avid supporter of the Red Cross during those years, making it pleasing to imagine the two women knitting socks, if not actually vulva, together during World War One.

For more on Amy Kane see http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3k1/kane-amy-grace

For an overview of Isaacs and Kane (and the photograph used here) see http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/30277/daisy-isaacs-and-the-spinsters-club