I Got a Job, or: Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

door Marnie Slater

“I Got a Job” was first published in Dutch by HART (number 212, 31 March 2021), commissioned as part of their series “De nieuwe lichting” [The new batch] in which HART gives a (young) curator carte blanche to present the work of a(n) (young) artist of their choice. “I Got a Job” is published for the first time in its original English here.

Allie Eagle, Self Portrait (1974), graphite on paper, 785 x 545mm. Collection Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū
Allie Eagle, Self Portrait (1974), graphite on paper, 785 x 545mm. Collection Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū

"I don’t tell you this… so you think of me as a victim. I am not a victim. I tell you this because my story has value. My story has value. I tell you this ’cause I want you to know, I need you to know, what I know." – Hannah Gadsby, Nanette (2018)

I’m going to break the rules a little bit for this instalment of “De nieuwe lichting”. I would like to share with you a work by a not-so-young and not-so-new artist (Allie Eagle), from the perspective of being a not-so-young and not-so-curator artist (me). This work is a drawing titled Self Portrait and was made in Ōtautahi Christchurch in Aotearoa New Zealand in 1974.

Allie Eagle is an artist I did not know a lot about until quite recently. I had heard about but not seen Allie Eagle and Me (2004), a documentary film made from the perspective of a younger film-maker, Briar March, that looks back at Eagle’s earlier work as an artist, feminist and radical lesbian, and documents how her political perspectives and life as an artist have changed over the years. This is just to say that I am not ‘discovering’ an ‘undiscovered’ female artist, I was until quite recently simply ignorant of Eagle’s work. Eagle is a figure in my “nieuwe lichting”. I want to share this drawing with you, today, in 2021, because I think it has an important story to tell about being an artist that resonates with me and hopefully with you, too.

Eagle’s Self Portrait is kind of scruffy, smudged, the artist is slightly off-centre. It’s early summer in Aotearoa, and her sleeves are short. The top she is wearing looks like it could have many pockets, which indicates a level of functionality that is unusual for female-gendered clothing as much in 1974 when the drawing was made as now in 2021 when this text is being written. There is no discernible background, but for some reason I imagine she’s in front of a bathroom mirror. The artist looks directly at me out of the drawing; she’s busy and pissed off, fed up, over it, her head tilted slightly forward while her gaze stays direct, as if to say, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Eagle made Self Portrait when she was in her mid-twenties, and living in Ōtautahi. The work was purchased for the collection of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū in Ōtautahi in 2012.

I have been thinking a lot about storytelling recently. I have been thinking about the stories we tell as artists, how we tell them and who we tell them to. I tell stories all the time: in artist’s talks, in grant applications, when I teach, when I see friends and colleagues, when I sit down to write texts for publications. And I listen to them too, a lot. The stories we tell matter; they can carve out a space for us to exist, challenge what can be said, build solidarity and understanding and help us get what we desire, but they can also reproduce conditions that maintain lives as impossible, unsayable and fucked up. And we are such professional editors of our stories, right? What we edit out when we tell our stories as artists says a lot, and so often it is not about what the person who is doing the telling actually wants or needs to communicate. Editing our stories can be a matter of survival.

Self Portrait is special, I think, because it demands a fidelity to the story of its creator.

I first saw Self Portrait on the website of the Christchurch Art Gallery in the institution’s collection archive. Accompanying the image of the drawing is series of tags to connect the work to other parts of the collection. The tags include: “women (female humans)” and “feminists (people)” – this work is apparently the only item in the collection of probably hundreds of works that is tagged as “feminists (people)”, fyi. (And, yes, the tag details in parentheses are strange, unnecessary and funny in a downer way.) Below the tags is a text, a story. The story narrates how Self Portrait was made by Eagle at home one evening, after returning from work as an exhibition officer for the Robert McDougall Art Gallery (the former iteration of the Christchurch Art Gallery). That day in 1974, the story tells us, Eagle had been installing a group exhibition titled “Six New Zealand Artists”, that included no female-identifying artists. This exhibition had been presented in London and was returning to Aotearoa for a national tour – a big international deal for contemporary art in 1974.

From her position as an installation support worker for the exhibition, Eagle recognised her outrage at how “Six New Zealand Artists” exemplified a deep absence of both her generation and older women artists from exhibitions, educational curriculums, conversation and attention, and channelled this outrage into the gaze we receive when we look at Self Portrait. On the Christchurch Art Gallery website, Eagle is quoted as saying that installing “Six New Zealand Artists” tipped the scales for her. So she made a drawing and kept going. From this moment, Eagle produced more artwork, organised exhibitions on women’s art, participated in many feminist collectives, advocated for female reproductive rights, the rights of lesbian and gay people in Aotearoa and spoke up loudly about gendered violence. I read this story while looking at Self Portrait, and I am relieved and empowered because I recognise that Eagle as an artist is also Eagle as a feminist (person) and lesbian (human). I am reminded again that to separate artwork from storytelling can be part of an imposed editorial strategy that tries to silence and neutralise the lives and legacies of artists, their positionality, the way they are embedded in and reliant on their communities and the powerful possibility of their stories informing the lives of future (younger) art makers.

Eagle was younger when she made this drawing. The genre of the “young artist” is a very particular one. In its expectations for the new and naïve and in its assumption of youth measured in years, it is a deeply ahistorical and ageist narrative. The reality is in fact that you can be new to art and old in years (or the other way around) and you can know more about how to hang a painting than the six male artists whose work you are paid to install. (As an aside, the Christchurch Art Gallery, where Eagle worked as an installer, like so many contemporary art institutions, currently presents an all-male install crew on their website. Allie and I have our eyes on you!) The reality is in fact that being a “young artist,” especially female, poc, trans, migrant, working class, is so often a period of unspecified time that we simply hope will end at some point and we will emerge with an art practice and the means and power to maintain it. Eagle’s Self Portrait makes me think about a different framework for the “young artist” because it asks me to rethink how art and life can interact, especially at moments of change. Self Portrait becomes one marker of an early moment in Eagle’s career where she demands for the making of art and the changing of her life and the lives of others to become explicitly woven together. As a matter of survival.

This drawing was made in a place that could be thought of as removed from the site of conflict, at home (in a bathroom), and self-portraits are an intimate process, but they are also acts of self-representation that can then be turned outward, towards others. The story of Self Portrait begs retelling I think, with its powerful and fearless feminist gaze. I love the anger that this drawing shows us and then tells us how to put to work.

Marnie Slater (b. Aotearoa New Zealand) is a visual artist who lives in Brussels. Marnie’s work engages with multiple formats, including sculpture, collaboration, editing, performance, painting and installation. In the last ten years Marnie has been working in two parallel ways: engaging with archive material and long-term collaboration. Her interest in archives started 2010 when she began to work in the company of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, stepsisters, lovers and artists whose photographic work and legacy have formed the framework for many projects. Like her solo work, Marnie’s long-term collaborations are led by queer and feminist politics and desires. She is part of the All the Cunning Stunts, co-curator of Buenos Tiempos, Int. and a team member of Mothers & Daughters – A Lesbian* and Trans* Bar*. Marnie was a core tutor on the Master of Voice program at the Sandberg Institute, Amsterdam, and is currently teaching on the AdMa program at St Lucas School of Art, Antwerp, where she is also undertaking a two-year research project on process tools for queer and feminist collaborative art making.