Helen Garner, Carlotta and other pioneering Australian women

Well-behaved women rarely make history, as the saying goes, and the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra is full of stories of Australian women who refused to conform to narrow ideas of their place and worth.

women make history takes 100 of these stories from the NPG’s collection and celebrates a century of pioneering Australian women: suffragettes, war heroines, wordsmiths and Nobel laureates; rock stars, record holders, divas and fashionistas; from the first woman elected to the House of Representatives to the first female Chief Justice of the High Court.

Karen Quinlan AM, director of the NPG, says women make history offers biographical information and insights on each of the famous figures.

“As the gallery prepares to launch the international exhibition, Shakespeare to Winehouse, which features iconic works and faces from the National Portrait Gallery in London, we thought it was only fitting to exhibit some of our own icons and to highlight the courage and commitment that underpins the accomplishments of this inspiring group of women.

Carlotta, Kings Cross (The Girls) 1970/1971 by Rennie Ellis.Credit:© Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive.

1. Carol Spencer AM (b. 1943), known as Carlotta, is an LGBTIQ+ cabaret artist, TV personality and advocate. Known as the “Queen of the Cross”, Carlotta joined Girls in 1962 and quickly rose to stardom, performing for nearly three decades. In 1973, Carlotta was the first transgender person in the world to play a transgender character on television in the Australian series. Number 96and was one of the inspirations for the 1994 film Priscilla, queen of the desert. She was immortalized in the 2014 film Carlotta. This glamorous image of Carlotta, taken by photographer Rennie Ellis in the dressing room of Girlswas part of a series capturing the “surface shimmers and subterranean guts” of Kings Cross.

Marea Gazzard 1966 by Judy Cassab.

Marea Gazzard 1966 by Judy Cassab.
Credit:© Estate of Judy Cassab.

2. Marea Gazzard AM (1928-2013) was one of Australia’s foremost ceramists. After studying in London, she returned with her husband to Australia in 1960 and set up a studio in Paddington. She was one of the first artisans to exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria. During the 1970s and 1980s she exhibited large abstract works in a number of important group shows and solo shows. She was commissioned to create the bronze sculpture Mingarri: Little Olgas (1988), which is in the central executive court of Parliament, Canberra.

Margaret Fink 1989 by Kerrie Lester.

Margaret Fink 1989 by Kerrie Lester.
Credit:© Estate of Kerrie Lester.

3. Margaret Fink (b. 1933), a film producer, was a key figure in the revival of Australian cinema in the 1970s. She married businessman Leon Fink in 1961 and was renowned for her rowdy dinner parties with friends such as Clive James, Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer. In 1975, his film adaptation of David Williamson’s film The movers established her as a “hands-on” producer. His collaboration with Gillian Armstrong on My Brilliant Career (1979) launched the careers of Armstrong and its lead actors, Judy Davis and Sam Neill. Candy (2006), his last production, starred Heath Ledger in his last Australian film. Artist Kerrie Lester is known for her distinctive portraits in which the outlines of the models are hand-stitched. This portrait also features rhinestones, a reference to Fink’s well-known penchant for clothes by fashion designer Sonia Rykiel.

Julia P. Cluff