Are We There Yet? is the exhibition marking 125 years of women's suffrage in NZ

by Linda Herrick / 18 September, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Are We There Yet? exhibition

Covers from now-defunct Broadsheet magazine.

The exhibition at Auckland Museum shows there is still ground to make up.

Are We There Yet?, which marks the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, has plenty to say about the progress or otherwise of equality in this country. As it moves from the 1890s to the state of affairs today, the narrative – dominated by photography – becomes harsher, fiercer in tone.

The visuals are strong, especially in the “Fight Like a Girl” section, which illustrates 40 years of activism, particularly during the 1970s and 80s. Blood was shed during those times – the photos show that – but the exhibition is too quiet. A display of works revealing a rising tide of anger would be greatly enhanced by an added dimension of sound and fury.

The pioneering suffragettes struggled for more than 20 years and won, an achievement acknowledged early in the show. But the images in “Fight Like A Girl” are so compelling – and so enraged – it’s a little strange to engage with them in silence. These protesters were strident and awesome. Where are their voices? Where is the news footage?

These are powerful photos, mainly shot by Gil Hanly, of Kiwi women standing against the Vietnam War in 1972; anti-nuke marches from 1983-85; Wellington’s formidable Radical Lesbian Feminists in the 1970s; Dame Whina Cooper at Waitangi in 1984; a howling protest in response to the murder of six-year-old Teresa Cormack in 1987; and a Rape Crisis demonstration in Auckland in 1982.

In the protest pictures, the women’s mouths are open, but you can’t hear them.

You can hear and see Gaylene Preston’s short film Hot Words & Bold Retorts, which offers a lively interlude. It partners the voices of a handful of early activists (from the Radio NZ archive between 1947-65) with flawless lip-synching from Miranda Harcourt, Lucy Lawless, Jean Sergeant and Chelsie Preston Crayford. It’s a very effective presentation.

Photo/Max Lemesh

Photo/Max Lemesh

There’s a tremendous aura of power in another section, “In Their Own Words”, portraits of 30 contemporary New Zealand women ranging across two walls alongside statements reflecting their ideology.

The exhibition also pays tribute to now-defunct magazines that documented the feminist movement. A large display of Broadsheet covers is a striking testament to the feisty approach of the publication, which ran from 1972 to 1997.

The “Hard Data” section valiantly attempts to bring statistics to life and the figures from the 2017 Household Labour Force Survey should induce some blood-boiling. Women earn 91 cents to every dollar earned by men; a European female earns, on average, $23.97 an hour compared to $20.50 for Māori women. The figures for other ethnicities are even worse. And the sexual assault statistics, reported in age groups, are just depressing.

Photo/Maegan McDowell

Photo/Maegan McDowell

Elsewhere, I’m not sure that devices like ending the show by hanging notebooks on the wall inviting people to “confess your feminist sins here” is going to create an attitudinal earthquake.

How about looping footage of Rena Owen telling Jake the Muss where to stick his eggs? That scene, from Once Were Warriors, is one of the most iconic middle-finger feminist messages in our cinematic history. Surely it deserves a place in this narrative.

The anniversary marks a significant milestone, but Are We There Yet? could be much bolder.

Are We There Yet? is at Auckland Museum until October 31.

This article was first published in the August 25, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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