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Sydney to put up more statues of women after its public art labelled a ‘sausage party’

A councillor has described Sydney’s public art as “sausage party” amid a campaign to balance gender representation among the city’s public statues.

There are just six public statues of women in the city of Sydney, including two of Queen Victoria and one of saint Mary MacKillop.

The trend extends across all Australian states. Six out of 33 statues in the city of Adelaide are of women – making it the state with the highest proportion of statues of women. In Melbourne and Brisbane, women make up only 15% of statues.

Labor councillor Linda Scott moved a motion for the city of Sydney to set up a public art advisory panel to guide the process of delivering at least three new artworks “celebrating, commemorating or depicting women”. The motion was passed by majority of councillors on 13 March, but there is not yet a timeline of when the artworks will be commissioned.

“When it comes to Sydney statues, it’s unfortunately a bit of a sausage party,” Scott said. “There are about five times as many statues of birds in the city of Sydney than there are of women.”

The only exception is women’s bodies depicted in public art as symbols of peace or prosperity, said Nancy Cushing, an associate professor of history at the University of Newcastle.

“Lots of women’s bodies are on display, but they are not drawing attention to the actions or contributions of real flesh and blood women,” she said. Most statues of men, however, are “representations of specific historical male figures”.

“It’s time for change,” Scott said.

But Prof Bronwyn Carlson, head of Indigenous studies at Macquarie University and co-author of Monumental Disruptions, said the push is “another way to diminish criticisms about colonial monuments”.

Gender is part of the colonial project, Carlson said.

“Yes there are many monuments to white men – not all men – specifically white men,” she said. “There are many monuments to animals and a few to white women.

“Just adding statues to white women makes no difference to the way these commemorations act to promote white supremacy and white permanency over Indigenous erasure.”

The push to diversify public artwork comes against a backdrop of debate that echoes Carlson’s sentiment – should existing public monuments commemorating colonisation be removed and should more public monuments be erected at all?

“We need to be careful with new statues, to not just reproduce the problem we already have,” Cushing said. “So it’s a conundrum.”

She said the distinction between statutes and other public art is the “strong feeling that once erected, they should be able to hold this space for all of time”.

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“We tear down buildings; books are superseded when new interpretations are put forward,” Cushing said. “But to remove a statue is in some way disrespecting the views held by people in the past.”

Cushing said it is not that they should be removed but reviewed.

“It is whether the story they were erected to represent is still one that society wants to have in their public spaces,” she said.

The alternative view is that monuments should remain as a record of values, whether consistent or changed.

“If you take that away, you don’t have that public memory,” Cushing said.

Scott acknowledged this. “The people we choose to commemorate and honour with statues in our public spaces make a public statement about who and what we value. Who we, quite literally, ‘put on a pedestal’,” she said.

“Around Australia, researchers say, less than 5% of public statues are of First Nations people. Our public spaces should reflect what our community values and what we as a community aspire to.”

To Cushing, it is about the use of public space for all.

“Public space is for everyone,” she said. “If everyone has the right to feel part of, represented in and welcome in that space, it only makes sense that people should be able to look at statuary and see someone like themselves. Someone they could aspire to be.”

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