In Long Ballads, Adelaide-based artist Julia Robinson takes the gourd as a sculptural form, embellished with gold plating and lush purple materials. Holes are drilled in some of the gourds with gold eyelets fitted, raising the gourd from vegetable to effigy. In Lark’s hitch (2017) two gourds twist and twine their long necks together, as if engaging in a dance or embrace. A sunny pleasure dome (2016) is a copper-plated sculpture of a gourd – its dispensable vegetable flesh cast in metal, the bumps and irregularities appearing more beautiful with the art historical echo of this material.
The exhibition title references the broadside or vulgar songs of the Early Modern period that were popular at festivals in England and across Europe. These were risqué, boisterous and aggressive events – embracing ribald humour. Festivities often involved the suspension of normal social mores and the open exploration of the bodily and sexualised aspects of the psyche. Robinson’s work is similarly playful, seeking to examine the particularities of myth and folklore by evoking from a variety of rituals that avow life and ward off death. In Galligaskins (2017) a long gourd protrudes from carefully stitched purple britches. The gourd is part obscured, part revealed, it points straight upward creating a sexually suggestive dynamic. The choice of purple material is important as it references the strict social rules around the colours worn by different segments of society at this time.
The artist’s meshing of the gourds with the delicate hand-stitched smocking creates a feminist tension between femininity, sexuality and the phallic connotations. Robinson’s use of stitching and handicrafts can be considered within the movements of feminist and activist art where the status of handicrafts, traditionally seen as lesser art forms, are elevated as a means to speak from the feminine. The time intensive quality of this work suggests commentary on the traditional and continued undervaluing of women’s time and domestic labour within our society.
While artists have been working with handicrafts within feminist art for decades, and the feminist movement is experiencing its fourth wave, current political and social circumstances have reinforced the devaluing of domestic labour. Read through this lens, Robinson’s work subtly but acutely elucidates this circumstance and reminds us of how much still needs to change in this area.