Did you hear the tale of the photographer, the gynaecologist and the art curator?
Probably not, so it’s about time that you did.
Earlier this year I was privileged to visit an exhibition which resulted from the collaboration between these three remarkable women.
Titled Flesh after Fifty, it all started with Martha Hickey, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, at the University of Melbourne. Martha was frustrated that she couldn’t ‘get through’ on the importance and meaning of menopause.
She was aware of the ability of the arts to shape cultural norms and attitudes relating to gender and gender equality. For Martha, health equity for older women would mean changing negative views about ageing, recognising instead the strength and beauty resident in older female bodies.
So Martha contacted Jane Scott, curator at the Abbottsford Covent gallery space and together they managed to secure funding to create an exhibition which would focus on women over 50 and their bodies.
Next, they asked photographer Ponch Hawkes to create a gallery featuring 500 women, and their bodies. In turn, she issued an invitation through her networks asking if any women would attend her studio in North Melbourne to be photographed in the nude. The brief was that they could bring a prop to preserve their anonymity, but no hats or scarves. On and off lockdown restrictions meant that Ponch was able to complete her assignment with 424 women.
Importantly, Ponch was able to provide a safe and respectful environment for the photography sessions.
‘Almost everyone was scared, not knowing how this might turn out’, she says.
‘Older women are not honoured very frequently in society. Most were walking around in a body with some type of ‘baggage’.’
Ponch describes Flesh after Fifty/500 Strong as the best commission she has ever had. After the shoot she was delighted to receive letters and emails from many of her subjects, telling her what a positive experience it had been.
There was a strong link between the participants’ responses – ranging from the shoot being something they ‘ought’ to do and something they ‘should’ do. And then there were those who saw it as the ‘next brave step toward the second half of their lives’. Ponch is totally in synch with these women, describing her work as ‘Being part of making history. A rebellious act’.
One story shines.
It’s that of a woman who had been a long-term victim of domestic violence. Her husband had died just six weeks before Ponch took her photograph.
After the shoot this subject kept in touch. She had told Ponch that she hoped to create a new life. And, in a relatively short period of time, she has, learning to look forward with confidence and beginning to engage with many new creative pursuits.
I asked Ponch about older women and invisibility, a topic recently explored in SuperConnected with researcher David Donnellan.
She, too, understood what an issue that this has become for older women. But she also noted and celebrated those who stared down invisibility and responded through exercise and other forms of physical activity, building strong bodies and strong minds – for and in – their later years.
There are many insights to be discovered in the Flesh after Fifty exhibition.
You really do need to see it for yourself to find your own answers.
Ponch’s work is striking – we’re sharing, with her permission, some images below.
The exhibition also showcases the work of many other artists.
And the words of many women who are aged over 50.
Uplifting quotes abound.
‘I’ve got a new motto – and it’s yes!’
I’ll leave you with that thought in mind.
All images copyright Ponch Hawkes www.ponchhawkes.com
Go and see this powerful exhibition and take courage from the strength, humour and wisdom of all who took part.
Geelong Art Gallery 19 March – 3 July 2022
Shepparton Art Museum 23 July – 18 September 2022
Horsham Regional Art Gallery September – December 2022
Follow this site for details: https://www.fleshafterfifty.com/
International subscribers to SuperConnected can visit the exhibition online and download the program.