Skip to main content

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Heroine knits

by Sophia Cai, 19 December 2017

Feminist Fan#1 (PUSSY: Casey at the Melbourne Pussy Riot Protest, 2012) 2015 by Kate Just
Feminist Fan#1 (PUSSY: Casey at the Melbourne Pussy Riot Protest, 2012) 2015 by Kate Just

Feminist Fan is an ongoing series by Melbourne artist Kate Just. Each work is a hand-knitted homage to a self-portrait or artwork by a feminist artist around the globe. The title of the series emphasises Just’s reverence of the artists and feminism, and each carefully rendered picture – featuring over 10,000 stitches and 80 hours of work – constitutes an act of devotion. As a collection, Feminist Fan forms an intimate family portrait of feminism and Just’s influences, in which threads of connection between artists and across time and cultures emerge.

How did you come to develop the Feminist Fan series?

The idea for this series started with me collecting photographs and images of artists working with ideas of ‘craftivism’ and the public space, as well as activist groups like Pussy Riot [Russia] and Femen [Ukraine] doing action in public spaces with their bodies as a provocative and disruptive force. Femen were doing these photos of themselves naked with text all over their bodies to make political commentary, while Pussy Riot had done the performance in the church. When Pussy Riot was imprisoned, Casey Jenkins and some other artists in Melbourne had organised a protest, and I had this photo of Casey holding a sign that said ‘PUSSY’ on the steps of Parliament House.

As I was collecting these materials I thought it was so interesting that there was this real moment of women putting their bodies on display for political effect. The next thing I thought was, ‘what would it look like if I knitted some of these pictures?’ The first one I knitted was Casey at the Pussy Riot protest, followed by Femen at the Hague.

At first I thought they didn’t look really good at all. But then slowly they started growing on me, and then strangely by the third or fourth one in I switched my focus and started collecting images of female artists from the 1970s like Carolee Schneemann and Lynda Benglis, and thinking actually that these things are quite closely connected. I think it’s always been part of feminism to use the body as a provocative force, whether in public, in a performance, or in a photograph. So I thought – what would happen if I connected them? What would happen if I put Casey, Pussy Riot, Carolee and Lynda together in one canon? So that’s how it happened over a period of time.

How many have you made so far, and will this be an ongoing series?

I’ve made over 40 and will stop soon. The idea originally was to have a ‘top 40’ but I have made some repeats and doubles of some people so I’m allowing myself a little bit over 40.

It’s funny because every time I think I’m going to stop I end up doing one or two more. Fundamentally it’s the kind of series that could go on and on, as there is no limit to the number of artists that still inspire me. But I think that if I do continue to knit pictures it may be related to, but not directly for, this series.

You often use knitting and textiles in your art practice as a poetic or political tool. How does this series differ to what you have made before?    

The biggest difference is that this is two-dimensional pictorial knitting, while most of my practice before I had made large-scale knitted sculptural three-dimensional forms such as Uniform (Dad), 2002 [in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia]. Swapping to two-dimensional knitted pictures was very different technically.

In other ways this series relates to everything I’ve ever made, because almost everything I do relates back to my own autobiography and life experience. I’ve made works about my identity as an adoptive mother, about coming to terms with my sexuality, about death and family loss. The Feminist Fan series is a work about me in the sense that it shows my influences.

It’s a family portrait; it’s my genealogy; it’s about who informed me as an artist.

As a personal canon of art heroes, how do you select who to include?

First and foremost, I am just choosing the artists that I find most inspiring. I make lists as I go – I’ll maybe have five and I’ll knit those five, and then they remind me often of others. They are actually quite connected, and I’m making explicit connections between artists that are sometimes not exhibited together.

Fundamentally, all the artists I’ve chosen are artists who use the body and textiles as a transgressive and political force. All of my work relates to textiles, skin and the body, and their materiality and agency, so it makes a lot of sense looking back at this series that every single artist I’ve included uses clothing, adornment, textiles and the body as a political force. This project is about honouring feminists and the people who made a commitment to it.

How important is cultural diversity and gender representation to you when you select who to knit?

I think this is one of the major things I’ve considered in this work. Feminism has been defined so predominantly as a white Western canon, and continues to be within museum contexts, but that is not what is most inspiring to me. I also think it’s the responsibility of people in a way, moving forward, to not relax in that privilege. We should be on high alert, all the time, about the ways that even in a feminist and queer space people are being privileged over others. I was very conscious that I wanted to represent trans and intersex artists in the series because that is often excluded from a feminist space. But also artists from all over the world – really significant artists who have not had that much world recognition.

Why did you decide to use the word ‘fan’, which has strong associations with adoration and devotion, to describe this series? What does this mean to you?

One of the reasons I thought about using the word ‘fan’ was that at the time I was devising this project I had seen media stories where women were denying feminism or explaining why they weren’t feminists. And I thought, ‘why would someone want to deny a feminist affiliation; I am totally devoted to it and what it can be’. I’m not just someone who thinks it’s useful or an important tool for political change,

I’m a massive fan of it. It can be fun, it can be hilarious, it can be angry, it can be insistent, it can be community-building, it can be beautiful, it can be ugly, it can be everything. I feel like

I wanted to declare my love for feminism and then also declare my love for artists who, like me, aren’t afraid of it and what it can be in their own works.

I have love for these artists. When I write them letters and tell them why their work matters to me, it’s like these are the artists that helped me survive. They’re the evidence that you can make it in the world, that you can be the type of person you want to be, not just even as an artist but as a human being. That you can be queer, that you can be angry – all those possibilities of what you may want to be.

Given your love for the artists depicted, do you have a favourite piece from the series?

The Ana Mendieta one is a major favourite. Sometimes something comes in the interpretation that I didn’t see in the original. For example – in the Ana Mendieta piece – it is such a beautiful photo but she is kind of aloof in the original photograph; she is distant. But there is something in the way that I’ve knitted it where it feels like she’s looking into my soul [laughs]. And when I was making this I was thinking about Carl Andre and, whatever you presume to be true or false about that situation, she died in a horribly tragic way and possibly at the hands of her lover. I’ve made a lot of work about violence against women and it makes me deeply sad to consider someone of that talent dying violently. I literally cried the whole time I was making this work.  

Technically, I really love the Louise Bourgeouis portrait with the brown, puffy suit. The way I knitted it surprised me, and I really respond to that, as well as the Yayoi Kusama portrait. There are ones where technically I can’t believe I pulled it off, and then there are others where I feel a strong emotional bond – like Ana Mendieta and Tracey Moffatt.

What does your interpretation through knitting add to the original image?

The knitting does a couple of things. First, it unifies them all into the same medium. The original source materials exist in various forms: there is performance, painting, drawing, photographs, and I translate them into knitting, which unifies them so they all have the same materiality. That creates a thread through them, literally, making them more connected. They are all the same size and they are of a similar scale to each other, which they wouldn’t have been originally.

I’m also making them less real, which makes them more likeable. It softens the toughness of some of the messages in the original photographs or portraits, and there is an intensity in a lot of the images I select. Once it’s knitted it’s really softened, and it takes on the appearance of being like a sweater, despite being stretched around canvas. In a strange way, making it funny and familiar like a sweater makes it really acceptable and digestible. Even people who politically don’t like the message in the original work often find my work engaging.

Are there any limitations for using the medium of knitting?

It takes a long time! [laughs].

Have you had an opportunity to exhibit this body of work?

They have been shown as groups in both Australia and overseas. One of the things I found unfortunate about the series is that while there have been opportunities to show them, it has not been all of them together. Also, normally when they are exhibited curators want to show them all in a cluster, like a family portrait on the wall, which is fine by me. But my ideal way of showing these works would be in a massive space, where they would be hung in line.

While not chronological, it’s about a line of connection, a chain of connection, and each one having its own space. When I showed them in New York, that’s the closest I got to hanging them this way – I had 18 of them and they went in a line around the room.

You’ve shared these works online on your Instagram account with a personal caption that describes your relationship with the artist or original work. How significant has the digital platform been for the dissemination of this work?

Interestingly, this series of work began at the same time I started using Instagram (@katejustknits) so they coincided with each other. As soon as I started using Instagram as a tool I realised this could be the platform where the work is seen, the space through which the work is disseminated. Thousands of people have seen the Instagram posts, and fewer people have seen them in galleries. Instagram also creates a dialogue between me and that artist, or other fans of the artist. And suddenly the world can seem so small.

What has also surprised me about Instagram is how it’s been able to connect me to institutional opportunities, which are often hard for feminist, queer artists to access. So I started being invited to more international museums and artist-run spaces immediately. In a place like Australia, where opportunities aren’t necessarily knocking on your door, this is significant. It’s sort of unbelievable in a way, but I think this might the future now for younger artists as well.

Looking to the future, why do you think it is important for a series like this to exist?

I think that despite how much people like this series of work, despite how much it gives people permission to be feminists, and despite how good it might make us all feel – that we can recognise each other in a community of different kinds of artists, with different concerns; that we can feel like we are all part of one thing – in actual fact the opportunities that are being afforded to women artists, artists of colour, queer artists, and trans artists – the sense of our significance on the world stage; the sense of our alliance – is still not fully established.

We are at a crux [in time] where it feels frightfully wrong and incredibly optimistic and hopeful at the same time. But I keep on being shocked by things that are happening on the world political stage, so I feel like, ‘how can I believe that things are changing? How is it really getting better?’

© National Portrait Gallery 2024
King Edward Terrace, Parkes
Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia

Phone +61 2 6102 7000
ABN: 54 74 277 1196

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency