As I arrive outside her studio in St Kilda, visual artist, Kate Just is riding her bike elegantly down the street to meet me. Kate’s energy is infectious. We immediately start chatting and I feel drawn into Kate’s world for the next couple of hours.
Inside the building, Kate makes me a coffee and passes it to me in her, ‘Fuck the dudes, give me money’ mug. We chat about our families, her projects, bad haircuts and Kate speaks about celebrating feminist activism in a joyous and hopeful way. I ask her if she shares my feelings of anger about misogyny and gender inequality. Kate tells me that she no longer feels anger because she is putting her feelings into action. The act of artmaking provides the focus she needs.
Kate is the knitting boss. The studio where Kate creates her intricately constructed knitted artworks was once home to a knitting factory. In the former boss’s office, Kate sits at her table in an artist space she shares with 18 other artists. The connection between the building’s former life as a knitting factory and Kate’s work as an artist who is known for her knitted works is a nice line drawn from past to present.
Kate uses iconic photos and paintings of feminist activists and artists as reference for her ‘Feminist Fan’ series. Interested in how the gentleness of knitted art, “softens the confrontation,” of the subject matter, Kate pays homage to the feminists who have had an impact on her life. “So when they’re all gathered on a wall and they’re all made into a similar size and they’re all made as knitting, it’s a family portrait of feminism,” said Kate. “So in fact it’s actually a self-portrait of me as an artist.”
Creating a historical record and visibility beyond the original artworks, Kate has posted these works on Instagram, signing the posts with, “I’m your feminist fan.” This process has resulted in Kate receiving exhibition opportunities and connection with some of the women featured in her work.
Kate began her ‘Feminist Fan’ series three years ago with artworks inspired by feminist activists such as Femen, Pussy Riot and China’s Feminist Five, who were all imprisoned for expressing their feminist beliefs in public spaces.
Kate was interested in the ways that these activists were disrupting public space to raise awareness of feminist issues.
“I’m looking at how this thing of feminist action in places where it’s really dangerous to undertake feminist action and how the body on display, naked or bloody or clothed in a costume is used to generate a dialogue about feminist issues,” said Kate.
The power of a woman’s body and the importance of expressing ownership and control over one’s body plays a large role in Kate’s work. In her series she pays homage to Carolee Schneemann’s performance “Interior Scroll” during which Schneemann pulled a tiny folded text out of her vagina, reading a hidden letter to a critic who didn’t understand her work.
“There’s works about aging, there’s works about the body as the kind of animal human body, what it would be like to re-imagine your body more from a kind of perspective of a body that changes, that’s always in flux,” said Kate.
Also depicted in Kate’s art works are other favourite feminist artists such as Lynda Benglis , who challenged the lack of representation for women artists. Also Sarah Maple, who challenges what it means to be a Muslim woman who expresses her sexuality. Transgender and intersex bodies are represented in knitted art works picturing Heather Cassils and Juliana Huxtable. “There are are trans and intersex artists saying that gender is not definable in the way that we know it to be” said Kate. A knitted portrait of Hannah Wilke is also represented, portraying the dying body as powerful.
“Every single one of them is a challenge to the limits around gender, sexuality and even representation of women, gender and sexuality in art,” said Kate.
Kate also works as a Graduate Coursework Coordinator at the Victorian College of the Arts in a busy environment, so the balance of her studio time suits her. “Having very intense high level discussions about art, about life, a very stimulating environment, it’s like a lovely and amazing place but exhausting as well. So then if I go to the studio and I don’t talk to anyone for three days, that’s fine with me. I’ve got the conversations going with myself, inside my own head,” said Kate.
In the last year Kate’s motivation and focus has been to travel to countries outside the western world to understand feminism from a global context. “I’m interested in feminism all around the world and how it manifests, and I’d like to integrate some of those experiences,” said Kate.
Kate’s 2016 residency in India provided material for new work. “It’s still from this perspective, from my perspective as a woman, as a feminist, as a queer artist, going to that place and how do I interpret these things.” Embracing her experiences and collecting material about women and women artists, Kate said, “Then I just piece it back together into a work that’s non-judgmental and celebratory in a way.”
During her 2016 residency in Japan, Kate observed that the work on display in the museums and galleries she visited was overwhelmingly by male artists. “I really want to see how feminist artists are coping in Japan and there was a few that I really wanted to meet and I started reaching out to them one by one,” said Kate.
Eventually connecting with six feminist artists in Tokyo, including Megumi Igarashi who was charged with offences of obscenity for making a boat modelled on 3D scans of her own vagina.
Kate observed the duality of a society where it is possible to purchase pornography easily at the local store yet an artist is persecuted for creating an artwork that depicts female genitalia.
Kate adopted a “Feminist Fan in Japan” uniform as a way to wear versions of Japanese femininity and embrace her observations of the culture. Wearing a pink cleaner’s uniform emblazoned with feminist endorsements, cute badges and pins, she took on the task of investigating, meeting other feminists to, “see what work needs to be done here.” Kate observed the “kawaii” culture of cute paraphernalia, “You realise that this is a culture where girliness, even in adult women is really prized.”
From this experience, Kate curated a group show which resulted in hundreds of people attending the opening event. Noting the content in the Japanese artist’s work, Kate said, “Their works were different to western feminist works because their works were more about basic rights for women.”
Kate encourages feminist artists to create opportunities to exhibit. “You need a network or you want to make opportunities, you have to do it together. You have to do it in a way that’s powerful, public and fun as well.”
The level of interest in Kate’s work indicates a global desire for discussions about feminist issues. Through her art, Kate is creating a visible reference of women’s voices which invites us all to join the conversation.
Kate Just, I’m your feminist fan.
Kate is currently exhibiting work as part of AsiaTopa’s Body and Cloth: performing textiles exhibition. Kate will also take part in No Woman is an island at Blindside Gallery in May 2017. Visit her website at katejust.com and follow her on Instagram at @katejustknits.
Listen to the podcast below to hear Kate talk about her work in her own words.