8 seriously empowering women at Sydney Festival

December 10, 2018
Katie Jowett
From contemporary artists to trip hop rebels
The Sydney Festival 2019 program is packed with cool women making and performing amazing work. Here's your guide to some of the artists whose practice is informed by the dialogue between feminism and art – they have powerful things to say.  


Xiao Lu’s artwork exploded onto the scene with her 1989 graduation show Dialogue, which the New York Times called China’s first major feminist contemporary work of art. At the last minute, she added the iconic, controversial and undeniably badass moment of firing two bullets through her work – and she wasn’t exactly waiting around for permission.

As the only female student in her class, she knew the elite male critics wouldn’t allow it: “at the time, I was an obscure nobody in their eyes, and a woman too,” she explains in an interview for the Tate. “I felt like I could not communicate with men. Dialogue was about that.”

Dialogue proved controversial enough to get Lu detained and prompt an escape from China to Australia. An iconic rebel performance artist, she has continued to create provocative work, including running away from guards naked in protest of the Venice Biennale. 

Xiao Lu: Impossible Dialogue at Sydney Festival 2019 will be the first retrospective celebrating three decades of her work, where she will also appear in conversation.

Xiao Lu: Impossible Dialogue
19 January–24 March 
4a Centre For Contemporary Asian Art  


Rebel and riot grrrl Neneh Cherry has been outspoken about gender politics since the 80s. Both in her lyrics and her life, she is a no-nonsense, straight-talking force to be reckoned with, championing individuality and fighting for political change. Launching her career at the centre of a crucial moment in British pop history, she refused to water herself down to sell records, collecting four top-ten hits and countless collaborations.

From her stint with post-punk feminist royalty The Slits, to appearing on Top of the Pops seven months pregnant, to showing up to a feminist demonstration with her 18 year-old daughter, Neneh Cherry is the kind of role model we (read: I) need, and she backs the future of feminism. “I think that there's room for everybody in there, whether you want to wear a G-string or, you know, a fucking sack!” she told The Guardian

Neneh Cherry is bringing her new Four Tet produced albums Broken Politics and Blank Project to Sydney Festival for just two nights this January. 

Neneh Cherry
15 & 16 January  


One of Sydney Festival 2019’s most unapologetic shows of female power is Deer Woman, a solo-warrior-woman work of righteous vengeance staring actor, storyteller, activist and comedian Cherish Violet Blood. This multi-talented Blackfoot woman inspired the creation of the work by Article 11, an Indigenous arts company from Turtle Island (Canada) with a vision to create new communities and evolve society through art. 

Deer Woman allows an often-denied outlet of anger for the thousands of Indigenous Canadians who have “disappeared,” been murdered and never received justice. Cherish Violet Blood plays a woman whose sister has “disappeared,” and uses her military training to exact vengeance on the culprit; the final moments take the revenge fantasy to the extreme. Don’t miss it at Carriageworks 16–20 January. 

Deer Woman
16–20 January


Indigenous artist, dancer and choreographer Amrita Hepi’s work is empowering young women, women of colour and women everywhere. With an emphasis on intersectionality and inclusivity, her art aims to undo the negativity directed at our bodies, including a TedxYouth talk called ‘To Be a Good Dancer, Don’t Give a Fuck’. 

As a teacher she is committed to creating an environment that encourages women to shine, and importantly, recognises Queen Bey as our rightful leader. “Generally the only people that don’t really like her or who don’t ‘get it’ are: white privileged, cis, men who are like; “she’s a bit full on isn’t she?” – yeah well you know what?...so is oppression. Bow Down.” 

Catch her incredible video work in The Ropes – exploring blak experience and the history of cultural resilience via skipping – at Cement Fondu, alongside video works by American conceptual artist and philosopher Adrian Piper.

The Ropes: Amrita Hepi X Adrian Piper
11 January–3 March  
Cement Fondu  


Contemporary opera La Passion de Simone pays tribute to an historic heroine – humanist philosopher and activist Simone Weil. A classmate of Simone de Beauvoir, she was an outspoken opponent of European fascism and put herself on the front line, literally, to experience the conditions for anarchist soldiers in the Spanish Civil War. Committed to compassion and defending the rights of the oppressed, Weil died for her beliefs aged just 34, during a hunger strike against the Holocaust. 

Not only is La Passion de Simone an inspiring tale of a woman who refused to conform, but it’s being told by an impressive team of female artists. Renowned Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and director Imara Savage, designer Elizabeth Gadsby and solo soprano performer Jane Sheldon are behind the spiritual contemporary opera.   

Read more about Simone Weil’s incredible life here

La Passion de Simone
9–11 January


Listed as one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s 21 Iconic Women of the Stage, Page and Screen – alongside such minor names as Cate Blachett, Oprah Winfrey and Lady Gaga – Helpmann award-winner Ursula Yovich has made a name for herself depicting strong matriarchal characters. Yovich is a versatile performer and writer who’s unafraid to show every facet of female emotion, including anger – see her powerful performance in Barbara and the Camp Dogs

Her work speaks to the importance of intersectionality and representing strength in Indigenous women, and her presence at Sydney Festival this year is no different. Yovich wrote and stars in Man With the Iron Neck, which explores how a small family overcomes trauma. You'll also be able to hear what she has to say in a talk at UTS entitled Resilience and Recovery: Getting By and Getting Better

Man With The Iron Neck
23–26 January
Sydney Opera House


Les Filles de Illighadad are revolutionising the musical traditions from their village in rural Niger, and they’re only in their early 20s. In the Tuareg community, women traditionally don’t work (or play guitar), but in the evening perform tende, a musical gathering of drums and female voices. 

When Fatou Seide Ghali’s brother left his guitar at home, she became fascinated with the instrument. She is now one of only two women in Niger who can play the guitar, but she has hopes to inspire more. Joined by her cousin Alamnou Akrouni and friend Mariama Salah Aswan, they make up a joyous band with a great sense of humour, touring their unique brand of haunting desert blues internationally (with Ghali’s brother Ahmoudou Madassane sometimes on board to help them overcome the many gender-based obstacles). 

Les Filles de Illighadad
19 January  
Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent


Artist Zanny Begg has created a fascinating video installation about the life and mysterious death of publisher, model and heiress turned activist, Juanita Nielsen. In the 1970s, Nielsen made some powerful enemies with her passionate stance against a building proposal in Kings Cross that would evict dozens of people. She maintained her position despite the intimidation tactics used against her, but tragically disappeared in 1975. Neither she nor the people responsible have ever been found. 

The Beehive features 12 actresses, who represent different sides of Nielsen’s personality, allowing her to stand for many women who battle to be taken seriously and face threats of violence and injustice. Begg’s work uses unique randomising software to create a different experience for every viewer, which The Guardian compares to the feminist experimental filmmaking of the 70s and 80s. Catch it at UNSW Galleries from 5 January. 
The Beehive
5 January–23 February  
Unsw Galleries

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