Two blinking eyes welcome visitors to Crone, a new exhibition by the Tasmanian artist Sally Rees at the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona). The eyes belong to a woman. Part video, part animated black-and-white drawing, the eyes are continually washed by a gush of bright blue water spilling from a fountain where her eyebrows would ordinarily be.
It’s a mesmerising and playful welcome to a dark and cavernous room filled with images of older women – crones.
In medieval times, to call a woman a “crone” was an insult. Thought to have derived from the French carogne (from which we also get the word “carrion”), it implied feebleness, redundancy. In folklore, the crone was a sinister figure, akin to the ancient hags of Shakespeare’s Macbeth or the supernatural Baba Yaga, the vile old woman with chicken legs, in Slavic tradition.
But more recently, the term has been embraced by feminists. The modern crone is a powerful, wise, uninhibited old bird, one who has thrown off the shackles of youth and beauty.
“My crone is courageous, she is benevolent, she is not afraid to be transgressive,” says Rees, who is originally from Burnie, Tasmania. “She is unruly. These are qualities I aspire to. Everyone can make their own crone, they are all different. Now I just have to live up to it.”
Crone was almost fully installed at Mona in 2020 when the first national pandemic lockdown happened. The show was delayed for a year. In that time, Rees turned 50, a number she says is both arbitrary and hugely significant.
“I made the show because I was thinking about turning 50 and what it meant to be an older woman,” she says. “There are stereotypes – the cuddly grandma, the shuffling older woman in pain, the wealthy woman with a tasteful grey bob admiring her husband’s achievements. I didn’t fit any of those examples. So the crone became a lot about what would I like to be as a I get older. Turning 50 is a transition time.”
The show is also a response to news stories of older women becoming increasingly vulnerable. They are, for example, the fastest growing group among those being made homeless or applying for social security benefits.
And then there are the women whose vocal opposition to patriarchal views leads to them being labelled a “witch”.
“If being angry and speaking out makes you a witch, then I am proud to be one,” said Rees. “I think we need to embrace being cranky and terrifying. There is power in anger.”
Crone is made up of 17 high-definition video screens. Some are on the floor, some are at eye level. Others are mounted high above one’s head. Each features the face of a woman gazing fiercely across the screen. Sometimes they blink unexpectedly, disrupting the impression that you are observing a still life portrait. In one, a woman suppresses a wry smile. Some wear a plastic witch’s nose strapped to their face with elastic.
Every now and then the women open their mouths and make birdcalls. An owl hooting. A chicken clucking. Something that sounds like a canary whistling. And as they do so, colour bursts from their mouths and flows across the screens. It is a beautiful and surprising experience.
Rees created the work by capturing the women on video, breaking the images into stills and hand-painting them. The result is a form of animation that is both traditional and contemporary.
“I think animation is always magical,” Rees says. “It is enchanting, and combined with the photography, there is something real and magical that sits together in a very satisfying way.”
Rees’s subjects are drawn from the artist’s inner circle. “They are like the rings in my tree, my closest friends and my mother, then going out into colleagues and old connections on Facebook,” Rees says. “All of these birds represent older women and how they network and support each other, they are calling to each other.”
And the fake witch nose?
“It just makes me laugh,” said Rees, chuckling. “There is humour in the work. There is something inherently ridiculous about a bunch of women standing around in fake noses making bird noises. The nose is beaky, like a bird. It is funny but it is also a little haunting and I hope there is a sense of community amongst the women.”
Rees says she is embracing ugly. “I considered doing a show with women gurning, do you know gurning? It’s a British face-pulling competition, basically pulling horrible, grotesque faces. I feel like it’s worth practising! If we can’t win because we have lost our youth, then be ugly, use it. At least you’re not invisible, and you might even frighten people into doing what you want – which could be handy!”
Rees lets out a full-throated laugh. For a moment, her crone is showing.
“I hope people walk through the exhibition and recognise the crone and feel the magic and just walk away seeing older women as powerful creatures.”