Grantee Georgia Saxelby wrote to us from Washington DC about the ethos behind her project To Future Women, which memorialises last year's historic Women's March and has received widespread acclaim.

Could you tell us a bit about your background and practice as a visual artist?

I make interactive installations that explore the poignancy of ritual and sacred spaces today. I’m increasingly interested in the junction between performance and architecture, and work with the underlying ethos that our symbolic actions and spaces define and shape us. I’m currently exploring the relationship between ritual, gender and architecture and have been looking at how women claim space, hold space and take up space using collective symbolic actions, both in history and myth. I’m interested in the role artists can play in forging new symbolic languages for new kinds of cultural identities and value systems. I am a proud alumna of the National Art School, Sydney where I studied a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) in Painting. I’m currently honoured to be an Artist Fellow at the Halcyon Arts Lab, an art and social change incubator in Washington, DC, as well as a Visiting Scholar at the Architecture, Culture and Spirituality program of the Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture.

You received a Cultural Trust grant last year to pursue a variety of professional and artistic development opportunities. Did these projects lead to further professional and creative opportunities?

My Cultural Trust grant contributed towards four separate but interrelated activities. With the immense support of the grant, I spoke at my first international conference on my practice - the 9th international Architecture, Culture and Spirituality Symposium in Maine, USA. I visited Los Angeles to complete a mentorship with Columbia University Professor Julia Watson who is a landscape architect specialising in sacred indigenous landscapes. I flew to Ireland to participate in a unique architecture design/build expedition, Spirit of Place, where we built a contemporary sacred space based on ancient Irish mythology. Finally, I undertook a one-month residency at The Wassaic Project, in upstate New York, where I built my first outdoor installation, ‘The Architecture of a Witch’s Hut’. Each one of these activities has led to everything I’m doing now. For example, I wouldn’t be a Visiting Scholar at the Architecture, Culture and Spirituality program if the leading professor hadn’t heard me speak at the conference and it was my architectural mentor from Spirit of Place who told me to apply for my current Halcyon Arts Lab residency. The Cultural Trust grant has been hugely significant in my development as an emerging international artist.

Your latest project, ‘To Future Women’, has received a lot of media attention since opening at The Phillips Collection in Washington DC. Can you tell us how the idea for this project came about?

The first time I visited Washington, DC was for the now-historic 2017 Women’s March - I came down on a bus from New York City where I was living. As an Australian used to being far away from many of our cultural influences, it was a powerful experience to be at the epicenter of an event that rippled around the globe. As a young woman, it was momentous to be a part of a collective self-expression that was unabashed, intergenerational, global and had an unstoppable energy. When I applied for this Washington, DC fellowship, I knew I’d be here for the one year anniversary of the March. My whole practice is about understanding the value and power of marking and ritualising the things most important to us. I felt deeply that the Women’s March, and everything that’s happened since, like #MeToo, needed to be marked and historicised so that women-driven events and sentiments become indelible and an equal, visible and normal part of our cultural landscape. I knew I wanted to use the platform of art to contribute to this task in a way that reinterpreted the characteristics of the March itself: the power of the written word on the protest signs, the intergenerationality, the claiming of institutional space, the collectivizing and networking of women.

Note to reader:

To Future Women is a twenty-year time capsule of letters written to the next generation of women. The project aims to memorialise the anniversary of the Women’s March, launching on January 21, 2018 at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC and asking participants from all over the world to consider what they want to say to future women. The To Future Women archive will be open to receiving letters from anyone wishing to contribute until 30th June, 2018.

How has To Future Women been received? What are your hopes for the project in terms of how people engage with it, now and in the future?

It has been an honour to watch people’s profound engagement with the To Future Women project, by people both within and outside of the conventional art world, and by people local to DC and all over the world sending in their letters. Some stand out moments have been: listening to one of the gallery minders at The Phillips Collection, Arnold, intricately explain what the project has meant to him after hours of watching participants engage with it in the museum; receiving a grouping of letters from three generations in one family, who live in different states, asking me to archive and re-exhibit their letters together; and the intimate dialogues spurred between participants about memories of the Women’s March or stories relating to the #MeToo movement. As well as contributing to the historicisation of the March, I hope To Future Women allows people to clarify for themselves and each other what they’re willing to do towards creating the change that they envision for the next generation of women.

You’ve had an enormous amount of success in the U.S. already, despite only having been based there for a short period. What has your experience been as an Australian artist working in the U.S.? Do you see yourself returning to Australia anytime soon?

It has been a long-held dream of mine to be living and working as an artist overseas, and everyday it is a thrill to be exploring and learning from new cultural terrains. I especially love being an Australian artist here - for the most part, Australians have an incredible reputation as being an adventurous, warm-hearted and curious people. It’s wonderful to feel instant bonds with other Australians you meet along your journey, as if our home country tightly binds us while we’re over here. When I first arrived in New York, I remember being shy of my accent, as if people would know I was an outsider, but quickly realised that it was an asset, and that my unique perspective, background and skill set is welcome here, where large cities are incredibly international, particularly in the cultural sector. Two of the national museums in Washington, DC are run by Australian women (Melissa Chui at the Hirshhorn and Kim Sanjet at the National Portrait Gallery) so I have fantastic Aussie role models who are highly respected in the US art context.

I still feel a huge stake in contributing to my own country’s cultural issues - understanding and re-imagining what it is or can be to be “Australian”, in all its complexity. I think there are incredibly talented and cutting-edge artists working in Australia right now and I continue to follow their progression and cheer them on from here. While I’m overseas, I’m trying to expose myself to as many different models of thinking, modes of operating as an artist, and ways of dealing with issues of race, gender, intersectionality, and so on, so that I may have something to offer when I do return home.

What are you currently working on? What’s coming up next for you?

I am currently working on different iterations of To Future Women in different places throughout Washington, DC, including a public program at the Hirshhorn and a solo exhibition at a gallery here. I’m also working on an architectural research paper called ‘Claiming Space: Women, Symbolic Action and Architecture’.