The busts of Hildegard von Bingen, Nina Simone, and Deborah Cheetham Fraillon have been installed in response to activism by students in the Composing Women program, who called for greater representation of women in the library's artwork.
The busts are the work of Sydney artist Anna-Wili Highfield.
Composer and Professor Liza Lim, who mentored the students in the Composing Women program, is now calling for other institutions to consider their own gender representation messages.
“It would be great if other institutions commissioned busts - there are plenty of women to choose from in all historical periods,” she said.
Bree van Reyk, a drummer, percussionist and student in the Composing Women program, initiated the idea after seeing busts of male composers in the library - Beethoven, Liszt and Wagner – and no female composers.
“I was confronted by traditional busts of three 'dead, old, white dudes'. I looked at them and thought 'this is not ok',” said van Reyk. She wrote to the Dean, Professor Anna Reid saying the students needed more female representation in the library. The Dean agreed.
“Then we ended up with a tiny statue of Clara Schumann next to the library help bell – it wasn't good enough,” said van Reyk.
“After we saw the Clara Schumann statue, we decided to take the guerrilla approach and asked artist Anna-Wili Highfield to create an original artwork and we gave it to the library as gift activism – they couldn’t say no – we took control of the conversation,” said van Reyk.
That first bust was of Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO, a unanimous choice among the Composing Women students as both an Australian and First Nations composer.
The bust was donated as “gift activism” by the artist and the female students in the Composing Women program in 2020.
Since then, Professor Cheetham Fraillon has been appointed inaugural Elizabeth Todd Chair (Vocal Studies) and is regularly at the Con mentoring students.
Determined to hit gender equity for the composer busts in the library, van Reyk and Lim then commissioned two more busts - Hildegard von Bingen and Nina Simone. These two were funded by the University of Sydney Library led by Philip Kent, and will be housed in the University library at the Conservatorium for students to see as they walk in.
Nina Simone was chosen as she represents a woman of power in the music industry, says van Reyk, and because in addition to being a composer she was a pianist, a singer and an activist.
“I wanted to decentralise the hierarchy where composers are seen at the pinnacle,” van Reyk said. “Nina was also a brilliant player and an amazing singer and an activist, and a beautiful rearranger of songs.”
Hildegard von Bingen, a visionary 12th-century Benedictine abbess, was chosen to reflect the legacy of women composers who were also nuns. She is now recognised as the first attributable Western art music composer as most Medieval composers were anonymous.
“Hildegard was an amazing person herself, but she also represents that whole lineage of nuns who have been writing music and holding knowledge about music and passing it along,” said van Reyk. “They were silenced or not known outside of their convents, or they were hidden through history.”
Professor Reid said: “We hope these busts will inspire all our students to explore the rich history of women composers and the contributions they have made to the world of music.”
The Sydney Con's commitment to diversity and inclusivity extends beyond its artwork. The institution is continually reviewing its curriculum and programs to ensure they reflect a broad range of perspectives and voices.
“We are committed to fostering an environment that is welcoming and inclusive for all students,” said Professor Reid. “We believe that diversity is essential to creativity and innovation, and we are proud to showcase the work of these inspiring women composers in our library.”
All Photos by Stefanie Zingsheim and Elissa Blake/University of Sydney