Jenny Kee: Collecting the archive of an icon
Portrait of Jenny Kee
For four years curators, registrars, archivists, photographers and conservators at the Powerhouse Museum have been involved in selecting, documenting and storing the archive of one of Australia's leading designers, activists and personalities, Jenny Kee.
In 1995, after 20 years of designing and trading her unique vision of Australian fashion, Jenny Kee decided to close the doors on her shop in Sydney's Strand Arcade. The demands of a retail environment were sapping her creative energies, she wanted to simplify her life, concentrate on spiritual pursuits and give herself more time to become involved in community projects around her Blue Mountains home.
Fortunately for the Museum this paring down process included Jenny's decision to offer us her archive. This comprises clothing and textiles by Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, original artwork for many of these designs, business records, newspaper and magazine clippings, videos of parades, invitations, programs, scrapbooks, posters and props from the parades.
Most importantly the archive is not only a record of Jenny Kee's life and work, but can be read as a document that charts important cultural changes in Australian society over the last half century.
Born in Bondi in the late 1940s to a Cantonese father and an Italian/British mother, Jenny's distinctive style soon came to the fore with a modelling career, which included a stint as the face of Canadian Airlines advertisements.
An avid Beatles fan, her adventurous spirit ensured she was singled out for an unforgettable night with John Lennon on the Beatles Tour in 1964. Soon after she was on her way to 'Swinging London' and making the most of the creative, bohemian atmosphere. She landed a job at Chelsea Antique Market where she dressed herself in an eye-catching mix of ethnic and retro clothes and sold cast off Dior's and beautiful Indian embroideries to a hippy crowd. The stimulating atmosphere and its 'visual clothing delights' were to influence Jenny's own quest for the beautiful and individual.
Returning to Australia in 1972 for an exhibition of her husband Michael Ramsden's paintings she was attracted by the encouraging cultural climate of the new Whitlam led Labor government and decided to stay. Passionate about continuing to sell interesting and original garments she opened her Flamingo Park 'frock salon' in the Strand Arcade selling retro style garments and the work of Linda Jackson whose creative vision and philosophy were so in tune with Jenny's that they soon became partners.
Jenny's first designs arose from a desire to create a range of distinctive knits using Australian motifs, worked in Australian wool. Starting with simple designs of kangaroo, koala and kookaburra they were soon in great demand; even the Princess of Wales was seen sporting a 'Blinky Bill' koala jumper.
Over the years Jenny's designs became increasingly sophisticated both visually and conceptually with two major and interconnected themes playing a significant role in her work - her love of Australia's unique natural environment and imagery relating to death and regeneration. The significance of these themes sprung from Jenny's own experience. Her home in the Blue Mountains is surrounded by native bushland which is frequently ravaged by fire. From the devastation she has watched the bush regenerate with a showing of green shoots, leaves and flowers even more spectacular after their ordeal.
Another event that impressed this theme into Jenny's life was the Granville train disaster of 1977 in which she and her young daughter Grace were involved. While the memories of this horror in which so many died or were injured are still very fresh for Jenny, the period which she spent recovering from her own injuries was a time of self-discovery and creativity. This event came to symbolise a period of death and regeneration in her own life.
For Jenny her knitwear and later cotton and silk fabrics became a canvas for her artwork. Usually beginning as a series of small individual paintings she would then collage them into large stories or themes. These designs would then be sent off to the knitter or printer to be made up into garments or textile lengths.
Jenny's passion for the environment is not purely an aesthetic response but a belief that a healthy natural environment is essential to the wellbeing of its inhabitants. This led to her producing artwork for many conservation organisations including Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society as well as being actively involved in lobbying and protests.
The Powerhouse Museum's Jenny Kee collection reflects the richness and diversity of a creative and passionate life.
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