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  • Writer's pictureART HISTORY

Farewell Event: Dr Anita Callaway

Dr Anita Callaway is retiring from Art History at the University of Sydney. On 2 February 2023 colleagues and friends joined Anita in celebrating her long contribution to the department and to the discipline of Art History. We are pleased to announce that Anita will continue her vital role in key research supervisions as an Honorary Associate. Professor Mary Roberts, Professor Roger Benjamin and Dr Molly Duggins delivered warm tributes.

Tribute from Mary Roberts

On behalf of the Department of Art History welcome to this celebration of our wonderful colleague Anita Callaway. In characteristically self-effacing style Anita has requested few speeches, but I have managed to twist her arm just a little.

There are three words that come to mind when I think about Anita: tenacious, elegant and wicked.

Anita’s tenacity is evident in the dizzying range of work she does on Australia visual culture, unearthing the weird and the wonderful. It seems to me this impulse is not driven by a worthy counter balancing of the dominance of high art (although she does do plenty of that), but instead by a genuine understanding that it is in this complex world of visual culture that we will truly understand Australian cultural history.


Anita’s elegance is evident in her sartorial styling and in her prose. Her writing is seemingly effortless and always compelling. And this is all matched by a little bit of wickedness, just a pinch. There is often a little glint in Anita’s eye and her particular mischief is certainly evident in any spoken paper Anita delivers.


Thank you Anita for such an enduring contribution to scholarship and to teaching in Australian colonial visual culture. We are grateful to have been your colleagues over such a long career. It is wonderful to see our colleagues from the State library here who Anita has worked with in her teaching and her research. So too, it is a pleasure to see so many of Anita’s past and current students. Anita has always lifted well above her weight in the post-graduate training of scholars in her field, and through this has really created such a crucial legacy. It is thus with great pleasure and pride I invite one of her former students, Molly Duggins, now our colleague at the National Art School and an eminent scholar of Australian colonial art history, who will offer a tribute to Anita.


Tribute from Roger Benjamin

Corona has kept me away, but may I say what a boon to Australian art history it has been, having Anita in our department. I am proud to have appointed her 17 years ago. She has been a great doctoral supervisor and teacher, and her stylishness, wit and savoir-faire will be missed by all.


Tribute from Molly Duggin

Anita was probably the first person I met at the university of Sydney when I moved to Australia in 2007. Since then, she has had an enduring influence on my research and teaching. Coming from the more formal environment of American academia, I was shocked that I didn’t need to call her Dr. Callaway, and that she signed all her emails with the complimentary close of ‘Cheers’, a word I had always associated with drinking rounds at the bar, or, indeed, the 80s-sitcom set in a Boston bar.


As a scholar of visual culture Anita’s work is unparalleled. Along with pioneers such as Joan Kerr, her work has uncovered an array of fascinating Australian artists and artworks, performances and entertainments, from the archive previously unrecorded or dismissed as irrelevant to the history of Australian art.

Her seminal book, Visual Ephemera, not only offered a methodology for scholars to pursue visual material previously occluded from the canon, but it set forth the argument that in Australia in the 19th and early 20th centuries, fine art was disseminated and consumed through its representation in popular imagery – for instance, transparencies and tableaux vivant that conveyed the classical ideal to the masses.

Today, of course, the idea of the circulation of vernacular visual culture is a key aspect of Australian art historical discourse. It has, for example, greatly influenced my own work on the nineteenth-century album and scrapbook as portable museums and drawing rooms.


Anita’s teaching career has been similarly singular. Throughout her years at the University of Sydney she somehow managed to make the dry and amateur landscapes and sketches of colonial artists come to life for her students. She did this through her unparalleled knowledge of the history of the colonies, her sharp wit and keen eye for intrigue, drama, and scandal. With her effortless flair and elegance, Anita made early Australian art fresh and immediate, emphasising cross-cultural entanglements, and challenging the narrative of nationalism with a level of detail and sensitivity that today is sadly disappearing from university courses on the history of Australian art.

One of her strategies of engagement was to get students out of the classroom and into the city streets, collections, and archives. I remember, for instance, in her elective on Modern Australian art and cinema, she encouraged the students to become a flaneur in Sydney, to pause beneath the colonnades of the GPO, visit the Strand Arcade, inspect the Julian Ashton murals at the Marble Bar, and contemplate the Anzac memorial in Hyde Park.


She also worked closely with Richard Neville and Rachel Franks to devise an elective using the rich collections of the State Library of NSW. In this innovative course, students had the opportunity to handle works and undertake original research, a process that is so valuable and inspiring for art history students, especially when so much of the art that is taught in our coursework is located overseas.


In many ways, Anita’s retirement is the end of an era. Although, I suspect she is by no means done with her research and will continue her work on uncovering fascinating yet forgotten images and objects from the past that will contribute to our developing cultural history – I know that she has much for to do, for example, of fairy illustrations, children’s murals and board games to name a few of her diverse topics of interest.


I’d like to raise a toast to Anita; we will miss you very much.

Photos: Mark de Vitis, Mary Roberts, Donna Brett

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