The City of Ladies


The City of Ladies
Zanny Begg and Elise McLeod
13 February – 19 June 2021

Artist Zanny Begg notes that her and Elise McLeod’s film installation The City of Ladies (2016–2017) is:

inspired by the fifteenth century proto-feminist novel of the same name by France’s first professional female writer, Christine de Pizan. 'The City of Ladies' was written in 1402 and creates a utopian city built, populated and governed by women. De Pizan aimed to subvert masculine versions of history by describing what she called 'feminania', a pro-female view of the world.

The City of Ladies features as part of the Art Museum’s continuing focus on ideas of ‘union’ throughout 2020 and 2021. It features young French-speaking actors who are self-described feminists and activists. They interrogate their own places within a political system built on gender and racially based class divisions, against the backdrop of Paris—a city known for its political uprisings. The work is also rooted in events occurring around the time it was made, including Nuit debout—the “rise up at night” protest movement, which is likened to Occupy, that began in Paris’s Place de République in 2016.

Despite its links with contemporaneous events, the film does not allow for straightforward readings and associations. Indeed, it uses an algorithm to create 300,000 possible ways in which it can be viewed. This non-linear approach allows for multiple, non-essentialist readings of ‘women’ and of ‘the female’. 

Audiences enter the work’s film component through an area decorated with wallpaper inspired by medieval drawings, including those of witches, and with particular reference to drawings in de Pizan’s The City of Ladies manuscript.


The City of Ladies, 2016–2017, Zanny Begg and Elise McLeod. Photographic stills by Federique Barraja. Image courtesy of the artists.

Zanny Begg lives and works in Bulli, New South Wales. From 2010 to 2014, she was the Director of Tin Sheds Gallery at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, University of Sydney. The City of Ladies premiered at The National in 2017, a major multi-venue survey of contemporary Australian art. Also in 2017, Begg was the recipient of the inaugural $70,000 Artbank + ACMI Commission for her work titled The Beehive, about the murder of Sydney activist Juanita Nielsen. The exhibition Zanny Begg: These Stories Will be Different (which includes The City of Ladies) is due to tour Australia from 2021 onwards. Begg has a PhD in Art Theory which focused on socially engaged art practices emerging between the events of the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organisation Meeting in Seattle and the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. 

Elise McLeod is a film and theatre director, performance coach and screenwriter, originally from Melbourne, who has lived and worked in Paris since 1997. McLeod’s recent films include Fish & Chicks (2016) (Winner, Best World Short, Soho International Film Festival), The City of Ladies (2017) and The City of Witches (2018); the latter two films were co-directed and co-written with Zanny Begg. Her films have screened in numerous festivals in Europe and in the US. Her latest film, Songlines, is touring the festival circuit. McLeod has also directed plays, including K SurpriseRevoir Amelie, Toutes Coupables and The Rabbi’s Cat.