Keri Elmsly describes herself as a creative catalyst. Throughout her career, she has worked with acclaimed international artists to produce ambitious projects traversing public art, large-scale immersive installations, touring shows and museums, on the global stage. Early on, she surrounded herself with artists and musicians, and dabbled in coding, visual design, illustration, sculpture and mechanics, before discovering her strengths in amplifying the creative talent of artists and coalescing ideas, networks and skill sets to produce unforgettable, boundary-breaking experiences.
We spoke to Elmsly about the significance of ACMI's major exhibition focusing on women & non-binary trailblazers on screen, Goddess: Power, Glamour, Rebellion, and the obstacles she has faced and overcome on her path to becoming a global leader in the cultural sector.
ACMI: Why is it important to showcase and celebrate the stories and achievements of screen Goddesses in 2023?
Keri Elmsly: Simply put by our lead ambassador Geena Davis, “if you can see it, you can be it”. Screen culture is the catalyst and influencer in reflecting the world we live in and shaping the world we want and need to create. The Goddess is a complex archetype that transcends gender binaries and continues to evolve. We continue to need the stories of taking on power and pushing through old limitations and constructs; the figure of the Goddess champions that main character energy and puts her at the centre of the action, right where we need to be.
A: Why is ACMI the best place for this exhibition?
KE: As your museum of screen culture, we create exhibitions that trace the history of on-screen stories and the processes and structures behind them so we can collectively shape the future.
Goddess is dense with previously hidden stories of change-makers and fierce ambition that feels intensely current, too. We create spaces that ask questions of the audience and of ourselves, where an exhibition can feel historic and beautiful in parallel to challenging and unpacking the patriarchal power dynamics of screen culture.
A: What are some of your exhibition highlights? Is there a work, artist or story that connects to your own career journey?
KE: The highlight for me is the centre of the show – we have created a documentary style piece ‘Spotlighting Change’ where we hear screen Goddess from the past right up to the now speak directly to camera on representation and their personal experiences. The power of their words makes me cry every time I experience it. On top of that comes a wave of fury. This is what exemplifies the stories contained in the exhibition that need close attention – I’m drawn to the Bette Davis section on hagsploitation and how it sits so perfectly with Cheyl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996).
My own career journey has been full of lived examples of the stories we explore in the show. I’ve been called difficult, aggressive, and told to ‘calm down’. I’ve been told to make the tea and take the notes when I’ve been leading the whole project. I’ve had my image and body commented on in ways that bear zero relation to my role. The parallels are that despite all of this, my ambition and my power has not been diminished and I continue to appreciate glamour in all its forms.
A: What would you like visitors to take away with them after their visit?
KE: The best audience take-aways for me would be that people leave asking more questions about power and dynamics on screen, and to experience screen culture with a new lens on representation, and on a more direct level having new knowledge on the impact and achievements of the Goddesses in the show.
Behind this is how stories get to screen – whose stories are being told and how. There so much data on representation on screen that proves there are simple ways to make change in the industry – in no small part thanks to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
A: What is essential to empowering women & non-binary creators in the screen industry? And what advice would you give them at the start of their careers?
KE: I think we are past the stage of ‘wanting to empower’ women & non-binary creators. The required structural change that ensures balanced representation, on par with our society, is critically urgent – that time is now. What that means is continued activism, continued lobbying and people in positions of power making room for others. I believe we are arriving at the point where audiences expect and demand representation on screen, a place of rich appreciation for the multitudes of voices and perspectives. The industry is now accountable to do that.
When I listened to the new generation of creators and activists leading our Being Seen on Screen conference, I was clearly shown that people are showing up as themselves; articulate, powerful and generous with their vision, and with a clear call to the previous generation that we need to change, not them. The way I operate in mentoring is to always support in clarifying their message and vision, so more people can see it and get on board and wherever possible open doors, make introductions and champion the work.
The most impactful thing I can offer is to encourage people to focus on the short form message and the hook for what you want to get made – it’s really worth the effort to get that distillation right up front and to operate from a position of openness and trust, it’s always been the most rewarding path in my experience.
'How Success Can Come From Learning What You’re Terrible At', Forbes, 14 Nov 2019
'Women Of The C-Suite: “Make rules — and break them.' with Keri Elmsly and Chaya Weiner, Medium, 13 Aug 2019
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