Genealogy (for my mother's mother's mother's mother's mother...)


An installation

Studio 12, 200 Gertrude Street
8 - 30 May 1998 


Genealogy - an account of the descent of a person or family through an ancestral line

How strange it is to know of the lives and deeds of strangers like Cleopatra or Confucius when in most cases we don't even know the name of our great great grandmother.  The popularity of genealogy today is incredible but perhaps more incredible is the fact that we don't automatically know much of this history which is the history of ourselves. 


The very way we act, look and feel has been determined to a large extent before we are born. The habits and mannerisms we replicate, the language we speak, and the moral codes by which we live may have origins in the dark ages or may have been more recently developed but we are never really in a position to know this unless histories are written down or orally transmitted. And before these histories can be discovered we need to know the names of the protagonists.

For those who play the ancestor game, finding the patriarchal line is relatively easy.  The common surname provides the key to an unbroken line to the point where records of births and deaths began. Missing a generation can be rectified later and details can often be discovered or checked by moving backwards and forwards across the years. 

Not so with matriarchal lines. Following the conventions of western societies (and many others) most women who marry change their name.  Each generation then appears broken or disordered although they are as genetically consistent as the patriarchal line.  By giving up that which would identify each woman as a part of a particular family, nationality or gene pool and taking the name of someone unrelated except by law, she loses her traceable history.  As a consequence the father's name carries on through the ages and the mother who has contributed equally to the make-up of the child is socially relegated to the role of nomenclature incubator. 

Names are important. It is easier to feel a greater sense of kinship with people of the same name. Relatives with different surnames have to explain their relation to each other in ways same-named cousins do not. And in historical terms it is easier to identify with forebears when their name is also yours.  Great deeds or significant discoveries of the past often allow same-named descendants a certain degree of reflected glory which seems more authentic than if the same was claimed by subsequent generations of the female line.



Genealogy (for my mother's mother's mother's mother's mother...) mourns the loss of this history. Questions float unanswered in the darkened space and anonymous relics are presented but not explained on mute white cushions. Lining the walls of the gallery 100 knotted white handkerchiefs act as metaphors for the memories of anonymous women: faceless, nameless ghosts who have nonetheless played an essential role in every subsequent life.

Penelope Aitken
May 1998



"Ultra-violet light is always good for creating spooky effects, and is exploited in Penelope Aitken's installation Genealogy (for my mother's mother's mother's mother's mother) at 200 Gertrude Street. In her evocation of matrilineal descent, which is stated more precisely in a catalogue list of female ancestors, Aitken suspends 100 knotted white handkerchiefs. Associations with romantic ballet - the Wilis or even Tchelitchev's designs for Massine's Ode - are probably not intended but inevitable."

Robert Rooney, 'Shock of the new heightened by delve into the past', The Australian, 22 May, 1998


Thanks to Sheila Davies (my mother's brother's wife) whose relentless search has thus far uncovered the following lineage:

Miriam Ophelia Mark-Aitken 2006
b. Melbourne, Australia


Penelope Helen Aitken 1967 -

b. Melbourne, Australia


Rosemary Helen Davies 1943 -

b. Melbourne, Australia


Eileen Wharton Webster 1918 -

b. Heidelberg, Australia


Adelaide Harriet Shaw 1893 - 1928

b. Hawthorn, Australia; d. Melbourne, Australia


Alice Rout 1868 - 1956

b. Stoke, New Zealand; d. Melbourne, Australia

Harriette Mann 1828 - 1888

b. Leatherhead, Surrey, England; d. Adelaide, Australia

Ann Kempshall 1790 -?

b. Horsham, Surrey, England


Sarah Edwards 1753 - ?

b. Horsham, Surrey, England


Rebeccah Sherley 1753 - ?

b. Bletchingley, Surrey, England


Rebeccah Sherley 1730? - ?



The support of 200 Gertrude Street is gratefully acknowledged



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