Sculptures of three renowned female musicians on display 

The sculptures of three renowned female musicians are now on display at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Made of ceramic, brass and other elements by Sydney-based artist Anna-Wili Highfield, the sculptures depict Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO, Hildegard von Bingen and Nina Simone.  

The sculptures are located in the Library at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, which is open to the public on Monday – Friday from 9am – 5pm.  

Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO 
b. Yuin Country (Nowra), 1964 

Deboarh Cheetham Fraillon AO describes herself as a “21st century urban woman who is Yorta Yorta by birth, stolen generation by government policy, soprano by diligence, composer by necessity and lesbian by practice.” 

Professor Cheetham Fraillon is the inaugural Elizabeth Todd Chair of Vocal Studies, joining the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 2023. A graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium, she has forged a dynamic and trail-blazing career as a multi award-winning composer, soprano, academic and activist.  

Her operas, ballet and orchestral works have been commissioned by Australia’s major companies. She was appointed Composer in Residence with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2020 and First Nations Creative Chair in 2021.  

Professor Cheetham Fraillon has established several flagship companies and projects devoted to the development of Indigenous voices in the performing arts. These include Short Black Opera, Dhungala Children’s Choir, One Day in January and Ensemble Dutala.  

She is the first Indigenous composer in this country to write an opera, Pecan Summer (2010), and the first Indigenous person given the honour of ‘Chief of Parade’ at the Sydney Mardi Gras, leading the Dykes on Bikes in full leathers in 2006.  

Her pioneering, innovative leadership and distinguished service in the arts was recognised with her appointment as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours. 

Professor Cheetham Fraillon is the first subject of the three busts made by sculptor Anna-Wili Highfield. This bust was commissioned by the Composing Women group on the initiative of Bree van Reyk and presented to the University of Sydney Library in March 2021 in a gesture of ‘gift activism’. 

At our first meeting in person Deborah presented ochres from Mt Gulaga as a gift to her portrait.  These precious ochres, ground from the rocks of the mountain now colour her ceramic form. The possum pelt that lines the inside of her head was also chosen by Deborah as a material to symbolise and celebrate her First Nations identity. Framing her face is the shape of a collar inspired by one of her gowns, this is for Deborah the diva, a powerful soprano and magnificent presence on stage.

Anna-Wili Highfield, sculptor 

Read more about Deboarh Cheetham Fraillon AO on ABC News and hear her music on ABC Classic

Hildegard von Bingen 
(1098-1179) 

Hildegard von Bingen was a visionary 12th-century Benedictine abbess, visionary and polymath, who was chosen for this sculpture to reflect the legacy of women composers who were also nuns. She is one the first identifiable composers by name in the Western Art Music tradition. 

The contradiction that she represents—a woman presiding over the earliest stages of the male-dominated Western canon—has had a galvanic effect on contemporary female composers, who see in her the shape of sound to come.

Alex Ross, The New Yorker 

Hildegard von Bingen’s accomplishments included her composition of Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (a cycle of 77 sacred songs pushing the boundaries of Gregorian chant); three major volumes of writing: Scivias, Book of Life’s Merits and Book of Divine Works; a medical treatise Causes and Cures; a discourse on science and healing Physica; and a musical morality play Ordo Virtutum. Her legacy also includes hundreds of letters in correspondence with popes, emperors, and religious leaders.  

She is also known for her invented language Lingua Ignota or ‘Unknown Tongue’ which she used in her writing and compositions.  

Her face is open for the mystic and visionary she was. She wears gold leaf like armour, as a radical activist within the church. Inside her head is sage. Hildegard was a herbalist and said that sage was for the voice.

Anna-Wili Highfield, sculptor 

This artwork was commissioned by the University of Sydney Library on the advice of Composing Women.

Nina Simone 
(1933-2003) 

Nina Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon) is one of the most extraordinary and iconic artists of the twentieth century – she was a singer, pianist, songwriter and civil rights activist.  

Simone released the quintessential protest song Mississippi Goddam in 1964 in reaction to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Other classic releases included My Baby Just Cares for Me; I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free; Sinnerman; I Put a Spell on You; Feeling Good; Four Women; I Ain’t Got No/ I Got Life; To Be Young, Gifted and Black and Baltimore. Simone published her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You in 1991. 

She said ‘an artist’s duty is to reflect the times’ and famously, ‘I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear’. 

Simone took up the classical piano at the age of 6 and specialised in playing the works of J.S. Bach. She earned a scholarship for a one-year program at the Juilliard School in New York. She also auditioned for the Curtis Institute of Music who denied her admission which she later understood to be due to racism. The Institute later awarded her an Honorary Doctorate in music and humanities in 2003 (two days before her death).  

In 2008, Rolling Stone named Simone to its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, and, in 2018, Simone was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Ebony piano keys make up her hair. She was a classical and jazz pianist, composing, songwriting and performing at the piano. Hair was often in her lyrics, referencing her race and pride but also as a motif for difference and racism. In Nina’s eyes I placed diamonds, for the diva and for the woman with a vision. The vintage diamonds were given by Liza Lim, composer and integral person in this project. Nina’s face is ceramic mixed with iron oxide; iron and oxygen represent strength and life.  

Anna-Wili Highfield, sculptor

Commissioned by the University of Sydney Library on the advice of Composing Women.