For First Nations people, painting is an essential medium to communicate cultural knowledge, connection to Country and socio-political realities. Indeed in all cultures painting inscribes memories; it is a symbolic language that acts as a record for current and future generations. This is poignantly expressed in the art of Julie Dowling, a Perth-based artist and activist of Budimaya descent who intimately pictures the stories of her family and the profound injustices faced by Aboriginal people. The Art Gallery of Western Australia presents Dowling in the ‘WA Now’ series with the exhibition ‘Babanyu (Friends for life)’.
Filling the gallery is 39 portraits of the artist, her family and friends, and on entering the space we are met with the piercing glare of multiple eyes – impairing the usual chasm between subject and object; viewer and viewed. The gazes are direct; forbidding us from turning away by making it painfully clear that those pictured have stories to tell. The first painting is one of several striking self-portraits, titled Is it ok to be two things at once? (1996). In this work Dowling splits the canvas into figurative representation and dot painting, challenging those who ask why she identifies as Badimaya when she appears ‘so white’. The artist questions both their right to ask and their ignorance towards the politics of Indigenous ancestry. She also addresses the tensions faced by many urban Indigenous people and the requirement to prove continual connection to Country under Native Title legislation despite geographical distance.
The exhibition interrogates the dense entanglement of the political and the personal in the lives of First Nations people. Presenting a cohesive selection of Dowling’s prolific output, focusing on the years when she was rapidly rising in the Australian art world (1993-2005), the show brings together messages spanning social injustice, dehumanising practices, the stories of her ancestors, collective identity and connection to Country. In addition to luminescent and glittery dot patterning, Dowling draws influences from European and American painterly traditions – Renaissance and religious iconography, Social Realism and portraiture – further reiterating the complexity of contemporary Aboriginal identity in a globalised milieu.
Dowling paints like a cultural archaeologist of sorts, excavating intricate narratives. She visualises the sadness and endurance of First Nations people working in domestic servitude and the brutal pearl, wool and livestock industries. Powerful works such as Uncle Freedom (2000) are inscribed with the history of Rottnest Island as a Penal colony. Dowling’s male ancestors were resistance fighters boldly claiming their land against sheep farmers and gold diggers. They were sent to Rottnest for their ‘crimes’ and many perished there. This stands in bitter contrast to the island’s current identification as a holiday destination. Dowling tells it how it is.
The artist’s female ancestors shared similar traumatic fates. Her grandmother was taken from her birth parents at the age of 12 and her great-grandmother was forced to work in the pastoral industry. As a young adult, Dowling had helped her grandmother recover from a stroke, creating the work Molly had a Stroke (1993) in response. Rendered in blood, synthetic polymer and ochre, the painting depicts her grandmother with a map on her heart and a fence across her dress, standing below a crow illuminated by the moon. Using traditional patterning and an earthy red palette, Dowling illustrates the tragic tussle between an enduring sense of belonging and the growing wound of displacement experienced by her grandmother and countless others.
Dowling is unflinching in telling the honest realities of Western Australia, beyond the colonial rhetoric. She does so with a visual language that is bold, accessible, uncompromising and multilayered with meaning. Her distinctive portraiture gives us intimate access into the artist’s experiences and those of her family and friends, for life; Babanyu.
Dr Laetitia Wilson is a Perth-based freelance arts writer, independent curator and art history lecturer.
Art Gallery of Western Australia
Until 13 August, 2018