The Paper Dress, 2003, Adelaide Festival Centre Collection. On display, Adelaide Festival Centre, South Australia, until April 8. THE Moore River Native Settlement, which featured in the film Rabbit Proof Fence, became one of Western Australia’s most notorious institutions after the state passed the Aborigines Act (1905). It made the chief protector the legal guardian of every Aboriginal and part-aboriginal child under 16.
For decades Aboriginal children were taken to the Moore River settlement, just north of Perth, to be assimilated. In the 50s the settlement was renamed the Mogumber Mission but still children were taken there to be trained in the ways of the white world because there was a demand for Aboriginal domestic labour.
Young girls were educated in how to sew by using white crepe paper. They would create elaborate dresses out of this paper so they could demonstrate their sewing expertise and be placed into non-indigenous homes as domestic servants.
Julie Dowling’s The Paper Dress, part of the Adelaide Festival Centre Collection, tells the story of the artist’s great-aunt Dorothy Nannup, who experienced these sewing classes at the Mogumber Mission. Dowling, who was born in Perth in 1969, draws on the oral history of her people and uses the European tradition of portraiture to depict family and community members, such as Nannup, and to reveal the injustices inflicted on them.
As an indigenous artist, Dowling is unusual in concentrating on portraiture but as she explains: ‘‘ I wanted to do portraiture as my main focus because I felt that stories are about people, literally because a human is a contained package and can be introduced to viewers as if they are strangers meeting a new person ... there is something that happens in a quiet gallery just observing a likeness and understanding more about that person and hopefully bridges are crossed in people’s minds about my grandmother’s people.’’
Adelaide Festival Centre’s visual arts curator Charissa Davies explains that The Paper Dress came into the centre’s collection after Adelaide City Council approved a significant grant to develop an indigenous works of art collection.
Dowling’s work is a comment on the way young women were exploited, Davies says. The image is a statement about the appearance of being part of white society but experiencing a vastly different reality. These girls were not trained to enter society on an equal basis but were relegated to the servant classes.
Davies also believes paintings such as The Paper Dress help educate people about indigenous stories that are not often told.
‘‘ The Paper Dress is such a powerful work for what at first glance seems to be a happy innocent painting of a young indigenous Aboriginal girl in a pretty party frock, but actually it tells a very different story,’’ Davies says.
‘‘ With a closer look you begin to notice the sadness in the girl’s deep brown eyes. The fabric of her dress has the appearance of pencil on paper rather than the soft folds of fabric you would imagine looking at when close up to the work.
‘‘ The exaggerated white bows and frills stand out harshly against the glossy black background, leaving the viewer to contemplate the many different ways of interpreting the contrast of black and white.
‘‘ Julie’s painting for me tells such an important story, often of those who have not been given the opportunity to tell the story themselves. I just feel that there is such sadness and tragedy in forcing people to fit into another society at the cost of losing their own culture.’’ The Paper Dress will be on show from today in the Artspace Gallery and the Festival Theatre foyer as part of the exhibition Adelaide Festival Centre’s Works of Art Collection.
Acrylic and ochre on canvas, 150cm x 120cm