Public works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

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

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