PULSATING with defiance and a powerful primeval energy six Aboriginal men stare out from a canvas, backdropped by Rottnest, the island from which they had just escaped.
This powerful artwork is part of an exhibition by Julie Dowling, a visual reminder of a little known piece of WA history–an escape from the island prison in 1838.
The history books say one of the escapees died but, says Harviston Gallery owner Mark Walker, Dowling reckoned the books had been written by white colonists “[so] she put the sixth one in”.
Mirnuwa Wagu (Showing Home), is Dowling’s first exhibition in three years and includes a forceful depiction of Fanny Balbuk (Yoorell) whose interviews with amateur anthropologist Daisy Bates contributed to the 2006 granting of native title in Perth.
Yoorell vented anger over white settlement of the Perth area in the late 1800s/early 1900s, breaking down fences and tramping at will through homes built on her people’s land.
“[And] she would stand at the gates of government house, where her grandmother’s burial ground lay—reviling all who dwelt within,” Bates recorded in 1938.
Many paintings are gentle portraits, but reminders of racism run through the exhibition, with works including a variety of well-dressed Aboriginal people preparing to enter Perth after the lifting in 1954 of a ban of indigenous people within the city.
“Dressed up to go into the city…they were locked out of for so long,” Walker says.
With a mix of Irish, Scottish, Russian and Aboriginal genealogy in them Dowling and twin sister Carol grew up facing prejudice, and not all of it from white Australians.
“That’s why she is dealing with racism,” Walker says.
Dowling’s style is iconic and her rich, multi-layered paintings have the look and feel of religious art.
Regarded as one of Australia’s premier artists, her works grace the walls of private and public collections worldwide, as well as every major gallery in Australia.
“Technically superb, [Dowling’s paintings] will in time be ranked in importance alongside Arthur Boyd,” Melbourne art curator Chris Deutscher predicted in an interview in Art Collector.
Mirnuwa Wagu is on at Harvison Gallery, 195 Brisbane Street, Perth until November 25. Entry is free.
by JENNY D’ANGER