Tragic infanticide

MOTHERS who killed their children in the early days of the colony is the heart-breaking subject matter of The Spaces Between Us.

Based on PhD research by ECU’s Amanda Gardiner, the art exhibition focuses on 55 cases of infanticide between 1829 and 1901.

Archival records showed themes of fear and shame during the deeply conservative period, with strong similarities between the cases.

• Dr Amanda Gardiner. Photo by Sarah Mills

A lot of the women were victims themselves, abused or assaulted by more powerful men and left with few options when they discovered they were pregnant.

“Many of the women were not literate and these cases often occurred within narratives of secrecy and abuse of power, compounded by experiences of sexual trauma,” Dr Gardiner says.

“Because of this, their crimes have been submerged under fear and shame. The taboo nature of this subject and our emotional response to such death and suffering, combined with a lack of information, can lead to a simplified understanding of the lived experience of these women.”

Women who became pregnant outside of marriage in the Victorian-era colony — often victims of abuse themselves — had few options.

Some gave birth in secret, and killed and buried their baby.

• Simon Gilby’s Eutaxia. Photo by Stephanie Lloyd Smith

For The Spaces Between Us, Dr Gardiner worked with six WA artists who interpreted the research in the form of sculptures, paintings and sound.

Artist Helen Seiver says the experiences of the women hit close to home.

In 1968, aged 18, she was unmarried and pregnant.

“I remember what a terrible sin it was then,” she says, even a century on from many of the infanticides.

“I was lucky enough to be in a position to have my child.

“That experience gives me a direct connection to the women who found themselves in a similar situation when the cultural attitudes would have been even more severe.”

Seiver created a bonnet for each of the dead babies in Gardiner’s research, using materials that related to their fleeting existence.

• Helen Seiver’s Adding Absence. Photo by Stephanie Lloyd Smith

“One particular woman I was interested in worked in a house not far from me,” she says.

We went to visit that house knowing the baby had been buried under a grapevine.”

The grapevine was still there.

Seiver gathered the withered grape bunches, and made a bonnet for the baby.

“Seeing the bonnets all set up together is very confronting for me. I see the bonnets with dark voids where babies faces should be.”

The Spaces Between Us is at Gallery 25, ECU Mt Lawley until May 29.

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