Internationally acclaimed Badimia-Yamatji artist Julie Dowling is using her pictorial critiques of contemporary and historical Australian narratives to tell a powerful story in her new exhibition.
Bidya Gurlbarl opened on February 11 and will run until March 20 at the John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University.
Through the stories of her own family, Ms Dowling represents the violence and power imbalance in settler-colonial and contemporary Western Australia.
“Our history has become geopolitical, particularly in regards to the history wars,” she said.
“My whole life has been politicised, my family focused on by government and police.
“History and systematic racism, they are both linked together.”
The exhibition reflects on a time where Aboriginal children were stolen from their families and exploited as a “free” labour, sowing deep ongoing and inter-generational trauma.
In the exhibition, Ms Dowling’s own ancestors, and those of other Aboriginal people, gaze directly at the viewer, challenging them to acknowledge Australia’s colonial history and protest the ongoing injustices experienced by First Nation people.
“Our own teachers told us that we were only fit to be domestic servants or worse” – Julie Dowling
“In my family the first two generations after First Contact were resistance, after that they stole the children, the little girls, my great-great-grandmother was stolen and taken to England and exhibited in 1884,” Ms Dowling said.
“There was a mother and two sons in South Australia and a mother and son in New South Wales that year who were also taken, and from Victoria in 1885.
“A whole lot of mob from Queensland were taken too.”
The work is close to Ms Dowling’s heart – her own family has experienced traumatic events as long as she can remember.
“My grandmother was taken, my mother was raped when she was 20, and later on, when she was seven months pregnant with me and my twin, she was working scrubbing the bottom of swimming pools,” Ms Dowling said.
“My twin sister and I were recorded in the Native Welfare Records as persons of interest.
“Our own teachers told us that we were only fit to be domestic servants or worse, they told my sister and I that all we could be was checkout chicks.”
Other themes explored in the exhibition include the poisoning of waterholes – something revered WA mining magnate Lang Hancock openly proposed in 1984 – and burning of evidence to hide the scale of massacres.
“South of Ninghan Station (in Western Australia) a major massacre occurred,” Ms Dowling said.
“My great-great-grandmother Melbin was the only one to survive a massacre, she was probably younger than ten years old and they took her as a sex slave.
“When the wudjulah’s came in they came across a lot of resistance and the only way they could stop them was to poison the water holes… And now they have perverted history.”
Ms Dowling credited the advent of the Freedom of Information act with helping to uncover the atrocities of the past.
She hopes that people who see the exhibition will walk away acknowledging the need for compensation and recognising the right of Aboriginal people to self-determination.