I wish it weren’t so easy to walk past paintings, but they are like people in that way. They don't stand in your path as sculptures can, or call out to you with sounds and signals like an installation can. If they speak quietly, it is easy, when you’re looking with no particular business in mind, to sweep past them to larger, louder works. I did just this to Mary, by Julie Dowling. In this hanging, it was surrounded by a cluster of other Dowling works that I spent a lot of time with. Mary, it must be said, is not a small work.
I walked right past, in fact, and through the rest of the ground floor of the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Near the end, my partner pointed at a painting and remarked that we had seen the motif of the goanna and the dingo a few times in these rooms. I looked blankly - had I really not been looking? He took me back to stand at Mary’s feet, and I felt ashamed.
Mary is a near life-size painting of the artist’s great-grandmother. The artist, Julie Dowling is Budimaya, from Western Australia and is, in her own words, one half of a pair of "poor, Catholic, illegitimate, Aboriginal, female, twins." She is also a masterful painter, a realist painter, a scholar of the old European masters, and a storyteller. She uses her paintings to tell the orally documented and traumatic stories of her family and ancestors, the last three generations of which have been dominated by horrific abuse, compounded by what art historian and radio host Daniel Browning calls the "slurs of history". She illustrates her family’s history in a way she knows can’t be touched or spoken loudly over or dismissed. In an interview, she introduces herself cheerfully: “Howdy, I'm Julie Dowling and I paint, portraits mostly, portraits of my family, strong people, but sad people. [...] In our family, the women, well, they've been through heaps.”
Julie’s Mary stands alone in the desert like a saint, clad in all-white European clothes, with a dingo at her side, grasping a goanna by the neck. She is the still point as the desert and the sky collapse into her. She and her dingo companion share the same calm look in the face of the oncoming storm that whips her hair. The goanna she has killed and holds in her hand is substantial enough to nourish her through it. In the gallery she was hanging too high for me to look her in the eye, but I’m not sure she needed me to.
Barthes wouldn’t agree, but I wish I’d known more about Mary when I was standing there with her. What I learned from the painting was that this woman was poised, she was sharp, she could hunt. What I learned later was that Mary was indeed a kangaroo hunter. I learned that Mary’s mother, Melbin (named after her husband’s favourite city) was married to a white man who took her and her daughter, Mary, to England to be photographed and exhibited to Queen Victoria. Melbin left her husband and their daughter Mary and returned to the desert and her people. I learned that Mary was then raised as a servant to her father and his second, new, white family. Dowling doesn’t set out to paint Mary’s dark story literally, though. She paints her spirit.
It’s hard to talk about this painting without a bit of context of the environment and history that Dowling is painting in. Here’s an articulate piece: in 2014, Alyawarre/Arrernte elder Rosalie Kunoth-Monks’ appeared on the Australian panel programme Q&A to discuss journalist John Pilger’s documentary Utopia, in which Kunoth-Monks appears. During the show, an audience member asks for the panel’s opinion on whether the film is helpful, or whether it is an exercise in white guilt, mirroring the public debate that followed the film’s release. Infuriatingly, host Tony Jones calls first on the only two white men on the panel to respond, one of whom refers to the topic of the film as the “aboriginal problem”. Kunoth-Monks replies, calmly, slowly and deliberately (unsurprisingly, no one bothered to translate the passages in her native Arrernte language):
“You know, I have a culture. I am a cultured person. I’m talking another language. And my language is alive. I am not something that fell out of the sky for the pleasure of somebody putting another culture into this cultured being. John shows [in the film] what is an ongoing denial of me. I am not an Aboriginal or, indeed, Indigenous. I am Arrernte, Alyawarre, First Nations person, a sovereign person from this country. This is the country I came out from. I didn’t come from overseas. I came from here. My language, in spite of whiteness trying to penetrate into my brain by assimilationists – I am alive, I am here and now – and I speak my language. I practise my cultural essence of me. Don’t try and suppress me and don’t call me a problem. I am not the problem. I have never left my country nor have I ceded any part of it. Nobody has entered into a treaty or talked to me about who I am. I am Arrernte Alyawarre female elder from this country. Please remember that. I am not the problem.”
Mary is not the problem, either. I remembered, looking up at her, that my ability to walk past her - the facility with which I momentarily dismissed her existence - is the problem. I am the problem, and I resent that my voice, through an accident of birth, is louder than hers.
There is so much in this painting to write about. The fact that Mary is called Mary like the mother of Jesus and that she is in the desert, like Jesus was. The fact that the desert looks like flesh, and is part of Mary's being as much as her flesh is. Dowling was herself raised in the Catholic church, and paints many of her portraits as icons. She is interested in the “hero myths” in Australian colonial art, but paints “my family as heroes - they’re the first heroes for me.” There are tomes of symbolism on dogs, on animals, on storms, on sand and sky and white clothing. Dowling doesn’t need me to extol these connections, and nor does Mary. Dowling has painted Mary, the person from the desert, in her strength in a storm. She doesn’t need my symbols. She has her own.
I was writing this in the lead up to the recent US election, and returned to it after tears and screams. I had deleted Facebook from my phone and donated to some charities, but had not needed to consult lawyers or hoard birth-control. I felt afraid, but I was afraid of what would happen to others, and did not immediately fear for my own life. That is my privilege. I spoke to my friends, and read words about totalitarianism, about anger, about fear, about privilege, and about kindness.
What I felt when I looked at Mary again was relief. It was a relief to see this woman alone. To see this woman with space, air, around her. I don’t count the goanna and dingo as impeding her alone-ness; alternate, non-verbal mammals (as a poet once described cats to me) are always welcome. Mary may not have had Woolf’s luxurious £500 a year, but she had legs and she had the desert and she knew how to find food. In the moment that Dowling depicts in Mary, the subject is in possession of an immense and unknown space between her self and the next closest human. She has a whole world to herself.
After the election, I remembered intersectionality like a rubber band on my wrist - that as much as I wanted to crawl into a ball - retreat into my desert - my reality was much less threatened than Mary’s, and less than her own great-granddaughters’ continues to be. Coming back to this painting was like a balm: in the world of this painting, there is no one preying on Mary, mentally or physically. She is at the top of her food chain. I want so badly for that to be real.
SEE HERE is a monthly musing on a single artwork from anywhere, written by Amy Stewart: @A_L_STEWED // ASTEWARTWRITING.COM.