Wiru – meaning strong spirit – is a haunting and intricate exhibition, the latest from artist Julie Dowling. The show comprises of a number of works that fill the main gallery and hallways of Midland Junction Arts Centre. All recognisably Dowling’s, due to her signature style, many of the works in the show are half to three-quarter length realistic portraits on a gold background in which the subject gazes directly at the viewer. Leading a tour of the exhibition, Carol Dowling, Julie’s sister, mentioned that the gaze present in these portraits has numerous implications for First Nations people. For First Nations people, this use of a strong gaze represents community, veneration, and empowerment, whilst for other viewers it may read as confronting – a challenge to the colonial history of both Australia and the art world itself. Indeed, as a viewer, one does feel watched by the eyes of so many of the portraits that line the walls. This results in a blurring of the subject/object division in Dowling’s portraiture, a primary goal of the exhibition. This blurring, at the service of decolonisation, has resulted in Dowling being labelled as a “political” artist – a label she rejects – but has also cemented her as one of Australia’s most important artists.
This importance is realised in Dowling’s subversion of the distinctions between contemporary and historical, particular and universal, real and imagined, “Aboriginal art” and “not.” For example, the piece Wadinya (Now) depicts a youth (surrounded by Dowling’s signature blurring of a halo/wandjina) crouching at the Midland Train station and portrays the racist stereotypes that perpetuate everyday violent situations. Wadinya was also inadvertently a portrait of a friend of Dowling’s and the train station represents the history of Midland itself, and its colonial past. It is a shame that such information is lost to the viewer by way of the very sparse wall labels that accompany the portraits. The piece Bimba (Edible Sap) has a similar compositional makeup of myth, history, tenderness, and suffering in its depiction of an Indigenous couple clothed in Western 1950s dress under a tree. Despite the apparent happiness of the couple, the tragic historical situation behind the piece emerges, not only through the imposition of the subjects’ clothing but as the persecution it represents is realised. Yet it is not all bad – this is where the painting takes its name, from fleeting of sweetness, mirroring and demonstrated by instance in which the Bimba tree produces sap. The gold background in the works initially reads as decorative and, to a viewer steeped in Western European art history, might resemble a Klimt painting. However, beneath the glittering surface are layers of stories, indecipherable to an untrained eye, that, much like the gaze, signify different meanings for Indigenous audiences.
These layers of Dowling’s practice also manifest in the exhibition through her idol portraits, in which she comments on the pervasive influence of Western Christianity. The faces of Indigenous peoples are surrounded by glittering dots; they are venerated, yet here displayed for public rather than private worship – although like the other works in the show, they can be purchased. Dowling’s adaptation here of Western styles is multilayered, and working within this realm it is at times unclear whether she subverts this style, or subscribes to it. More than anything, these idols are beautiful and sad. They hang in a line at eye level, forcing the viewer to linger over them, contemplating their silent stories and the nature of the idols’, and their own, identities – which successfully fulfils the goal of the exhibition.
This duality between subversion of and subscription to Western style, is best realised Dowling’s piece, Bidya (Opening) Flipping. The painting shows five white art critics overshadowing an indigenous artist and represents the current racial inequality in the art market. The piece is let down by its placement in the exhibition – relegated to an empty function room, rather than the main gallery. The whole exhibition begins to feel a little like this: its key relevance lies in the foregrounding of identities that have been pushed to the periphery of Australian history, which cements its placement in Midland (although it should be noted that this placement in Midland may be due to Dowling’s personal ties to the location, as mentioned previously in regards to the piece Wadinya). Whilst being the exhibition’s strength this is unfortunately also its weakness. The exhibition fostered considerable critical interest from interstate, yet the show had seen only around 200 local visitors in its first month. Just as Dowling’s art beseeches, this needs to change.
The exhibition was on at the Midland Junction Arts Centre from May 15 to June 29.
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