Julie Dowling was recently the feature of a solo exhibition at the Midland Junction Arts Centre from May to June of this year. Aimee Dodds caught up with Julie to gain insight into her artistic practice, her use of medium, and the highly charged role of the arts.
Aimee Dodds: My first question to you Julie, to start at the beginning – did you always want to be a painter?
Julie Dowling: For me, it’s culturally based. My great-great grandma maintained cultural connections through painting – a way of telling stories, as a sand painter. Most of her children were taken away, except for my uncle. My grandma was taken away to work in a laundry at 18. She started photography and did it for most of her life… My mum got a scholarship to a fancy art school; she couldn’t do it ‘cause the family was poor. Mum had to work as a domestic slave, had to support the family. My sister and I were encouraged to look for our family members on public transport – we didn’t have cars. When my sister used to see someone that looked like a family member – we were given a little drawing pad – she would interview them, and I would draw. It was an act of freedom to do that kind of stuff. My mum was unusual in her family; she was keen on women in literature and the arts. She encouraged us to get as much of an education as she was denied. Mum and grandma encouraged me to do art. I had a real, strange kind of… I’d go off in my own world and just do artwork and stuff. It was purely mum’s encouragement to get me to learn as much as I could from a technical perspective. And I was raised in catholic school – you get a lot of experience of art, orthodox catholic art. Us First Nations people have a thing, we call it code switching. It’s where you have two realities: you can interact with white people and your own community. Our generation is really good at that – maintaining culture in a clandestine way.
AD: I think that comes through in your art style, which is a pastiche of so many different styles: portraiture, Western art, and First Nation symbolism.
JD: That’s interesting… I try to be diplomatic between two different communities: healing, stopping racism. It’s multilayered tasking every time you speak. I’m labelled a lot as being political – which is interesting, we don’t have that within the [First Nations] community. It’s politics and religion wrapped together. It’s a culture based on keeping touch of lives. It’s a language in itself to try and keep that going… My portraits began from the experience of looking for people on public transport – actively trying to stop cultural erasure. Which is happening now these days, more than it should. We like to think that we’re an enlightened continent … (she laughs). But we’re not, really.
I get called a global artist now. I think they call me that because I don’t rely on the old formula: where you go international to get a sense of what the global realities are. I’ve got the internet for that. I want to be here. WA is pretty good. The ties to all sorts of places inform my work.
AD: There seems to be a bit of a disconnect there – often your artworks are so historically engaged, dealing with stories, but use non-traditional art materials such as plastic and glitter. Carol [Julie’s sister] mentioned in the artist talk for Wiru that you liked the bright colours of acrylics, but is there a deeper significance than that in the choices of glitter, plastic, and acrylic paint?
JD: My process is related to how I find my subjects, which is through other people. I create relationships, which creates the techniques. The glitter came from Sister Girls – First Nations transsexuals, drag queens. In the early nineties I worked on the first gay and lesbian float for blackfellas. Two of my cousins are gay – they introduced me to different materials [which] we are still dealing with huge reasons for, particularly the marketability of Aboriginal art and gender. Even when I was at university – [the preconception was that we were] all kitschy; what we produce will become souvenirs. That’s a disjoining thing [Dowling explores in her art] with the old Renaissance style. Everything I use is related back to a process of storytelling.
AD: In your time as a practicing artist, do you see the role of art, particularly within your community, as having changed?
JD: My aim through my art is to create more of an attention to country. If anyone wants to talk about politics they are talking about the Native Title. They are saying that we are extinct. That we are citizens, like every white person. We are not a part of that. Such processes are designed to divide and conquer, and are against our best interests, and the United Nations recommendations for us. When I look at my community, it is very fractured but very artistic. I have a lot of hope. We are starting to learn our language again. We are starting to see things in an international way, rather than put our head down. We were made political. It’s not a nice situation to be in, but we ignore that and keep going on with our culture. What we end up doing is make collective, powerful works out there that help our kids – which is exactly how I was raised: go out to church and then come home and do culture. I used to get jarred at university for not being what they wanted. Particularly when mucking around in a figurative sense, plus theories – I was 15, mucking around with Enlightenment theorists such as Rousseau, and then discovered that they all had slaves. In Baddimaya language we have a saying – you don’t trust someone who is also lying (laughs).
I’m constantly trying to understand what Empire is, and how it affects the arts. Wiru deals with the hard facts about the loss of language and what is does to people. There’s an ethno-botanist, Wade Davis, who works with First Nation people from South America. They discovered that without language and an intrinsic connection to the environment you go insane. Without language and art you can’t reach people.
I’m interested in film and living artworks, but I always come back to portraits. I’ve met different people with different stories and I document them. In that sense I’m like a folk singer, but I always end up feeling like a jazz musician. My art is immediate and responsive. I’ve got another show coming up, dealing with the legacy of [Marcel] Duchamp at UWA. There will be a painting in there called Code Switching – dealing with the two different aspects of life I’m living in. I didn’t know I was doing similar stuff to Duchamp. Once I painted 164 portraits in 2 weeks; one of my mates dared me. I’m fucking crazy! But I won the bet – two boxes of art supplies and a nice feed. I’ve got a good bunch of friends. They’ve got my back; we exchange materials, I can trade with them. Its trickier with women folk – we don’t have as much income as men artists, so it’s easier when we can trade. I’ve got 8 shows floating around; I’m a very quiet person, but I like meeting people.