Perth, Western Australia born 1969
Her father's servant
Perth, Western Australia, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, synthetic ploymer paint, red ochre and blood on canvas
In Her father’s servant, Julie Dowling has created a sinister atmosphere, the shadows cast by the candlelight conveying anything but gaiety. Instead, the viewer senses incest and slavery as the central figure, Mary – the artist’s great grandmother – stands emotionally alone and adrift, though surrounded by her ‘family’, including her father, the master of the house.
A member of the Budamia/Badamiya nation of the Yamatji people of the north-west region of Western Australia, Dowling’s work draws on the traditions of oral history, and she has taken on the role of collating and documenting her family history in portraiture. A key element of her work is the portrayal of matrilineal members of her family.
Dowling has often stated the influence on her work of classical European painting in terms of perspective and light. The open door, windows and mirror hanging in the middle ground, combined with the sharp perspective of the table top and tray, allude to the Dutch school of painting in the manner of de Hooch and others.
On the back of the painting, the artist has written:
My great great grandfather’s name was Edward Henry Oliver. The Wudjula [whitefella] wife was Amy Amelia Booth. Her half sister in the painting is Fanny, her half brother is called John.
My great grandmother Mary ‘Tuppance’ Oliver was separated from her mother ‘Melbin’ and kept on as her father’s servant until she was 16 years old and was taken to Kalgoorlie to work in Mining-Out camps and bush motels. She was a cook. She cleaned and kept house for her father and his new wife Amy Amelia Booth until she got angry with Mary over her looking after her children one day and she was taken away.
I don’t have any photos of Mary or ‘little grannie’ as my mum called her. So I wanted to ‘re-claim’ this story for my family.
My great grandmother was not considered an Australian ‘under the act’ until she married my Wudjula great-grandfather Francis Latham. When he divorced her in 1928 she lost all rights as a citizen and her children (my grandmother Mary [Molly] and her sister Dorothy) were taken away by their father to an orphanage instead of the government forcibly taking them to Mogumbar [mission] or Sister Kate’s [children’s home].
Julie Dowling (1999) and Brenda L. Croft
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002