People in my community believe artists are our diplomats to the wider world. My nurrumba (sister) Julie Dowling confronts complex issues about native title, internalised racism, social/spiritual/cultural degradation and the devastating destruction of our natural heritage. She also confronts the far-reaching legacy of the brutal oppression of Aboriginal people in Australia, which continues in the Stolen Generations who were wrenched from their families and society. Nothing speaks more about the moral nature of Australians than how they deal with this devastating holocaust.
Since 1996, the Howard Government remains the chief obstacle to the dream of Aboriginal self-determination. Our Indigenous artists, writers and performers formulate their work as dissertations about the struggle for the freedom to live out our destinies. Since being declared human beings in the 1967 referendum, we have just begun to speak of our experiences in this land.
I know my sister’s work very intimately, having witnessed her struggles for acceptance and expression throughout her life. Julie has always been a culture warrior for us all. She lures onlookers, both Aboriginal and Wudjula (non-Aboriginal person), into her world. Any spectator becomes integral to the dramas she courageously depicts, and part of a complex web of intimate spaces and relationships. The glances depicted in her images in turn create a dynamic where the viewer becomes the subject of the gaze. The expressions of the people in her paintings have unflinching power, even in the smallest look or gesture. Julie implores her audience to see through Aboriginal eyes, as oppressed peoples, to have compassion and respond humanely, and to celebrate our survival.
In 2006 Julie’s exhibition Widi boornoo (wild message) paid homage to our historic warriors and resistance fighters. Aboriginal people must have the freedom to navigate our history of resistance, because the stories of these warriors have shaped our contemporary Aboriginal consciousness. We reach across the generations, trying to understand what happened to our people, feeling what we have in common with them and where we differ, so that we can see who we are and see what we might become. Despite our efforts, we see the dominant cultural majority in this country disregard our oral histories as ‘anecdotal evidence’ or ‘unreliable’. This is the luxury of the coloniser.
What is at stake in this disputed history is who can belong in this land, and the insecurity that many non-Aboriginal people feel in their relationship with Indigenous people. This is evident today in the Western Australian state government appeal against the Federal Court decision to grant native title to the Widi people over Perth: the government claim seeks to deny that the Widi have maintained community and that they continue to acknowledge and observe laws and customs relating to land passed down through time. In effect, this appeal seeks to extinguish the cultural identity of Widi people.
Julie has painted about the destruction and removal of the BurrupPeninsula rock artin the Pilbara region of north Western Australia, an act that has had widespread international condemnation. Traditional custodians do not want the Burrup developed at the cost of their cultural heritage; this area contains thousands of petroglyphs (carved rock art) believed to be up to 40,000 years old. The Nickel Company Woodside, supported by the Western Australian state government, has pushed ahead for a mine and has already removed forty pieces of this precious art since January this year. It is only a matter of time before Australia will be viewed in the same light as the Taliban, who blew up the monumental Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.
Have the souls of our people been crushed? In Western Australia, Aboriginal people are 41.9 per cent of the prison population although we comprise only 2.5 per cent of the overall population. Aboriginal people are constantly targeted by the police for minor offences, are demonised by Wudjula society, disempowered and denied self-determination. Our babies continue to be taken from us and we are dying younger every year. With every breath, we wish to remain sovereign peoples. We struggle to maintain our languages, our customary law and our oral traditions. With the ratification of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous peoples, we dream that the world will hear our call for justice and freedom as the oldest living culture on the planet.