When Artists Make Our History

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
George Orwell

Sometimes we forget that history is not fixed but open to interpretation. Some stories, cultures and peoples are over-represented in modern Australian history while others remain hidden.

“Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.”
Zadie Smith, White Teeth

When artists take charge of expressing the past -rather than historians- something truthful and creative can be born. It can speak to our soul at the deepest level rather than to be ingested intellectually as a fact in time.

Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt

Recently I attended an exhibition which achieved just that.

So fine: Women Artists Make History” is currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. Women artists from a diverse range of cultural backgrounds, chose aspects, stories and chapters of Australian history which spoke to them and which they in turn expressed through their individual artistic style and skill.

Fiona McGarrigle, born in Ireland captured a sad and poignant story of Britain’s child migrant scheme which, from the 1920’s through to the 70′ s, separated children from the parents and sent them to Australia where they were promised “Oranges and Sunshine”. Such promises were blatant lies with many children suffering horrific abuses.

As well as historical events, there were personal stories too. Leah King Smith, an Indigenous woman of the Bigambul clan, created a photographic tribute to her mother called “Dreaming Mum Again” which seeks to capture the essence of her mother’s spirit through photographic techniques

Art is a wound turned into light.”

Georges Braque

Bern Emerichs, a Melbourne based artist, has created works based on the voyages of women convicts forced to take those long perilous journey to Van Diemen’s land.

After visiting the Antartic with Scientist friends, Linda Ivimey has created singular artworks of the creatures of the South Pole using synthetic materials and human detritus. The results are haunting, ethereal, stunning.

“Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.” Chinua Achebe

Shirley Purdie, an Indigenous artist from Western Australia has created a work which comes from her father’s people and grandparents’ stories. Sitting on the bench with my grandaughter, taking in the richness and diversity of stories presented by the artist, I couldn’t help but feel it’s powerful response to “The Great Silence” on Indigenous stories and history which has existed in the country since colonisation.

It’s good to learn from old people. They keep saying when you paint you can remember that country, just like to take a photo. Good to put it in painting, your country, so kids can know and understand. When the old people die, young people can read the stories from the paintings. They can learn from the paintings and maybe they want to start painting too.

Shirley Purdie

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