Each self-portrait in my career has been painted to be a signature to a solo exhibition I have completed. They are part of a documentary process of the theme of those shows. In 2004, I painted a series of self-portraits and I have not done this since. In essence, these self-portraits are comments about the lasting impact of eugenics theories upon me and my family. I have lived my life as a litmus test for race relations in Australia. I have walked between two worlds but always lived as a strong Badimaya woman with a deep connection to my traditional country in the Central-West of Western Australia.
I have witnessed the devastating impact of racial code-switching on fair-skinned First Nations people in my family and community. It causes psychological damage so profound that sustained mental health can be impossible, and suicide can seem like the only option. I am fortunate to see my self-portraits as biographical to speak about the situations I have experienced at a specific time and they are about the world around me. I fully understand my placement within my family stories and especially how these stories are placed within the white colonial male patriarchy. Deeply impacted by the stolen generations, I am a product of the “breeding out program” imposed upon my maternal family going back only three generations. The “stolen generations” describe a long period from 1900s to 1970s whereby thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly removed from their families by federal and state government policies to culturally and biologically assimilate them within white society. Many of these children never to saw their families again resulting in intergenerational trauma experienced by their descendents. The majority were raised in government and church institutions facing often extreme physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. These successive government policies were fueled by international notions of eugenics whereby my people were deemed lowest on the evolutionary chain and soon to die out. We did not die out. I know that my Badimaya culture cannot be erased so easily despite everything that has happened. Aboriginality is not a mathematical equation.
I was born as an identical twin. My twin sister Carol Dowling and I have always been very close. We have lived together now for the last twenty-three years and, due to my disabilities, Carol is my carer—she often jokes that she is my unpaid artist’s assistant. Carol is an award winning radio producer and long term university academic in Aboriginal Studies. Collaborating with each other’s careers, we are each other’s intellectual support. Carol is also an anthropologist/sociologist who has often discussed issues of sovereignty, self-determination and decolonization with me over many years. Whereas I manifest these discussions into my works, Carol has equally written and lectured about them too. This process has worked for over thirty years in our respective careers. We both hold doctoral degrees.
When looking into a mirror as part of my painting process for these self-portraits, I reflect on who I am as an individual twin. This mirror image is my twin. You are often unconscious about your individualism when you are an identical twin because everyone reminds you of your similarity to someone else. You are conscious that your twin is different from you fundamentally, but the outside world wishes you or even pressures you to explain yourself. Such inquiries fill me with sadness and fear because they will never know this deep love and connection with another human being. Being a twin makes you a better friend, and family member and it definitely makes you a better commentator on human interactions and life. Intuition and empathy are important for twins. It is also important to stop racism because such violence comes from ignorance and a lack of compassion. When you become connected to other human beings, especially since the womb, your connectedness to the non-self becomes more evident. My works are about connection and wanting the viewer to become compassionate about what my people have experienced. The gaze upon me, my family and community within my paintings calls for connection and for a commitment to justice. ■