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Julie Dowling

Julie Dowling


Throughout her celebrated career, Badimaya artist Julie Dowling has drawn on a wide range of cultural and historical influences. However, portraiture, a genre that has not generally been embraced by contemporary Aboriginal artists, has been the central hallmark of her work.   Raised by a single mother on a meagre income, she attended a catholic convent school where she was exposed to images of saints at an early age. Her earliest icon-like images were strongly influenced by renaissance religious paintings. Later, while studying at Curtin University in Western Australia, her research led her to examine the events and consequences of Christianity’s early colonising role on her own, and other, Indigenous people.  This led her on a deeply personal artistic journey due, in particular, to the cultural implications and impact of her grandmother’s removal from her family as a member of the stolen generation, and her anger at the church and its sanctimonious attitude toward Badimaya people and their culture. Dowling’s grandmother had been forced to leave Coorow as the government dispossessed her of her land, and welfare officers tried take her children even though her white husband was still living with her.  She moved to the south-west to become anonymous within the Noongar community in which her older brother Frank lived. This forced removal and dislocation is the bedrock of Dowling’s oeuvre and motivation to paint. Her depiction of Aboriginal faces began as a way to help her family locate other likely family members as they encountered strangers on the street or on public transport. Many were part of the stolen generation - ‘lost’ due to their forced removal according to government policy at the time. She observed the features of each Noongar & Badimaya family and the way in which they differed from each other. This early focus is a ‘decolonising’ tool she continues to apply in her art to this day. Dowling, importantly, spends much of her time within her Badimaya community, amongst living relatives and family friends. She returns over and over to the life stories of her mother, grandmother and aunts. ‘I never start a painting without talking at some length to members of my family‘ Dowling says.  ‘I talk to my family because this is the first step in my connection to my community and my culture and my way of tapping into the inter-generational trauma due to dispossession & colonisation from which we are all healing to various degrees. ‘If I didn’t talk to them first then I couldn’t claim to call myself Badimaya at all.’ Dowling carries these influences towards a stark, often confrontational neo-realism but also partakes of the post-modern penchant for pastiche. Her surfaces are often a complex web of strong colours, contrasting textures and materials such as plastic beading, cloth and glitter. Fragments of the past make their presence felt in photo-like inserts or lines of text that reflect raw echoes of the spoken word. Traditional Aboriginal art motifs such as dot and circle patterning, or stylised allusions to rock or bark painting, contribute a traditional inflection to this complex overlay of meaning.  Dowling’s deft command of the principles of portraiture however, always elevates her subjects within this provocative visual synthesis. The halo, a common feature in her portraits, is used to impart the idea of the hero (as in Western art tradition). Dowling re-interprets this idea of heroism within Romantic & Renaissance portraiture as a way of reflecting back to the viewer the propaganda of colonial empire and entrenched colonial racism today. It is also a device she uses to focus in on ‘the self’ inherent in her portraits. Her intention is to concentrate on her subject’s inner lives rather than their surroundings.   In her cycle of seventy-five paintings titled Icon to a Stolen Child 1999, the viewer is transfixed before each haunting face, sensing the unfathomable depths of pathos, perhaps stopping to analyse the detailed background with its suggestions of causality, or silently acknowledging the reality of soul that makes each individual irreplaceable. These ‘Black Madonnas’ are not forlorn victims of white ignorance but resilient heroines who ultimately triumph. They become role models for future generations, icons to a spiritual connectedness that remains untrammelled.    Addressing the many issues First Nation sovereignty, autonomy & self-determination, Dowling seeks to pay tribute to the thousands of Aboriginal workers who have played vital, yet unacknowledged roles in rural communities. Love and empathy for her grandmother is apparent in works such as Mollie at Coorow Hotel 2001. In this powerful work referencing religious images of mother and child, we are shown the moment when the struggling laundress makes the difficult decision to leave her traditional country and find a better life for her family in the city. Mimi-like spirits in the background reflect her ancestors, silently wishing her to stay but the child peeping out from under her skirts suggests the tug of a more immediate reality and an insistent future.   In focusing so intently on the healing of past injustice, Dowling draws heavily on the ambivalent relationship between Aboriginality and Christianity. Catholicism in particular is seen to provide spiritual sustenance, as evoked in the sense of grace that imbues her characters, yet the memory of alienation and abuse eddy upon the painted surface, alerting us to a history that demands healing.   Julie Dowing has been an extraordinarily influential artist since she first exhibited her work in Perth in 1993. In 2000 she won the prestigious Mandorla Prize for Religious Art, and the following year was a finalist in the Archibald Prize, and won the People’s Choice in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Award.  Though her artistic output is limited, she has participated in international art fairs, important curated shows and, prior to 2011, had more than eight solo exhibitions, with Brigita Braun of Artplace Gallery in Perth and Sullivan and Strumpf in Sydney. She severed her connection with Braun in 2011 and since that time has shown with Harvison Gallery in Perth, Bruce Heiser in Brisbane and Niagara Galleries in Melbourne. Dowling’s masterful and edifying paintings are held in major collections in Australia and around the world.

Julie Dowling’s paintings appeared for the first time at auction in 2002 when Molly Went to the Zoo 1995-96 was offered with an estimate of $5,000-7,000 at Deutscher Menzies in March and sold for $9,987 (Lot 9).  The following year another single work was offered at McKenzies auctioneers in Perth. Since then over 80 paintings have appeared at auction and they have met with mixed fortune. Only one work has ever been offered for sale by Sotheby’s and this failed to sell, while Christie's are yet to have a single offering. This artist has been championed in the secondary market by the  Menzies group and, as would be expected, the West Australian auction house Gregson Flanagan which always does well promoting the work of W.A. artists such as William Boissevaine, Robert Juniper and Dowling. Her greatest success at auction has been achieved when her works have been shown outside of an Aboriginal context, as was the case with her seven highest results to date. Her $26,450 record was set as recently as 2008 when The Dance almost doubled its high estimate at Gregson Flanagan in May (Lot 18). It eclipsed the previous record paid for Warru (Fire) 1999 which sold at Duetscher~Menzies in June 2004 for $24,000 against a presale estimate of $9,000-12,000 (Lot 200). Arguably the most important painting offered to date has been the 143 x 270 cm major 1995 work, The Promise which was offered at Lawson~Menzies in May 2007 for $35,000-45,000. This major piece with a strong reconciliation  theme included a list of characters including former Prime Minister Paul Keating and Eddy Mabo sitting around a campfire with members of the stolen generation, while the faintly dotted ghostly figures of past descendents peered toward them out of the gloomy night. Regardless of its importance and museum quality, it failed to sell in the context of an Aboriginal stand-alone auction and would doubtless have been better offered in a contemporary art sale. Dowling’s third highest result at auction was for the Runaway 2001, a work depicting the true story of a child who ran away from her family who had adopted her. When offered at Deutscher Menzies in June 2004 at $12,000-15,000 it sold for a very encouraging $20,400 (Lot 2). One work, Sunday Best 2001 has experienced an extremely checkered history as the owner simply wouldn’t give up in their desire to move it on. It was first offered at Sotheby’s in July 2004 (Lot 144) for $10,000-15,000 and, having failed to sell, it found its way in December of the same year into Deutscher~Menzies with an estimate of $9,000-12,000. After failing once more and, having been laid away for a while to recover from the stigma, reappearing in November 2006 at Lawson~Menzies with an estimate of $6,000-8,000 (Lot 277) it failed yet again. Finally, when the auction house was persuaded to include it in their March 2007 Contemporary to Colonial sale it  finally sold for $5,280  against a presale estimate of $4,200-5,600. This particular work, however, should not be seen as indicative of the level of interest in Dowling’s work overall. It was an image of a rather unassuming man in a Sydney suit, hardly what most people would want on their walls and not on par with her most interesting works. At their best, Julie Dowlings paintings combine an icon-like religious quality with a post modern feel through the use of an array of alluring materials. She is an important Aboriginal artist whose secondary market career is only just beginning. Her success rate is respectable and although her current Art Market Rating is low, this is primarily due to the small number of works that have appeared to date. As works of higher quality find their way in to the market these should perform strongly. Dowling is extremely well represented and highly appreciated by museum curators and arts professionals. She is definitely an artist that collectors should follow with great interest as her career develops over the next decade.

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