Georgia MacGuire: Healing Dresses
by Laura Skerlj
In the periphery of Eugene von Guérard’s painting, Mr. John King’s Station (1861), a gardener tends a border of roses. The pink flowers flicker amidst the virescent scenery. Nearby, Mr. John King himself watches on as the gardener works. Unusually, there is no dwelling in this ‘property portrait’ of the Gippsland estate, just a delineated grassy knoll enclosed by this floral partition. Outside the grounds, denser bush land and the peaks of the bruised Victorian Alps reveal a less containable wilderness.
However, it is the three Indigenous peoples — a Kurnai (or Gunai) man, woman and child staring out from the painting’s foreground — that is the obvious anomaly. As the gardener and property owner recede, the Aboriginal family peacefully gathers to confront the viewer from the centre of the paddock. Judging from earlier sketches of this painting, it is unlikely these people appeared in the scene as depicted: Guérard included them of his own volition, conjuring a tranquil cohabitation. i Ironically, the necklace of roses planted along the edge of the property forms a delicate (yet thorny) enclosure for these original custodians of Country.
Through many conversations with artist Georgia MacGuire, it became apparent that the image of a rose constellates the Indigenous women in her family. These connections begin in Powelltown — a quaint timber-milling locale in the Yarra Valley — where all that separated the family home from dense bush land was a six-foot hem of roses. The artist’s grandmother, Isabel, sang “The Yellow Rose of Texas” while cooking: an old folk song musing on a young woman of mixed race (a ‘mulatto’) envisioned as ‘yellow’ amid the darker people of the American south. In the artist’s library of books, a pile of rose anthologies inherited from her mother once instructed the growth of some 40 specimens in their garden.
And as the only sister among four brothers, MacGuire recalls a childhood adorned in feminine paraphernalia: “I vividly remember a dusky-pink velvet pinafore I owned as a little girl, which had a red rose embroidered on the front. My mother bought me one ‘good’ dress every year, and it was by far my favourite item of clothing. I think it was the one item of clothing I owned which made me feel like I wasn’t the poor black kid in the street.” Although these motifs summon the familiarity of the artist’s childhood (for which she both yearns and grieves), there is a concurrent discomfort in recognising them as implicitly ‘colonial’: “My matriarchal lineage towards a love of roses and dresses — even contemporary fashion — is a poignant signifier of our forced assimilation.”
Reflecting on this history, it has become increasingly important for MacGuire to reinterpret these motifs from an Indigenous perspective. Through her art making, she questions their saccharine character: how have these objects and images been used to contain women, particularly Indigenous women, and their activities? In MacGuire’s exhibition, Ill-fitted, a series of sculptural dresses made of paper-bark hang from a steel structure. The dresses are white, grey, green, peach — the mutable tones and subtleties of their material — whispery, flaking and delicate like lace. Each garment has been modeled on the plaster cast of a real body, be that her own, or those of other Indigenous women and girls in her family: a petite school frock with a Peter-Pan collar belongs to an eight-year old child; a knee-length shift was fitted to a woman in her twenties; an elegant gown with a bulbous front belongs to a pregnant cousin. As a group of ‘figures’ they congregate in a similar formation to the family in Guérard’s painting: behind them, a copy of Mr. John King’s Station papers the wall. It is in the absence of their wearers that these dresses hang, hauntingly, within the setting of a colonial landscape.
Here, the dress is envisioned as architecture for the female body: a mechanism of conformity for women alike. Yet by using a native Australian material, the garments make specific reference to Country, traditional practice, and the disturbingly recent classification of Indigenous peoples as ‘flora or fauna’. More specifically, the dresses embody these histories and cultural traditions within a distinctly feminine construction: the same dress that MacGuire cherished as a child, becomes the intimate, everyday framework that restricts her as an adult. As the artist explains, by forcing the Indigenous body into this Western structure, the woman inside becomes assimilated into dominant culture: “With this assimilation comes a history of trauma, removal, rape, murder and racism. These have become important components of the female psyche of my family. Our experiences have ultimately made us who we are.”
While directly addressing these atrocities, the process itself has a distinctly different emphasis. As MacGuire cuts and stitches the fabric-like bark, she has time to meditate on her own experiences and those of the women close to her. With these thoughts in mind, the artist reinterprets a motif she recalls as oppressive or restrictive, into sculptural objects that, conversely, celebrate the feminine: she acknowledges the struggles of these Indigenous women, and seeks to materialize their strength through art. This solitary moment is partnered by the interactive body-casting process that brings the artist closer to her female (role) models: “This group experience was reflective of traditional women’s business, and spurred conversations about bodies, sex, childbirth, and image. We talked a lot about how our flesh contained our personal histories, something that was apparent for all of us.”
Through the creation of this new work, MacGuire has embraced the experiences of a group of women who share an oppressive history. Therefore, it is fitting that the artist’s choice of material — a bark with strong medicinal qualities derived from the Melaleuca tree — has been used by Indigenous cultures in Australia for thousands of years. This waxy, waterproof fibre is permeated with antiseptic tea-tree oil, making it the perfect natural bandage to bind and heal wounds. In turn, these healing qualities become symbolically embedded within MacGuire’s garments, each dress transforming into a cathartic “object that can acknowledge and soothe the collective past of Indigenous women.”
Ill-fitted by Georgia MacGuire, fortyfivedownstairs 45 Flinders Lane Melbourne (VIC),
11 – 22 February 2014 – fortyfivedownstairs.com
Laura Skerlj is a Melbourne-based writer and artist. www.lauraskerlj.com
! Ruth Pullin, “A hidden story: Eugene von Guérard’s Mr i John King’s station, 1861,” Melbourne Art Network. November 1, 2012 (accessed January 1, 2014).