The Aboriginal Women’s Art Studio

About the Studio

Winja Ulupna, (established in 1976) is an Aboriginal women’s residential drug/alcohol recovery house based in St Kilda. Hundreds of paintings have been produced by Winja residents over the past years of this program.

Due to the transient nature of the group, and the stresses of drug and alcohol recovery, there can be a high turnover of students. Some participants only attend one or two classes and are unable to complete paintings. Others stay with the program for many months producing a large body of work. Many leave only to return to the program months or even years later and find their paintings still in the drawer waiting for completion.

 

The Studio Space

The art program takes place in a studio at Prahran Mission. Many women who join the Aboriginal Access Studio have never painted before. Each participant can work at her own pace and choose to have as much or as little intervention and assistance as required when making work. The focus is on providing opportunities to learn skills that ultimately encourage students to work independently thus creating the possibility for participants to continue art practice beyond the duration of this program. Exhibiting is seen as a critical part of this process.

Teaching and Learning

The studio teacher Jessica Kritzer. The focus of the program is teaching practical painting skills. Choice of subject matter and composition raises questions and possibilities. Through painting, artists seek ways of telling their stories and finding a voice. Their work not only demonstrates the women’s talent and hard work, but also tells a story of the long term effects of dislocation from tradition and culture, resilience, rediscovery, adaptation and the power of cultural expression.

 

Subject-matter, styles and composition

When painting for the first time women often choose to paint an Aboriginal flag. This seems to be a common starting place for tentative new comers. Through process and discussion these flags can evolve into more complex and individual compositions. Hand prints, synonymous with Aboriginal mark-making and universal in symbolic reference to the identity of the maker, are also used as a starting point for compositions. Other subjects include childhood memories such as painting of bushfires at Warrnambool during the 1960s. As most women at Winja are separated from family and friends during their stay in Melbourne, some choose to paint pictures of home. Landscape paintings have been produced on field-trip painting days.

Cultural references

Stylistically the women’s paintings draw on a diverse range of cultural references. The work could be seen as an example of displacement and how colonisation has eroded some specific regional iconography. Creating new images derived from multiple sources could be interpreted as an act of defiance. While there is a vast range of distinctive styles within Aboriginal painting that are indicative of various regions, the Aboriginal contemporary art movement tends to be dominated by images from Central Australia (dot painting), the region in and around Arnhem Land (the rarrk or cross-hatching style), Western desert painting and to a lesser degree work from far North Queensland. There have been a number of notable artists with high profiles from other regions, but the majority of acclaimed artists and subsequent publications on Aboriginal art are focused on work from northern parts of Australia. Participants in the art workshops have often asked to see books that show art from their home region – Gippsland, the Murray or Griffith in NSW for example. For the most part, access to information about traditional styles of Aboriginal painting in Victoria and New South Wales is extremely limited.

What their work illustrates is the resilience of these women to adapt to change. Their paintings are the work of a group of women utilising the information available that allows them to demonstrate and express their cultural identity. Aboriginal culture, while steeped in tradition, is not bound to Western cultural perceptions of a primitive culture that is dominated by the past. Chips MacKinolty reflects in his essay Real Art or Real Blackfellas that, “non traditional techniques have been utilised by Aboriginal artists to assert a cultural production that is dynamic and responsive rather than frozen in time.” (Chips MacKinolty, Real Art or Real Blackfellas, Printabout, NTU, undated, p11) The utilisation of paint on canvas and the creation of a modern aboriginal art movement is testimony to this, from its origins of rock, body, bark and sand painting.

 

This view was reiterated in the exhibition Stories from Australia at Tandana Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Adelaide, 2004, where it was noted that, “Contemporary Aboriginal artists while referencing the past challenge the established art world’s expectations of Indigenous art. Despite the enormous upheaval of colonisation two hundred years ago, the culture has survived. Aboriginal art is based on the cultural and spiritual traditions of the past but is an expression of the present and therefore reflects a culture that is outward looking, resilient and responding to change.” (Exhibition display notes, Stories from Australia, Tandana Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Adelaide Festival, 2004)

The women’s paintings integrate a diverse range of traditional mark-making and symbolism, a reflection of the time and place in which the paintings were made and a testimony to the ongoing development of cultural expression that links to identity. The hybrid styles utilised in their work tell a new story