Dowling’s portrayal of Walyer, a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman resistance ﬁghter, is a rallying cry of opposition. Dowling’s protagonist, standing like an antipodean Bodicea, is a culture warrior, overturning the myth of passive submission.
George Augustus Robinson, a former missionary, and Chief Protector of the Aborigines in the Port Phillip District (Victoria) from 1839 to 1849, referred to Walyer as ‘an Amazon’. Shortly after her capture in 1830, she died on 5 June 1831 from another insidious gift from the colonists: inﬂuenza. She had fought on behalf of her people with bravery and tenacity in a war for which no memorials exist.
Walyer (aka Te Nor and Tarenorerer), a Plair-Leke-Liller-Plue woman from Tasmania, was abducted in her teens by men from another tribe and traded to sealers for ﬂour and dogs. Such transactions occurred as Tasmanian Aboriginal people’s lives were disrupted by encroaching European settlement. Sealers took Aboriginal women for labour and as sexual commodities. During her time with the sealers, Walyer learnt English and how to use ﬁrearms. She escaped in 1828 and joined the Lairmairrener group of Emu Bay. In 1830, colonial authorities reported that Walyer was leading violent attacks against settlers and other Aboriginal groups. She and her group used muskets in these assaults, which was previously unprecedented in Aboriginal attacks.
Walyer represents to me the hundreds of women who fought for their land against the invading colonial forces. Walyer also represents the women of today who see that their struggle has never ceased in obtaining rights for their people over their land and lore. I painted Walyer gesturing towards a group of colonial houses in the distant right. The moon shows light from behind the clouds, outlining her cloaked body as she holds two guns. She is gesturing to the viewer as if they were one of the ﬁghters she has assembled to battle the colonial encroachments upon their land and hers.
There is a road carved into the trees under the distant mountains leading to the houses, which have smoke coming out of their chimneys, signifying their occupancy. Walyer stands in action, holding a fowler’s riﬂe with a small ﬂintlock pistol held in the belt around her skirt. She wears a bookah (kangaroo cloak), a shell necklace and clay ornamentation covers her hair.
This painting is about early historical interactions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australia. First contact relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the colonies reveal much about the divide that continues to exist today and this painting is about what we can learn from such engagements. Aboriginal people use their oral histories as well as written historical records from non-Aboriginal colonial perspectives to construct racial consciousness and visions of Aboriginal self-determination.
I have painted the stories of Aboriginal resistance ﬁghters to grapple the construction of the hero in art. Romanticism was widely used in early colonial art in Australia emphasising Rousseau’s theory of the noble savage. These early power relations must be highlighted so that we can see how nationalism and imperial sentiment were constructed. As an Aboriginal person, I feel that it is important to understand colonial art practices brought here and how they can be used for decolonisation. By using the colonial romantic imagery of Aboriginal people as a tool, I can inform non-Aboriginal people of the denial of Aboriginal culture in current representations of Australian history.
Julie Dowling, 2006
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