Dowling’s portraits masterfully depict the emotional turmoil of the subject, whatever the context, whether it involves the ongoing pain – personal and communal – of the Stolen Generations, or the reverse role of enforced servitude upon Indigenous women, as in The nurse maid (Biddy).
This is a painting from an original photograph by an unknown photographer. The subject is Biddy Brewon (possibly Brewan) who was the nursemaid for Mr and Mrs JS Gordon of Brewon Station in Walgett, New South Wales. The baby in the picture is John Kenneth Mackay Gordon, Biddy’s infant charge.
I wanted to paint this image as a reﬂection on the way many Aboriginal women and girls were made to raise the children of colonial families. My great-grandmother, Mary Oliver, was a nursemaid to her own white half-brother and sisters from a very young age after being taken from her mother, my great-great-grandmother, Melbin.
I believe that the image of Biddy is iconic of the relationship between Aboriginal women and white Anglo-Saxon Australia. In the realm of Australian history, it is as if Aboriginal women writers, poets and other artists are acting almost as nursemaids to the creation of a manufactured Australian identity and psyche. However, the golden sun is symbolic of a ngupi (waterhole), which reﬂects on the deep metaphysical connection that Aboriginal women have to the land. Aboriginal women are meant to connect human beings to the power of mother earth.
In Australia there is a meritocracy that dominates Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cross-cultural interactions. There is an assumption that a kind of equality is achievable if only Aboriginal people worked hard enough and disregard the ramiﬁcations of a violent, oppressive colonial past.
Julie Dowling, 2005