Elaine Russell’s paintings intimately recall her childhood memories and experiences: fond moments spent with family and friends, tinged with painful reminders of imposed restrictions and meagre living conditions. Her personal snapshots of Indigenous life in the 1940s and 1950s offer a narrative of shared experience and important evidence of the impact government policies had on the lives of so many Indigenous people.
Russell was born in Tingha in northern New South Wales and at about five years of age moved with her family to La Perouse in Sydney, where there was a large Aboriginal community on the shores of Botany Bay. She recounted her experiences at La Perouse in her 2004 book, The shack that Dad built. Her family subsequently moved to Murrin Bridge Mission on the Lachlan River in central New South Wales. Like the numerous missions across the state, Murrin Bridge was controlled by the ironically titled Aborigines Welfare Board. Residents of the mission were at the mercy of the mission manager who had absolute control over people’s lives and was responsible for enforcing the paternalistic policy of the Board.
The majority of Russell’s paintings refer to her time at Murrin Bridge and create a record of mission life that has been absent from Australian written and visual history until recently. From catching yabbies to bagging potatoes, Russell captures everyday experiences of her family that offer unique insights into their lives: the impact of mission policies, the difficulties they faced and their strength in extremely trying times.
Russell’s use of bold, intense colour, flattened perspective and simple graphic elements offer a childlike perspective, seemingly naive and idyllic. Neat rows of quaint pastel houses with pitched roofs line perfectly ordered mission streets, complete with the obligatory church. Rolling hills stretch across the deep blue horizon dotted with fluffy white clouds, while isolated figures animate the landscape. The picturesque nature of the scenes created is compelling, and evokes sentimental memories of innocent, carefree days. Yet the controlled perfection is disturbing, as it is apparent this is a façade masking an imperfect reality.
In Inspecting our houses 2004 Russell provides an overview of Murrin Bridge Mission. Bordered on all sides by dirt roads the mission consists of a cluster of freestanding houses in fenced yards, shaded by large trees. Complete with their external outhouses, they are the very image of the suburban dream. The tight composition and defined barriers within the work reflect the regimented and regulated nature of mission life. The repetition is interrupted only by the different colours of the houses, an expression of individuality from inside a system that sought to enforce assimilation. Russell recalls her spotless family home being inspected on a weekly basis by the mission manager’s wife to ensure it was kept to an acceptable standard. The floorboards would even be polished with a stone from the river so that they were immaculate. This unnecessary intrusion into family life is a bitter memory for Russell: the inference that such visits would even be required cut into the heart of the family’s respectability.
Freedom from the mission routine offered happier times for Russell and her family. When seasonal work was available they would spend a month or so living and working on a nearby farm. Although this involved hard physical work and they had to sleep in a barn, these were good times as the family was together. Russell’s family is seen working the field in Bagging potatoes 2004, collecting potatoes too small to be collected by machinery. Sheep graze in the distance. This work offered them a certain level of independence, practical and financial, which was otherwise unattainable.
The resourcefulness of Aboriginal families in times of adversity is also apparent in Russell’s 2006 paintings, Catching yabbies and Untitled from the Missionseries, which show how her family supplemented their scant rations by trapping possums and catching yabbies. Seeing the brighter side of such experiences is a current that runs through Russell’s work, engaging the audience in a non-confrontational way with the oppressive reality of our shared past.