The paper bark of the melaleuca tree sloughs from its trunk like a skin. When attached, it is a thick sinew, but up close diaphanous layers disintegrate between your fingertips. For artist Georgia MacGuire, it was this somatic quality that first attracted her to the bark that littered the streets of Melbourne’s northern suburbs: fleshy and flyaway, it seemed the perfect material for her next body of work. Yet it was the artist’s understanding of the bark’s traditional use – as bandages imbued with healing antiseptic oil – Karla Dickens: It’s not bloody art that confirmed her decision.
Patch-working segments into flanks of fabric, MacGuire used the fibre to custom-make dresses and couture garments to fit both herself and the women in her family: ‘‘For the past three years I have made plaster body casts of my aunties, cousins and nieces so I could model unique pieces of clothing that would reflect their lives and struggles.’’ As she glued, cut and stitched the natural fibre, manipulating it to fit the construction of a rigid fashion item, the process mirrored the oppressive and often-violent conformation of Australian Indigenous women into Western culture. However, MacGuire recalls a parallel comfort in knowing the inherent medicinal quality of her chosen material and its propensity to heal (in this case, metaphorically).
Through the laborious completion of six garments to date – a body of work that has earned the artist praise as winner of the three-dimensional Victorian Indigenous Art Award 2013, as well as two public collection acquisitions – MacGuire has thought deeply about the experiences that connect the women in her family. Having grown up in Canberra in the 1980s, she moved to Melbourne fourteen years ago to discover the truths of her matrilineage. With pride and adoration she recalls her grandmother Isabel, who struggled against the narrow-minded views of a small Victorian country town to gain social acceptance in spite of the disdain for her heritage: ‘‘To justify their affections, they labelled her as anything other than Aboriginal, because Aboriginal people in their eyes were not smart, personable or beautiful.’’
Undoubtedly, these recent histories continue to affect the lives of modern Indigenous people, but for MacGuire, it is the traumatic assimilation process associated with being both Indigenous and female that is unique: ‘‘Trying to get a sense of the weight that both gender and racial disadvantage have had on our lives is intrinsic to my work. For example, black men weren’t raped as part of assimilation processes; that’s a privilege of women.’’ For the artist, this experience can be described through the notion of ‘‘intersectionality’’, as a disadvantage incurred from multiple directions, and one that is central to her art practice.
In a return to flesh, MacGuire’s latest project confronts this multifaceted discrimination through the creation of a series of puppets made from possum skin. Broad-nosed and bare-breasted, the ‘‘savages’’ hang imposingly from the wall as stereotypical representations of Indigenous people found both in Australia and abroad. To expose the local typecast, MacGuire re-imagines the traditional possum skin cloak in ‘‘dummy’’ form: legs pitched, expressions void, and defensive in scale, the puppets heckle the viewer. Traditionally in the southern states, it was commonplace for a newborn baby to be gifted a possum fur. As the child grew, the community would attach extra furs until a full-sized cloak fit the adult wearer.
On the inside, fleece warmed the body; on the outside, a constellation of stories and messages were burnt into the cloak’s tanned exterior as an offering of knowledge that carried an individual through their life, eventually serving as a burial shroud for the deceased. Both the melaleuca bark used to wrap wounds and the possum furs that comprise these existential garments make the connection between Country and the visceral body. Intrinsic to one another, the relationship is healing and spiritual. In turn, MacGuire’s decision to use these materials signifies both her affinity and dislocation from these processes: ‘‘My grandmother was a member of the Stolen Generation, and so my practice has been a way for me to comment on that removal. It is also an attempt to reconnect to traditional women’s practices, like craftwork, that were lost as the result of children being removed from their families.’’
Within these traditional practices, the artist describes a relationship to the body where flesh and excrement are savoured or recycled. Using the skins of others (animal or plant) to make custodial garments and amulets, the human body is shielded with that of another. For the artist, these ancient processes share the visceral externalisation found in the work of contemporary artists like Berlinde De Bruyckere and Patricia Piccinini.
Through an analysis of French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject – explaining how the female body unsettles social reason by its existence as a taboo object – MacGuire considers how some women’s practices adopt discarded flesh to preserve vitality, and conversely how the Indigenous female body is vilified (or put to waste) beneath patriarchal Western, and even Indigenous male spectres: ‘‘While the paper bark dresses referenced the male gaze and even more so the colonial gaze, the possum skin puppets will build on those ideas further by aiming to subvert the sexual objectification of Aboriginal women by both white and Indigenous male artists.’’ Accordingly, the abject association is inverted from a sacred practice that uses flesh to honour life and death, to a rejection of humanity when the body is objectified.
Disenchanted by the limited representation of Australian Indigenous women within global feminist debate, MacGuire seeks to illuminate this local experience. She describes the way culture existed before colonisation, where the Aboriginal worldview consisted of two different yet equal kinships: one belonging to men and one to women. This acknowledgement of sexual difference – as discussed by French cultural theorist Luce Irigaray – is integral to how MacGuire defines her feminist perspective, where women’s practice, and its connection to spirituality, is an elemental function of Indigenous society: ‘‘Spirit and connection to Country and kinship are intrinsic to the wellbeing of Aboriginal women, and in order to develop our own language, values and concepts about feminism and women’s rights, those ideas have to be at the forefront of the process.’’
As she looks to Fiona Foley, Tracey Moffat, Destiny Deacon and Sandra Hill as ‘‘Aunty mentors’’ with similar concerns, it is this local experience of the body entwined within a spiritualised and holistic worldview that MacGuire’s work brings to the fore. From this perspective, skin becomes a vital material for considering the tragedies and healing processes of the artist, her family and the wider female Indigenous community.
Laura Skerlj is a Melbourne-based artist and writer. Her art practice concerns painting and assemblage, with a conceptual interest in notions of ‘‘wilderness’’ and the mythologised natural world.
Georgia MacGuire is the 2013 Victorian Indigenous Art Awards winner for both three-dimensional works of art and Arts Victoria’s People’s Choice Award. She will be exhibiting in Both Sides of the Street curated by Kimba Thompson and Eugenia Flynn for the Moreland City Council Counihan Gallery in Brunswick, Melbourne, 19–27 June 2015. Both Sides of the Street is an exchange and celebration of cultural identity through art-making, part of an ongoing dialogue within Global Indigenous societies. She will be presenting a paper at the Kristeva Circle in Memphis in September 2015 | www.georgiamacguire.com | georgiamacguire.wordpress.com