Curved discs of a glossy translucent amber colour are suspended on acrylic lines. Radiated heat from the gallery windows melts them a little and they drip their sticky substance onto crusty brown hillocky shapes below. Close inspection reveals this art installation to be a dynamic food landscape. Titled Sugar Coated (2018) it’s one of a series of giant‑toffee‑and‑baked‑damper‑loaf works by Dianne Yulawirri Hall. Her art practice explores the changes colonisation wrought by introducing the Western diet—especially the white foods of refined sugar and bleached flour—to Indigenous Australia.
Hall’s artwork draws urgency from a personal confrontation with mortality. She became medically overweight and scored critically high on a measure for blood triglycerides, two risk indicators for cardiovascular illness. Since then, she’s reversed these conditions, both of which have been traced to dietary factors. The Western diet is nutritionally poor and denser in energy than traditional Indigenous diets. The supplanting of one food tradition with another has exposed Aboriginal people to “lifestyle diseases”—higher‑than‑average rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and kidney disorders.
In response to the serious health conditions facing her community, Hall chooses high‑calorie, low‑nutrient foods as her media. These include refined sugar, white flour, soft drink, fairy floss and sweet sprinkles designed for cake decoration. From these loose, messy and sticky ingredients, she shapes works of art that lament cultural costs and human losses.
The toffees and dampers in each iteration of Hall’s Sugar Coated works are rendered in the distinctive sculptural forms of Kopi caps, part of women’s funerary practices in her ancestral Kamilaroi tradition. These ritual devices were made of clay, observed to weigh several kilograms, and worn on women’s heads for weeks or months continuously. Their heaviness outwardly symbolised the weight of sorrow carried by the widow of the deceased. By cooking flour and sugar into these mourning forms, Dianne Yulawirri Hall shapes white food as a grief and a burden.
Blak Girls Rolled in Flour was an anarchic performance Hall gave in 2014. It saw the artist’s body dredged with cascades of flour. This was followed by a drenching in Coca‑Cola. The artwork depicted a literal and symbolic overload, a sickening, caloric excess. Don’t Forget to Floss, another work from the same year, featured a series of suspended string vessels that were filled with fairy floss. Inevitably, the ethereal clouds of spun sugar decomposed and leached their insidious pink syrup onto the body bags spread out on the floor below. Time laid bare the pretty food’s false promises. In connecting sugar with mortality, Hall’s work revealed its devious sweetness as secret poison.
A theatre text that has influenced Hall’s practice is the Jack Davis play No Sugar, set in Western Australia during the Great Depression. It exposes sugar as a constant presence in the lives and diet of the Aboriginal characters; sugar is consumed in such large quantities that sugar sacks are one of the main stage props. They provide bedding, groundsheets and waterproofing for dwellings. Every time a character transports food or personal effects, they use a sugar bag. And the figure of sugar frames the play’s beginning and its end. The first onstage action sees mugs of tea laced with spoonfuls of sugar. Then in one of the drama’s final scenes, the sweet mood turns sour with the voicing of a bitter complaint about: “No sugar in our tea.”
During the time when the play is set, sugar consumption was not yet connected with ill‑health or an obesity epidemic. It had been a globally‑traded commodity, plied through the Americas and intimately tied to the slave trade, bringing slave conditions to Australia. Pacific islanders, as chattel slaves, were captured and brought to New South Wales and Queensland to work on sugar plantations; in the same period, Aboriginal workers became bonded slaves, paid in kind with subsistence rations, including sugar.
This ration system is an underlying theme in Dianne Yulawirri Hall’s practice. She quotes her uncle, Ted Fields Garruu Gambuu, reminiscing that when he worked on the pastoral property Yerranbah Shed in North‑Western New South Wales, in place of wages, he was paid in “flour, tea, jam, sugar, golden syrup and bully beef.” In one of her works, 1 Pound 2½ Ounces (2018) Hall presents loose quantities of some of these rations: a pound of flour, two ounces of sugar and half an ounce of tea. She elegantly frames the commodities on museum plinths to highlight the elevated value they commanded during times of scarcity.
The introduction of these foods to Aboriginal diets was not haphazard. They were integrated systematically and by careful measure. In Tim Rowse’s book White Flour, White Power he argues that rationing was a deliberate assimilationist strategy to reduce frontier conflict, food shortages being a common catalyst. The positioning of ration stations was devised to keep Aboriginal people away from towns and cities, tying them to the pastoralist‑regulated labour market, the control of missionaries and surveillance by the police.
It’s on pastoral properties that the practice of making damper is thought to have spread. Disseminated via colonial‑era camp cookery, damper was and remains an important food in many Aboriginal families and communities. It has deep roots in ancient bread‑making technologies. Prior to colonisation, the making of “bush bread” existed throughout Australia. This refers to ash‑baked cakes made from grinding native seed to a paste. With the introduction of wheat flour, bush bread morphed into damper.
Hall remarks that she first learned to make it in early adolescence, and that there was an unspoken competition between her female friends and family members to make the best damper—to gain one‑up on all the other “aunties.” She describes the guilty pleasure of family get‑togethers over “fried scones,” portions of damper fried in butter and served with Cocky’s Joy, the pale treacle by‑product of sugar refinement that’s also known as Golden Syrup.
Food is family and food is memory. Sourcing food, preparing it and sharing meals transmits meaning and values while reinforcing group belonging. Supplant one food tradition with another and culture is crushed. Loss of language, the suppression of customary law, and the break‑up of families are all acknowledged to have caused intergenerational trauma. Hall’s art work reminds us that the disruption and disordering of food traditions is one more act of dispossession.
- ^ Jack Davis, No Sugar, Sydney: Currency Press, 1986.
- ^ Ibid., p. 98.
- ^ Dianne Hall, Replacement (unpublished academic dissertation for Griffith University coursework) 2018, p. 16.
- ^ Tim Rowse, White Flour, White Power: From Rations to Citizenship in Central Australia, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- ^ The artist in conversation with the author, 10 September 2019.
Christine Morrow is an Australian artist, writer and curator currently undertaking doctoral research at CERN, Geneva.