“White Apron—Black Hands”

University of Melbourne Museum of Art

“White Apron—Black Hands” was comprised of the work of three Aboriginal women (Lel Black and Jackie Huggins, both writers, and Leah King-Smith, a photographer). It juxtaposed oral histories with archival photographs to chart the use of Aboriginal women as forced domestic labor for white families in Queensland earlier in the century. The exhibition was effectively divided into two separate installations, but this division was blurred through the use of repetition, refraining, and photographic manipulation.

The first installation was a scrupulous documentation of the lives of the Aboriginal women forced into occasionally benign but often crushing slavery. An accompanying text and the taped voices of seven older black women were an attempt to transform archival photography into a discourse controlled by the Aboriginals themselves.

If such an approach recalls a multitude of politically correct community arts projects and collective installations from the ’70s, its trajectory extends well beyond the confines of the museum. The second installation is, in effect, a critique of the first, questioning the veracity of the documentation presented. Our presumably “enlightened” response depends on an economy of guilt implicitly rejected by the self-sufficiency and calm indifference of those it presumes to describe—the Aboriginal women and their obviously living culture. The same reproachful archival photographs dissolve into Edenic landscapes of trees and water in Leah King-Smith’s large Cibachrome double exposures. King-Smith’s image of small Aboriginal children with buckets, Image # 6 (Hope Vale Mission and Tree), 1994, refracts two overly familiar but, here, unexpectedly appropriate iconographies—that of anger (the photograph is patched together from a particular moment of colonial history marked by white malevolence) and that of the uncanny (which travels along the psychedelic undercurrent of much urban Aboriginal art). The curving, spiritualized space is capacious, spooky, and permeable: the fish-eye viewpoint encompasses an enormous field of vision and blurs the boundaries between objects and people.

In her earlier “Patterns of Connection” series, King-Smith located the place in a portrait photograph where the spirit could be seen by equating long-dead faces with trees and landscape. “White Apron—Black Hands” shifts, by virtue of a sheer confusion of narrative threads, toward a particular archival quality—for these are pictures of punishment and, simultaneously, of concealment and preservation. On the one hand, the image of three women merging into a great eucalyptus tree, in Image # 5 (Headingly Staff, Headingly Station and Tree), 1994, is a chronicle of European self-absorption and exploitation. On the other, Image # 5 hints at a double life hidden beneath the surface, as if events were a mask stretched across a self as enduring as the punitive regime of the early 20th century was real. Alongside King-Smith’s compositions, a large photograph of an old woman holding a rock confirmed the connection between inner life and stoic continuity.

Charles Green