Painting Stories – Aunty Marlene Gilson
By Lucinda Horrocks, 16 October 2015.
“I realise the dispossession of Aboriginal people and the legacy of racist colonialism is still present in the bones of my home”
Aunty Marlene Gilson’s paintbrush is tiny. It’s narrow as a twig, a fraction the width of her thumbnail. She holds it poised in one hand while rummaging for paint amongst the crumpled tubes lying randomly on a chair next to her. She talks constantly, nervous because we are there. “Where’s the red?” she says. “You know, I can never find it. “ She dips the brush into the paint tube with a practised gesture. “I’m not supposed to do it this way”, she says, “but it’s easier”. She leans close to the large canvas and traces a line, a thread of colour. Bright pigments. Red first. Then yellow, then white. She is lighting a campfire, the simple colours morphing into flames before my eyes. “I wasn’t going to light the fire but I think it looks better.” She dabs on a bit of white and black with a dirty sponge. “That’s the smoke”, she says. And indeed it is, drifting lazily past some tiny figures around a campfire.
“That’s done.” She says.
This is the finishing touch to a large painting depicting John Batman’s treaty with the five tribes of the Kulin Nation. It’s an important topic. A foundation story of Melbourne, the capital city of Victoria in Australia’s South-East.
Aunty Marlene paints in a naïve style. It is colourful, strangely flattened, alive. Small figures Aunty Marlene calls ‘my little people’ populate the canvas, telling parts of this story of early settlement and possession. 19th century Europeans mingle on a proto Melbourne promenade with tents, wooden houses and shopfronts above and below and behind them. Above them a river bends off the bay, dominating the distinctive vertical and temporal landscape of Aunty Marlene’s art. In one spot the explorer John Batman and a group of men show items on blankets to a group of Australian Aboriginal men and women. This is the famous trade, the moment Melbourne, as far as Batman was concerned, becomes his. In other places are Aboriginal bark huts, prominent structures as sturdy as houses. Here and there Aboriginal people walk through their land, lighting fires, carrying on their lives. They are Wadawurrung, Woi Wurrung, Boon Wurrung, Taung Wurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung, their tribal markings and the patterns on the possum skin cloaks meticulously researched and portrayed. At the top a European tall ship sails ominously into the bright blue water.
It is 2014. We are in the small town of Gordon, 100 kilometres west of Melbourne in central Victoria. I am here with my partner Jary to film Aunty Marlene for a story about Australian Aboriginal people and their connections to the Eureka Stockade. This is a project commissioned by the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka from the nearby city of Ballarat.
The story of the Stockade, that doomed yet significant miners rebellion of 1854, still looms large for those of us living on the old goldfields of central Victoria where we see the remnants and relics of the gold era around us every day. People still debate the significance of the Stockade. Was it the beginning of Australian democracy or a grudge fight over taxation? Is the famous starry blue Eureka flag a symbol of hope for a new country or an unsavoury banner for subversives? There is much talk over the history, speculation over the precise location of the battle, arguments over who are the heroes and who were the villians. Yet the story of Aboriginal people, those who were dispossessed by the Australian gold rush, and what they might have seen or thought or done during those hot events of the summer of 1854 has not really been told. So we are here to speak to Aunty Marlene. She is an important spokeswoman and an Elder of the Wadawurrung. A holder of stories. A champion for recognition of her ancestral people. In reality she is more comfortable at the canvas than in front of the camera or in front of a crowd.
“You can call me Marlene”, she says, so we do. She is delighted as we’ve just finished the filmed seated interview – a form of torture, in her opinion – but now we are filming her paint and the lights we have brought to help the filming have lit up her living room studio, which is half lounge furniture and half easel, and she can see the canvas lit with wonderful clarity.
It’s always a surprise, the lights. They are needed to make the camera work, it’s technological and digital sophistication still no match for the human eye. But people often think all you need is a camera. It’s part of the conceit of film that it makes you feel you are watching something unfold naturally even under the most artificial conditions. Through the camera viewfinder Jary has captured Marlene’s hands and brush and paint tubes in an intimate and beautiful close up. Marlene chats away to Jary while he moves the camera to follow her hands. From my perspective standing behind the camera operator and his subject watching them each so intent in their work, superfluous now in my role as producer, I see two hot bright lights on stalks lighting them both and casting harsh shadows on a patterned sofa. Behind them power cords line the floor, plugged into a circuit box next to Marlene’s vacuum cleaner. Our usual bulky filmmaking paraphernalia of bags and leads and equipment is piled neatly in a corner next to a coffee table.
We think this footage of Marlene painting might be a good beginning for our film. Marlene wants the lights to stay, they are so much better to see her painting with.
“I stuffed that up, didn’t I”, she interjects in her interview, second guessing herself in the middle of a complicated description of the roles Aboriginal people played in Victoria during the gold rush. This typifies Marlene who takes time to work her way out of her nervousness. She is neither a historian nor a natural public speaker. But that’s OK because Marlene doesn’t speak words in her art. She paints stories. Stories of Wadawurrung creation featuring Bunjil the Eagle and Waa the Crow amongst trees and blossoms. “My birds and flowers”, says Marlene. And large history works, these detailed canvases crammed full of little people, the pictorial stories where Wadawurrung people mingle with Europeans, the anecdotes gleaned from old local history books and articles which she carefully saves by transcribing them by hand verbatim onto notepads. “I’m not very good with computers,” she says.
Marlene is a young looking seventy with dark hair and dark eyes. She could come from any typical Australian cosmopolitan ancestral mix. She has Scottish, Danish and Irish blood. Her grandmother Valentine, who was part Aboriginal, was born near Warrnambool in South Western Victoria, 200 kilometres west of here. Gunditjmara country. It wasn’t until recently the family discovered Valentine was Wadawurrung, not Gundijtmara. Aboriginality in Marlene’s family was always known but rarely talked about. “My grandmother didn’t advertise the fact,” says Marlene. “She used to pass herself off as European.”
She remembers her grandmother talking in language when she was a small child. “They used to yabber in their lingo. I never used to take much notice.” Now she wishes she had listened. “We think that she may have been one of the stolen generation. Because of the fact that she’s lived at quite a few missions and you don’t live at the missions if you are not a stolen generation.”
Grandmother Valentine’s story is typical. The removal of Aboriginal people from their family homeland to distant reserves and missions was common and so effective in the 1860s and 1870s and 1880s that after a few generations passed, people in towns like Ballarat, the town I live in, forgot Aboriginal people had lived here and were part of the city’s history. It was believed all the Wadawurrung had died out. No one thought there could be families left. As I listen to Marlene, I feel a cold chill down my back. I realise I had thought of my home town’s Aboriginal history as sad but distant. An episode long over. Now I realise the dispossession of Aboriginal people and the legacy of racist colonialism is still present in the bones of my home, and is alive in the bittersweet, mixed memories of this interesting woman we interview today. I realise I am not distant from it; I am only one degree of separation from it.
Marlene tells us it wasn’t until after she moved to the house we are in now that she learned grandmother Valentine’s family tribe was from close by. Wadawurrung (also known as Wathaurung and pronounced “wudder–rung” or “wuther-rung”) is the language of a group of people who had managed the land west of Melbourne inland from Bacchus Marsh to Beaufort and south from the Werribee River to coastal Geelong. Their country varied from the flat volcanic grasslands of the central plateaus, to the cold hilly dampness of Ballarat, to the white beaches of south-central Victoria. It was a lush and forested land for the most part. William Buckley, the famous escaped convict, lived with the Wadawurrung people in the early 1800s. Travelling inland with his coastal tribe Buckley may have visited near where we are now, near Gordon, says Marlene. “He might have visited here,” she says. “He could have met my great great great grandfather.”
Wadawurrung land was geologically significant in a way that changed everything for many people. It had gold. Gold in ancient creek beds, gold lying in abundance on the surface, gold buried like a jewel box under the ground. The Wadawurrung, alongside their Central Victorian neighbours the Dja Dja Wurrung, the Djab Wurrung and the Tuang Wurrung had to cope with a huge influx of newcomers in the 1850s as one of the world’s largest gold rushes came to them. The newcomers, though they didn’t know it, used Wadawurrung tracks to get to the gold fields, crossing rivers at well cared for crossing points, relying all the way on resources and a landscape that had been maintained by people for millennia.
Marlene’s grandmother Valentine’s great grandparents, Marlene’s great great great grandparents, were the clan leaders known as “King Billy” and “Queen Mary” to the incoming Europeans. King Billy and Queen Mary were probably part of a family group or balug which managed land between Buninyong, Ballan and Ballarat. Their land may well have included Gordon. The evidence of generations of human occupation lies everywhere around if you know where to look. “We’ve found scatter sites and stone tools all around here,” says Marlene. “We found an axe head, very rare, beautifully made, just near my doorstep.”
No one speaks Wadawurrung as a first language any more. Until ten years ago it was near forgotten. Today modern Wadawurrung family groups are trying to reconstruct it based on remembered words, historical references and linguistic comparison with neighbouring languages. Yet many place names around the region, like Ballarat, Buninyong, Warrenheip and Wendouree are Wadawurrung names, adopted by the newcomers who liked their exotic and lyrical sound.
Marlene reads us a favourite colonial anecdote from the mid-1800s: “How King Billy got his hat and coat”. King Billy, given a bronze breastplate by the settlers, is fallen into poverty. He has to beg for food and probably begs also for alcohol, the “once proud King”, says Marlene. A six year old daughter of a judge gives him a hat and dress coat to restore his pride. In return he gives her a live possum. It is impossible to tell if this anecdote relates specifically to her ancestor King Billy, as her great great great grandfather was one of the many men given that name by colonists in this area during that time. Similarly, Marlene’s great great great grandmother Queen Mary was one of many women given that name in the 1800s in the Ballarat region. William and Mary were famous British monarchs. It must have been a sort of joke to call clan leaders those names, Marlene hypothesises.
King Billy and Queen Mary are recurring identities in Marlene’s Ballarat paintings. Even if the stories do not relate specifically to her blood ancestors they relate to people from the Wadawurrung family. “They’re all my family”, says Marlene. She depicts Billy in top hat and dress coat and gleaming breastplate. Mary wears a possum skin cloak marked with the diagonal Wadawurrung patterning. “I like to find the actual stories that involved my ancestors and my people. I like to paint them like they are true” says Marlene.
She tells the stories of Mary and William with compassion and empathy and a touch of anger and sadness. She is fully cognisant of the burden of colonisation and the awfulness of the lives of Wadawurrung people post European settlement. “It is a sad story” she says, involving begging poverty and loss, dispossession, murder, rape, alcohol, violence, incarceration, illness. But she is proud of their resilience, their industry, of their complex society, the beauty of their craft work and of the country they had managed, and of the fact that despite all they survived. “They had to do those things” she says, “they survived the best way they could.” It makes these forgotten stories of Wadawurrung people important to her. Important to save and tell.
Is this what drives her to paint, I ask? “I don’t know what drives me. I don’t know I just like to paint and I like to research and paint the stories of my ancestors to keep the stories and for future generations back onto my grandchildren.”
We finish the film. We like it. We show it to Marlene a little nervously but she loves it. “You did a good job” she says, “you found the parts where I speak well.”
Though the footage of Marlene painting is beautiful, we choose another beginning. We show Marlene in the art gallery looking at paintings of European born artists depicting Ballarat’s history, Wadawurrung stories conspicuously absent. It’s a good intro, but I wish sometimes we had fitted the painting scenes in.
Lucinda Horrocks and Jary Nemo are independent documentary film makers based in Ballarat in regional central Victoria, Australia. In 2014 they produced a short documentary for MADE Ballarat about Aunty Marlene Gilson, the Eureka Stockade and the Wadawurrung.
The story featured an interview with Aunty Marlene filmed at her home in Gordon and a film shoot at the Art Gallery of Ballarat with her works ‘Life on the Goldfields’ (2014) and ‘Mt Warrenheip and Eureka Stockade’ (2013). Segments of the film were shown as part of the Museum’s permanent display.
The Australian artist Aunty Marlene Gilson’s painting ‘John Batman Treaty, Land Lost, Land Stolen’ was completed in 2014 and first exhibited at Bunjilaka in the Melbourne Museum as part of the exhibition ‘Wadawurrung Past, Present and Future”.
She has created many works on the history of Ballarat, three of which have been shortlisted in the Victorian Indigenous Art Awards. Her 2015 entry ‘Bunjil’s Final Resting Place, Race Meeting at Lal Lal Falls’ won the Victorian Indigenous Art Awards People’s Choice Award.
Her work has been acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, and was featured in the 2018 Sydney Biennale.