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Indigenous Women in Australia - A short recent history

An Aboriginal symbol for woman

The symbol above is a traditional Aboriginal sign for woman. Indigenous women are the most marginalised group in Australia. Poverty, health problems, violence, lack of education and opportunity were, and remain, serious issues for many Aboriginal woman and their communities. Much of this is due to the impact and invasion of colonialism that struck at the very heart of Aboriginal womanhood.

Colonial governance introduced in the states and territories created rigid systems of segregation that were presented as protection for Aboriginal people. A prime example of this is the Western Australia 1905 Aborigines Act. This act made provisions for the control of large parts of Aboriginal lives: whom they associated with, where they could live, where they could work, earnings and property, and family life. Although punitive for both Aboriginal men and women, these controls were gendered and there were additional sanctions for women.

The state restricted an Aboriginal woman’s choice of marriage and sexual partner, and perhaps most notoriously, created the anti-natalist policies that removed their rights as mothers to raise their children. These policies led to the scandal of the stolen generation. Patriarchal colonial power deemed Aborigines as inferior but further relegated Aboriginal woman to the bottom of the evolutionary ladder below Aboriginal men.

It is important to recognise that despite relatively recent reforms, many of the controls put in place over a century ago still exist under different frameworks. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are still being forcibly removed from their families at a rate 400 times greater than that of the stolen generation. As of June 2018, there were 17,644 First Nations children in out-of-home care as a result.

Western history sought to define Aboriginal woman - it imposed their view of woman’s status. However, the ignorance and prejudices of conventional historians have been challenged, and the understanding Aboriginal woman’s roles prior to colonisation has been advanced: Women were considered at least equal and complementary with that of men in most Aboriginal cultures, and in fact a significant number of communities were matriarchal with woman holding the positions of power.

'An Aboriginal women's status within a tribe or clan is conferred by age, cultural authority, social standing and local knowledge.' (Encyclopedia of Women & Leadership. Aboriginal Woman by Anna Haebich)

Women played important roles in the economic sphere: providing food by hunting and foraging; in nurturing, educating and raising children; preparing medicines and caring for health and wellbeing; leading women's religion and ritual; transmitting knowledge down the generations of women, and as custodians of country and sacred sites. Their roles and significance in Aboriginal culture have been told for millennia in the stories that celebrate the power of female ancestors.

In the 1970s, historians and anthropologists recorded oral histories of Aboriginal women's lives and began to remedy the omissions of western history. However, primarily, changes in perspective have been achieved through the self-expression of cultural knowledge by Aboriginal women themselves. It was their work in recounting life narratives in books, films, plays, dance, song, story-telling and the visual arts that began to reshape the perception of their history, credit their agency, and explore the diversity of traditional roles and views.

The modern Aboriginal art movement is only a small part of the story of Aboriginal woman, but it has been and continues to be, an important avenue for advancement. The Arts Centre movement was born in the 1970s at a time when the feminist works were instrumental in drawing national attention to the gender politics of women's status. They began to highlight the distinctive experiences of women in society, including the particular circumstances of Aboriginal women.

Although the modern Aboriginal art movement was at first dominated by men, pioneering women saw the benefits that art and art centres brought to communities and were instrumental in the establishment of new centres, as well as becoming artists themselves. The centres provided an opportunity for Aboriginal woman to develop self-esteem, financial independence and empowerment within their communities. A support network emerged, advocacy for issues that affect the entire Aboriginal nation, such as land rights, was strengthened.

Amongst the artists on display at our exhibition 'TIDDAS | Aboriginal Women's Art' are leaders, politicians, teachers, students, activists, pioneers, hunters, mothers and grandmothers. Traditionally, they have spent more time doing and little time talking about what they do, but now have a platform to tell their stories to an audience that will listen. As they paint, they celebrate, strengthen and share their culture and their stories.

'TIDDAS | Aboriginal Women's Art', Wetpaint Gallery, Stroud, GL6 8NR. The exhibition is free, 11th May - 22nd June, 2019. Wednesday to Saturday, 10:30 - 16:30. We hope to see you there. For further details please click here or contact Nadia Phillips


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