Award-winning artist, Sandra Hill’s work is renowned for its powerful narratives and haunting visuals influenced by childhood experiences as a survivor of the Stolen Generation.
In 1958, while her father undertook compulsory army training in the Eastern States, Hill, her two sisters and brother, who were living in Port Sampson at the time, were taken from their mother and placed into an orphanage. Hill was only six years old at the time, and it would be 27 years before Hill, and her siblings were reunited with her parents.
Art has always been part of Hill’s life. It was a means to find solitude, comfort and a way to express her sense of grief and loss from her early years. Later, it would be her voice telling the stories that needed to be heard.
Some of Hill’s most compelling work to date is currently on display in the Balancing Act exhibition. Her three paintings from her Homemaker series are what you encounter as you first enter the gallery. Like most of her work, it’s heart-rending as it tells the story of her beloved mother, grandmother, her siblings and herself.
For Reconciliation Week, we sat down with Sandra Hill to discuss her series, her artistic practice and thoughts on reconciliation in Australia and whether galleries and museums such as AGWA are doing enough or whether more action should be taken.
Balancing Act installation view, AGWA 2021 | (L-R) Sandra Hill Home-maker #5: The Bedroom 2012; Homemaker #10: Honey, I'm Home 2020; Home-maker #9: The Hairdresser 2014. State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through the Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation: TomorrowFund, 2020. © Sandra Hill 2012; 2020; 2014 / Licenced by the Copyright Agency Ltd.
What influences your artistic practice? What inspired you to become an artist?
My lifetime experience has been the major influence on my art practice. When I was in the orphanage I saw a painting of an angel and when I was fostered out to the white family I was given coloured pencils and paper and paints. This motivated me to draw or try to reproduce that angel that I found to be the only source of comfort during my three and a half years in Sister Kate’s Children’s Home for half caste kids.
Standing | My sister Barbara is 3rd from the left and I’m 5th standing next to her holding hands. Bottom Row | My baby brother Darryl is on the left.
Your Homemaker series carries a very personal and powerful message. Tell us a bit more about the works that make up this series and, in particular, the ones that are currently on display in Balancing Act.
In the 1950s, low budget housing was made available to ‘chosen’ Aboriginal families through the “Transitional Housing Scheme”. In short, families accepted into the homes, whether they knew it or not, were subjected to an unfathomable amount of government rules and regulations. Under the strict control of the Native Welfare Department, social, domestic and civil ‘re-education’ was filtered down through various agencies. These ‘settlements’ were nothing more than an experiment in assimilation.
There was a clear expectation that the ‘black’ woman can just slot into this scene with relative ease in white society. Dress her accordingly, teach her appropriate social etiquette, familiarise her with ‘joys’ of white domestication and all will ‘look’ well. This was not the case and the entire programme was considered a failure by the government.
My works revisit this era of intense assimilation and attempt to convey the alienation level that my people experienced during that period. Coming straight out of the catastrophic 1905 Aborigines Act, we were square pegs being forced into round holes via the ridiculous notion that we could, without hesitation, put aside 50,000 years of cultural knowledge and training to participate in an alien society. My work is an avenue to ‘speak’ of and share the intolerable and heartbreaking experiences inflicted upon thousands of indigenous women, including my beloved mother, grandmother, siblings, and myself.
In my piece Honey, I’m Home, the young woman wears a traditional Kangaroo-skin Booka (cloak). The Booka is symbolic of cultural defiance; it represents her stance in preserving and maintaining her Cultural identity as it once was. Even though her outward appearance may appear to be one of surrender, she shows her defiance by protecting herself from being among the white people by covering herself in her culture. It is a direct challenge to the notion of passivity.
As she stands at the stove in this homely but ‘alien’ space, she looks directly at the viewer. She was one of many young women targeted for assimilation by the Native Welfare Department and abducted as a very young child from her family and her community. As she goes through the motions of preparing the evening meal, her ‘husband’ greets her from behind the kitchen door. Her children greet their father and look for treats in his briefcase as he makes his presence known to her.
The husband is painted in black, white and grey. This is my way of transferring back onto white society the one-dimensional perception afforded to Aboriginal people since first contact, it also makes reference to the caste system that was imposed onto our identities.
What do you hope audiences will take away with them when they view your works?
I hope they go away with a better understanding of the collective grief and sense of alienation that those who were stolen have experienced over their lifetimes. The loss of personal and cultural identity has been something that my siblings and I have had to deal with throughout our lives. Having to navigate finding family, kinship ties and country, then seeking out and being accepted back into our communities and family groups where we belong has been the most difficult journey.
Me in front of my baby sister Trish ‘holidaying’ with a white family around 1957-58 when we were still in Sister Kate’s Children’s Home for Half-Caste Children. When this photo was taken we were so tiny and so young and so malnourished from starving in the home.
There are many dark chapters within Australia’s history for example colonisation, Stolen Generation, discrimination which are still all relevant today. Do you feel Australia is on the right path to reconciliation, if not what actions should take place?
If Australia goes down the path of Voice, Treaty, Truth now, there might be some hope for the future. If there is no drastic change, led by the Government in the near future, there is not a lot of hope for our people or our culture. The reality is that our elders are statistically dying 15 years before our white brothers and sisters. This means that our culture and Heritage won’t be able to be handed down to our grandchildren and the generations following.
Do you feel galleries and museums such as AGWA are doing enough in telling the stories/histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders? What do you believe galleries and cultural institutions should be doing/looking at more to help with the path to reconciliation?
They need to be committing to:
Equity – We are all Australians, our desire is to be treated as such and be afforded the same opportunities and respect that our non Indigenous Australians enjoy.
Truth-telling – Indigenous art should not be ‘put aside’ due to being ‘too political or too radical or too confronting’, we have a very political and confronting history that needs to be told in this country.
Aboriginal cultural protocols – They need to be better understood and should always take priority when Aboriginal artists are working with Galleries and Museums.
Artist focussed processes – Make processes more streamlined, less complicated and easier for ‘grass roots’ Aboriginal artists in the community to connect to the mainstream arts via the Galleries and Museums.
Developing a better understanding of what cultural safety means and what that requires when working with both artists and curators.
Galleries and museums must have Indigenous curators managing Indigenous collections and exhibitions that are showing Indigenous works, it’s crucial to all of us that Curators understand the Cultural Protocols that are behind what we all do.