Artworks tell the story of WA's dark and hidden past

Visual Arts

A new exhibition at ECU explores the emotionally fraught subject of what is known about mothers who killed their children in colonial Western Australia.

The Spaces Between Us exhibition at Gallery 25, Mount Lawley Campus, is curated by ECU Post Doctoral Research Fellow Dr Amanda Gardiner and draws on her PhD research which investigated women who committed infanticide in colonial Western Australia.

Dr Gardiner uncovered more than 55 cases linked to the crime of infanticide that occurred between 1829 and 1901.

”Little documentation survives to provide evidence of the lives of the women who committed these crimes,” Dr Gardiner said.

“Many of the women were not literate and these cases often occurred within narratives of secrecy and abuse of power, compounded by experiences of sexual trauma or indiscretion. Because of this, their crimes have been submerged under fear and shame.

“The taboo nature of this subject and our emotional response to such death and suffering, combined with such a lack of information, can lead to a simplified understanding of the lived experience of these women,” she said.

Telling the story through art

Dr Gardiner worked with six highly respected WA artists to draw out the emotional complexities of her subject. The artists: Sarah Elson, Eva Fernandez, Dr Mace Francis, Simon Gilby, Helen Seiver and Sarah Mills used archival, visual and performing arts research to re-contextualize such cases of infanticide.

The Spaces Between Uspresents a challenging subject for audiences,” Dr Gardiner said.

“But for those who engage with the work, it presents a unique opportunity to witness and understand the complex lives of these historically marginalised women.”

Dr Gardiner said through the sculpture, paintings and sound compositions The Spaces Between Us seeks to transcend historical narrative and breathe life into the spaces between what is known and unknown about these women.

Artist connects with the subject

One of the artists, Helen Seiver, said the project resonated heavily with her.

“I was an 18 year old, unmarried and pregnant in 1968 and I remember what a terrible sin it was then. However, I was lucky enough to be in a position to have my child.

“That experience gives me a direct connection to the women who found themselves in a similar situation when the cultural attitudes would have been even more severe,” Ms Seiver said.

Ms Seiver used found objects to create her artwork, a collection of 55 bonnets, one for each baby.  She said they stand to bear witness and give a voice to those babies.

“One particular woman I was interested in worked in a house not far from me. We went to visit that house knowing the baby had been buried under a grapevine, to find the grapevine still there. I was able to gather the withered grape bunches to make a bonnet,” Ms Seiver said.

“Seeing the bonnets all set up together is very confronting for me. I see the bonnets with dark voids where babies faces should be,” she said.

Event details

The Spaces Between Us exhibition will be open to the public from Friday, 21 April to Monday, 29 May at Gallery 25, Edith Cowan University, Mount Lawley Campus.

Artist talk

Date: Friday, 28 April 2017 
Time: 10.00am 
Venue: Gallery 25, Edith Cowan University, Mount Lawley Campus.