With an eye for capturing the colonial holds of history while communicating her profound spiritual connection to Country, in My Place – Before Marlene Gilson paints the history of her home. In vibrant, detailed and narrative-driven works, she shows the ongoing presence of Wathaurung people through the goldrush, alongside the building of Ballarat and the years that followed.
Gilson started painting these latest pieces when she was recovering from an illness. “I said to my husband, if you don’t find me some things to do, I will go crazy. So, he cut out all these little houses and I painted five villages for the kids,” she says. The artist kept painting, particularly people. “Then I started to research and read a lot of the stories. And I thought, you know, these people stated that there was no surviving Wathaurung, but there was: one was my great-grandfather,” she explains. “I wanted to put our tribe, the Wathaurung, back on the map. That’s what I set out to do.”
She draws on family stories given to her by her grandmother, as well as old photographs and newspaper articles. Her great-grandfather King Billy is regularly among the small figures spread across her canvases, but her focus is less on individuals than the relationships between them. She creates multiple, intersecting narratives, which expand into a sense of the many social, economic and violent forces that shaped the lives of the Wathaurung (also spelt as Wadawurrung).
In one of the largest works in the exhibition, Gordon, My Place – Before, 2020, Gilson turns to her home, some 25 minutes from Ballarat. “Our property, it was tent city with the gold rush,” she says. As in many of her works, there are signs of land clearing in among the figures. The two twisted old trees that remain in the work form opposite poles: one with a cottage, grindstones and a Chinese market garden; the other a Wathaurung camp by the creek. (Gilson’s family has found a number of scatter sites nearby with flints and even once a 400-year-old stone weapon.)
In Land not for sale, 2020, a white figure stands on a tree stump, ringed by an audience of buyers. The Wathaurung are cut out, contained behind the line of the creek. On their side, there are kangaroos, emus and fish for the fire. On the other, sheep and barking dogs.
The multiple narratives in her works have also built up over time. Both Building the stockade at Eureka, 2021, and Another day on the Goldfields, 2021, return to subjects Gilson has painted before. “My favourite place is Ballarat, the Goldfields. I can’t get away from that,” she says.
Gilson usually begins with the landscape. Mount Warrengeep is present in the background of many of her works. “And I always do the sky and the eagle in the sky,” she says, explaining how Bunjil the Eagle is one of the totems of the Wathaurung. Its presence in the sky is a marker of place and people, as well as a visual reinforcement of Gilson’s wide, birds-eye perspective on the past.