Women’s work: Alison Williams tells how SWIFF Light Box highlights the history of the quarry site

Shadows Dancing by Alison Williams

Alison Williams is a Gumbaynggirr woman who has been creating art for more than 30 years. As one of SWIFF Light Box artists, she is looking forward to being part of a project that shares the significance of the landscape with the community. She moved from Sydney up to the region in 1994, and became an artist at Yarrawarra Aboriginal Cultural Centre, of which she became director in 2016. Over three decades she has exhibited widely and won numerous awards. We catch up with Alison to hear more…

What would you like to get across to viewers through your art for SWIFF Light Box?

My work is earmarked more for the Corrumbirra Point quarry site because it is a women’s place and SWIFF wanted to represent that area in an appropriate way. I’ve done some consultation with my Elders. Being a women’s place and being a female Aboriginal artist, this project gives me an opportunity to represent some of the local history and specifically look at work that reflects women’s business, portray its significance so that people looking at that site gain a broader understanding of the relevance of the place and realise that it’s not just an old quarry.

Not everyone in town knows that it’s a women’s place. Can you tell us a little bit more about its significance?

Prior to being asked onto the SWIFF Light Box project I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about that place either. From my research, I understand that it was a birthing site. It’s a place that holds the spiritual energy of Gaungan, who for Gumbaynggirr people represents the Mother; the Mother to all Gumbaynggirr people. There are many stories that tie in with Gaungan, for example in Dreaming stories Gaungan gave the ocean its shape and purpose, including the estuaries. She also had some creative powers in a spiritual way. She possessed the powers of what a “clever woman” would have; the ability to harness a spiritual energy through song and through words and ceremony. Most places that reflect Gaungan for Aboriginal women in this region deal with fertility and female ceremony – not necessarily fertility in the sense of becoming pregnant and having babies, but also in the later stages of your life, with menopause, there’s ceremony around that as well. Hitting that stage of life can represent many things for a woman.

How will that play out through your work?

The works that I’ve provided harness a lot of that energy, about femininity, creation of life and Gaungan and her history within the region. Hopefully it will create a connection to Country and a connection to place for a lot of people. It will definitely convert the quarry from what a lot of people see as an ugly rock face, it will put it in a new perspective and hopefully give people the opportunity to understand that for Gumbaynggirr people and for Aboriginal people in Australia there is a living culture and it’s entwined with place and the landscape. The landscape has a huge impact on our people’s identity and unity.

Can you tell us a little more about the techniques and visual motifs in your work?

I’ve been creating art for a long time now, more than 30 years, and there’s been an evolution in how I portray things and the way that I paint. I had an early career in portraiture, and realism training in my teens. I feel that I have a fairly broad scope or range as far as painting styles.

In the 1990s I spent a lot of time researching the motifs and traditional symbols from this particular region. I think as Aboriginal art hit the limelight there was a lot of focus on the western desert – dot art was seen as being the predominant Aboriginal art. For me it was important to really get my head around the meaning of some of the symbols used here, in this region.

I looked at archaeological research and some of the cultural mapping of symbols found on local rock faces and in caves and engravings and made a lot of enquiries with Elders and knowledge holders about what those symbols mean.

I like to use tally marks quite a bit, basically a stroke or a line. Tally marks are used quite often as a record or keeping count for different things. You see that same sort of patterning in axe grinding grooves or in timber weapons, and on body scarification from this region. That patterning resonates very strongly with me, much more than dot patterning does. But I also use the generic symbols for trees or water. I tend to be a bit of a tree fan, I include trees a lot. For me they’re a huge part of the cultural landscape.

These two paintings are about a dance, called the Shadow Dance, that was taught to me years ago by Warrungga Dunggirr who is an Elder from Nambucca. The dance has to do with self-observation. There’s quite a deep meaning behind it, it has to do with looking within yourself; watching yourself.

As an artist working in a 2D medium, what’s it like to hand over your work to animators?

I’m excited to see it, I don’t mind if it gets morphed or cut or excerpts come out of here or there. I’m quite excited to see it become part of something else. I’m just hoping that it does the site justice! Everyone involved in this project is very conscious of the significance of the site and that’s really refreshing, too.

Interview by Louden Up Media