Indigenous artist Norma MacDonald of Mahogany Creek with her A Sense of History artwork, which features on the nbn box at Coal Dam Park. Photo: Anita McInnes

Street gallery artist paints her Indigenous story

May 31, 2023

NORMA MacDonald’s artwork on an nbn box at Coal Dam Park is representative of her goal to tell the history of her family, particularly the story of her Aboriginal mother Doris.
Years ago the now national and internationaly recognised Mahogany Creek artist, whose people are Yamatji and Noongar, started telling her story and family history through her artwork.
“I couldn’t write it because when I was a young girl dad didn’t let me go to high school, that was his way,’’ she said.
Part of the Swan Street Gallery, the focal point of the painting is the face of a woman representing MacDonald’s grandmother Rosie, who was taken from her family as a young girl and placed in the Moore River settlement where Doris was born.
The family members past and present are presented as though they are part of a photo album.
Also depicted are homes they lived in, towns and farming properties they worked on and fencing is also prominent in the painting.
Her mum’s brothers were in the mission so the painting also includes a cross as they were little altar boys, her grandad’s old T-Ford and a mia mia used when family members were out bush.
MacDonald’s grandfather James, who had also been taken from his family and placed in a foster home, did a lot of fencing work.
“The rabbit proof fencing – grandad used to do that work on the white stations and mum did all the cleaning and it was really hard going for her and grandma.’’
Her mother went from that to marrying her white father, who she had met in Geraldton.
After MacDonald was born in Geraldton her father went off to war.
“He drank a lot because he came back from the war and things were different - he was a different man - like many who drowned themselves at the RSL.
“It’s sad really and being Anzac Day (recently) I think of my dad and I did say to my dad – thank you on that side of it.’’
Her mother and father split up after 43 years of marriage and MacDonald starting researching the family history and using her artwork to express what she found.
“I did it all in my artwork and went and did my diploma, a lot of children’s books and everything and I was able to show that to my dad before he passed away.’’
Once she heard her father telling her sister he was proud of his oldest daughter: “I nearly fell over as that was the first time he’d ever said anything like that.’’
As she continued her research she couldn’t believe what was happening with Indigenous people so she decided in her lifetime she was going to try and change it.
“I told the history in my artwork – I’ve got my diploma in fine arts and I had to have my writing ability to do all the study.
“I’ve done huge public arts out there to tell everybody I am an Indigenous person and that’s what I say and all my family now acknowledge their mother as an Aboriginal and not the other words that used to come out of dad’s mouth.
“It’s just my way of correcting the wrong, doing it quietly, you don’t have to jump up and down, just do it and be seen to do it.’’
The former Bellevue and Midland resident was the eldest of nine.
“It’s not until you really grow up you realise how strict mum was and I thank her for that.
“We might have got a few hidings but we probably deserved it but it was a way of mum not losing her children and little did we know.
“She fought to keep all her children, keep us clean and live with what we had and dad was in the Midland Railways – he was a guard on the railways for many years and then first stop was the hotel so he was like that.
“Mum never drank - many times we kids slept outside because of dad coming home and there’d be rows – we were all scared and used to run out – no wonder we didn’t do any good at schooling.
“Mum was really dark so you couldn’t miss her as being Aboriginal so you’d get hard times at school.’’
When her mother attended her first exhibition she wanted MacDonald to go in without her.
“I said mum this is all about you, I’m not going in there to the talk without you and that’s how it was from that time on she was so excited every two years I’d have an exhibition - I love my mum and I miss her.
“She took me back bush for about 10 years and taught me the ways - what her mother taught her so I was able to ask mum a lot of things.”

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