Artist Bonita Ely reflects on life in the 1980s and being a mother and artist. Bonita’s performances of the 1970s and 1980s explored human ties and relationships, to each other and to the environment. Aboriginal culture, womanhood and pregnancy emerged as strong undertones in her work.
Baby/mother/artist/adult. I read in a bio some years before that Barbara Hepworth had triplets with Ben Nicholson. Every day she did something to keep her practice going, no matter how little or what. I did the same.
The 80s began with the performance, Murray River Punch, & the failure of obsolete birth control methods recommended by my GP after being on the pill for 12 years straight. IUD – ouch! I don’t think so. ‘Dutch cap’? Yeah, right. Life turned up side down: in Berlin, pregnant, having-a-baby, everywhere Lady Di’s frilly maternity wear – have mercy. Me a mother? So grown up.
To back track a little, I don’t recall where Murray River Punch came from, except I did see a cooking demonstrator in Melbourne’s Myers department store who, unlike today’s super chefs, was a demure woman handing out edible rubbish with cheerful chirpy chitty chat to bemused passersby – a connection made to the Murray’s pollutants &, combined with Ita B’s fine grooming, a role model.
I gave my daughter ‘boys’ & ‘girls’ toys. She loved anything on wheels. Unlike her mother & like her Dad she had a great affinity with animals, demanding a cat at the age of three and taught me inter species interaction. Yikes.
‘Mummy’s Work’ was sacrosanct, the studio out of bounds unless invited in to make art, like Mummy.
I of course can take full credit for her love of dogs having introduced her to them in utero, racing around East & West Berlin throughout my pregnancy photographing every dog in art in every public collection, snapping the Berliners with their pets, researching the hunde’s social functions, including the pitiful sight of savage Alsatians attached to a series of wire runs patrolling one remote section of the Berlin Wall. I was told an armistice agreement prevented the deployment there of the usual lethal weaponry. First I noticed tiny dogs in old women’s handbags on the U-Bahn, but not many old men on the streets. Were these Berlin’s young war widows in frocks seen on film in the Reichstag Museum clearing the streets of rubble, passing it hand to hand in crocodile lines? My research for the performances Dogwoman Communicates with the Younger Generation (1982), followed by Dogwoman Makes History (1985) established, beyond doubt, women’s pivotal role in our fictive constructions of history & religions.
Back in Australia I taught at SCA, then Wagga Wagga, then UWS, then COFA, having sat myself down with a stern lecture-to-self on the serious business of raising a child, being an adult, reflective of the eye balling my daughter gave me the first time I held her. Grow up. Yikes. Work on environmental issues continued – Jabiluka uranium, satellite surveillance 1984, the Franklin River, Murray/Murundi, waste, waste, Lady Di, Lady Di, consume, consume. Funded by an Ozco grant in 1988, the Bicentennial year, I pulled my daughter out of kindergarten to do home schooling in our swags. Rejecting my efforts with the usual method, she taught herself to swim in Borroloola by diving underwater then bobbing up for air. She’s now a Master scuba diver. Yikes. Travelling around the Outback investigating Wilderness for my Masters project I found the ‘wilderness’ was Indigenous people’s home country. Not wild for them – very familiar. The outcome was a series of paintings called Scenes from the Appropriation of ….. Country (insert the Indigenous name).
1989. Getting ready for school. We have an argument.
“I’m leaving home!”
The front door slams and my daughter marches off down the street. I have no time for this. I have an early meeting. What to do? I throw myself down on the footpath before her –
“You have to forgive me darling. One day you will do something terrible just as I have now and you will be asking me to forgive you”.
A long Pause … ”Oh all right then”.
Stalks off, head in the air, back up the street. I am forgiven. She is forgiven. We forgive each other always.
Being a mother and an artist is not an oxymoron as long as you don’t grow up too fast – I’m really only 28 still, after all that.