Dowling's images of love and loss

Artist Julie Dowling in her Maddington studio. Picture: Iain Gillespie.

With her first commercial gallery exhibition in Perth for three years opening at Harvison Gallery, buyers will no doubt eagerly await Julie Dowling's new series of works.

Known around the world as an Aboriginal portrait artist who challenges established versions of Australian history, Dowling portrays love stories set in Perth in her exhibition Mirnuwa Wagu - Showing Home.

Of Yamatji-Budimaya descent herself, she says most people don't realise how Noongar people have historically interacted with the city.

"The city for me, growing up in East Perth as a teenager, was very exciting, with indigenous theatre emerging, art and protests, even though the history there is quite sad as well," she says. A lot of Noongars died in the city and are buried there, so there's a respect there, making it a place of meditation for Noongars."

Included among the many double-portraits in her signature style blending European and indigenous aesthetics is one of sisters heading off to a protest. Another is a flashback to the 1950s and 60s, when Noongars were allowed back into the city and experienced the annual Christmas light display for the first time.

Sitting in her backyard studio in Maddington, Dowling says there's also another portrait showing a woman born in the 1840s whose mother is buried beneath Government House. "She used to go to the gates and scream at the people there. She became notorious for knocking down people's fences to get to ochre for painting," she says. "I've even got a painting of two office workers falling in love in the 1970s. People forget Perth was a place where Noongar people met for a feed of oysters by the river, for instance. Corroborees were held near where the (Perth Arena) is now. Where the brewery is was a birthing place for women, which was why it was so important to Noongars - but it was just real estate to white fellas."

Named Australia's most collectable artist in 2002, Dowling was twice a finalist in the Archibald Prize and in 2000 she won both the general painting category of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Award and the Mandorla Prize for Religious Art. Her work has been exhibited extensively in Australia and overseas, including at the Cologne Art Fair in 1997 and a retrospective at the Ian Potter Centre in Melbourne in 2003.

One of WA's most famous painters, her work is in hundreds of collections in museums, universities and private collections around the world.

Dowling's studio is a rough- and-tumble converted former miners hut from Tom Price, hidden far behind a house in a quiet street in Maddington she shares with Legs Eleven, a canary she inherited from her grandmother, who won it at bingo. The "safe house", as she calls it, is shared with her identical twin sister Carol, an academic, their mother Veronica and two foster children.

"A lot of people have places like this," she says. "It's where everything is safe for kids and everyone else, and no one is doing any weird stuff or anything. These are places people stay at if they have to go to hospital or they're travelling through to other places."

Dowling, whose heritage includes a mix of Irish, Scottish and Russian, says she paints, sometimes 15 hours a day, to stop racism. "That's the main theme of everything I'm painting about. It's interesting being a fair- skinned secret spy. People who are fair-skinned do shopping for people - getting supplies or hardware, going with you into hospital to make sure people are looked after properly. That's how racist it is today. People won't listen to fair-skinned mob, they think they're faking it. My family is more accepting of fair-skinned mob than white fellas will ever be."

She says during her younger years living in Armadale, welfare services attempted to take her and her sister several times, causing their mother to be constantly on the move to protect them.

The story of her maternal family back to great-great-grandmother Melbin, who was transported to England in 1881 as an exhibit, will be revealed in a book to be released next year. "It's a real eye-opener," she says.

The excitement of opening night will be something Dowling will miss. Mostly housebound and unable to travel as a result of her 200kg-plus weight, she's exploring options to watch the opening electronically.

Both she and sister Carol ate excessively in the hope of becoming ugly so the sexual abuse and violence they suffered would end, little knowing both were born with a chronic disease called lipoedema where even mild pressing of the skin can cause bruising. She says it's a bit like wearing a fat suit.

"It's also called painful fat syndrome. You can't lose weight, basically. It predominantly affects women.

"After spending thousands of dollars on trainers that didn't move anything and so-called cures, before finding out we had it three years ago, we're going to try gastric sleeving as a last gasp. We're at stage three of the disease. Stage four is being bedridden and then death, and I don't want to get to that point."

Mirnuwa Wagu — Showing Home is on show at Harvison Gallery, 195 Brisbane Street, Northbridge, from November 7-25.