Leanne Tobin, Clean Clad and Courteous, 2015
From the Rooty Hill Road North fence of the Native Institution heritage compound, Leanne Tobin’s Clean Clad and Courteous enigmatically announced to passing vehicles the significance of the ordinary looking site. Two groups of plywood cut-outs flanked the compound’s gates, each a stylised rendering of paper doll chains, six boys in each top row, five girls in each bottom row. Realised in larger than life scale, these childlike forms were overprinted with text excerpts from the Native Institution’s Rules and Regulations pamphlet.
Clean Clad and Courteous was the second public art project that Tobin has made responding to and displayed at the Native Institution site. In 2013, as part of Blacktown Arts Centre’s Sites of Experimentation, the artist created her first cut-outs for the fence of the heritage compound. Men in Black (Booga Men) was a pair of sinister looking black-painted missionary figures with bent backs, bibles, oversized hats and oversized crucifixes emblazoned on their backs. The title refers to a contemporary account of Tobin’s ancestor Yarramundi’s experience of missionaries taking Aboriginal children away from their families. In 1819 Reverend Walter Lawry wrote:
while in this district (Portland Head) I availed myself of an opportunity of speaking to a tribe of native blacks… I put my horse up at a settler’s house, and walked towards them. As I approached, the women and children ran away; but the King (‘Yellowmonday’ or Yarramundi), with several men, came to meet me. I inquired why the children were carried off; they replied that many of them had been taken away by men in black clothes, and put to a school in Parramatta, and they feared I was come on that errand.
It must be noted that Yarramundi’s daughter, Maria Lock was a student at the Native Institution, and her academic achievements were among the highest in the colony. In the cut-outs of the children, Leanne Tobin honours Maria Lock and all the students at the Native Institution. The source of the title is J.J. Fletcher’s Clean, Clad and Courteous: A History of Aboriginal Education in New South Wales, the alliterative phrase bluntly encapsulating some of colonial Australia’s key goals in Aboriginal education. While the overprinting of the Institution’s rules graphically symbolised the extreme imposition of colonial ways onto the children, ultimately, Tobin’s visual vocabulary asserted the resilience of their identity and culture. She rendered each face with only one feature: oversized black eyes reminiscent of the Wandjina figures, the spirit ancestors of the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley in Western Australia. The mouth is missing, symbolic of the silencing of their voices and heralding the loss of language. The frustration expressed in Men in Black is present in Clean, Clad and Courteous, but this second work is, overwhelmingly, a tender homage to the spirits of the children of the Native Institution.
Senior Curator, C3West