In her winning entry to the Australian Women’s Weekly ‘Happy Marriage Contest’ of 1961, Mrs Elsa Hertzberg of Bondi wrote that: ‘a happy marriage is one shared by a couple both of whom possess what I consider the essential ingredient – IMAGINATION.’
Imagination was also the ingredient that lifted the NSW State Archives exhibition ‘Marriage: Love + Law’, recently shown at Penrith Regional Gallery (30 March – 16 June), out of the realm of pure social history. Contemporary artists Blak Douglas, Freya Jobbins, Danie Mellor and Raquel Ormella were asked to respond to the colonial construct of marriage, and the results were more sobering than they were celebratory.
Through a four-tiered wedding cake of cavorting Barbie dolls, Jobbins succeeded in embodying a history of marriage in Australia which has often seen its citizens become playthings of the powers that be – first as a means to further control its convict arrivals, then as a way to bestow ‘respectability’ on its settler class, leading to the more recent contractions and expansions of the Marriage Act 1961 under the Howard and Turnbull governments.
Ormella tackled the most recent turn of events delivered by a national postal survey with her rainbow-coloured collection of bridesmaid dresses. But rather than suggesting liberation, these garments were bound and clamped, with the artist both welcoming marriage equality and wondering ‘at all the restrictions, social constructs and expectations that remain around the ceremony and legal marriage contract. May we continue to undo these too.’
The wider impact of the laws around marriage were explored by Indigenous artists Douglas and Mellor. Through their more withering works, marriage was revealed not as a vehicle for civil union or social cohesion, but for racial division. Douglas’s triptych of pointillist pop paintings pointed out the erasing by-products of the Aborigines Protection Act (1909), which deemed where Indigenous people lived, worked and married. And also employing text, Mellor’s 2019 photographic print Transubstantiation spoke of how the colonial granting of land through ‘marriage portions’ effectively robbed Aboriginal people of their Country.
Despite marking Australia’s recent gains in marriage equality, ‘Love + Law’ left the impression that, through commissioned works such as these, historical inequities remain underlying one of our most sacred social institutions.
Michael Fitzgerald, Penrith