Hayley Miller Baker, I Will Survive 1, pigment ink-jet print, 93.0 x 70.0 cm, 2020.
Hayley Millar Baker is an artist using photography to memorialise stories, often about her own familial history. She is best known for digitally juxtaposing symbols of colonisation—such as the church and suburban objects—in monochromatic images that poetically uncover narratives of resistance. A unique tension in her work is that she delivers harrowing messages of survival with stunning beauty and lyrical semiology. Baker has refined this paradoxical language to intrigue and marvel audiences, explaining that “It is very hard in white Australia to get people to listen or be involved in Aboriginal story, memory, experience, or history. So, I figured out a way to make my work aesthetically interesting and stretch it pass any sort of idea of what Aboriginal art can look like: to get people to look at my work and find something in the image that gives them a clue, to engage with the picture.” This has endowed Baker’s practice with a seductive dynamic, where she deploys aesthetics as a gravitational pull to drag audiences into a realm of personal and collective memory.
Her photograph Untitled (Taming) (2019), from the series The Trees Have No Tongues (2019), is populated with symbols that point to this historical continuum. The picture shows a ghostly silhouette cast on the walls of a suburban living room, denoting a presence that is physically absent. This creates an eerie effect—an unnerving sense of wrongness—that is intensified by the uncanny objects on sight, such as a bottle of Windex resting on an inconspicuous table. Upon closer inspection, one realises that these items are superimposed like a digital collage, creating an optical disturbance. This upsets the homeliness of this scene, which depicts familiar referents of suburban life in so called Australia. Baker purposely suspends her photographs in this state of surface level ambiguity, which conceals a very concise message encrypted within her pictorial signs.
Baker explains that this piece is about the story of her “Nan’s grandmother” or her great-great grandmother, who grew up in an Aboriginal mission in the early 20th century, during the era of Australia’s segregation policy. At the age of 14, the mission sent her to a white family in Naarm (Melbourne) to act as a domestic servant, which would later grant her the license to leave the mission. Once she completed her service and returned to the mission, she acquired her license but found it to be useless—since segregation didn’t allow her to enter white spaces. Baker explains that her great-great grandmother “was not allowed to marry a darker man” as a ploy to breed out colour and that her husband was falsely accused of trying to steal a cow, which led to his imprisonment. “She had to live in a tent in the bush with her five children because she wasn’t allowed to enter white society but also wasn’t allowed to return to her family on the mission because of her completed domestic service,” adds the artist. Baker then proceeds to recount how her great-great grandmother was employed by the mission during a tuberculosis epidemic to clean rooms with bleach after the ill died. Unfortunately, she contracted the disease at the tender age of 41 and passed away.
“This work is about being a prisoner in the system and leaving scars behind,” says Baker. “These struggles to survive have to be recognised, it’s such a common Aboriginal experience—everyone has something like this in their family. So, being able to put this story out there and honour the fact that my family had kids, and these kids had kids that allowed me to be here and do what I do is an important part of my practice.” The domestic interior in Untitled (Taming) is in fact a photograph originally shot by the husband of Baker’s grandmother, who wanted to be a photographer. Thus, the image captures the intergenerational passing that continues to hold the legacy of the artist’s great-great grandmother across generations.
The act of inserting household objects onto the photograph is laden with political complexity, for it mirrors the notion of weaving counter narratives into colonial discourses. Indeed, we encounter a familiar scene in Untitled (Taming) that is disrupted by ubiquitous items that look unhomely because they have been digitally placed, ranging from a broom to glass swan figurines. As one continues to engage with the image, these signs of domesticity become increasingly significant in the backdrop of Baker’s familial history of forced servitude. Therefore, the picture is troubled by something that was always present but remained undisclosed: a message that unlike gothic secrets, has always been said yet goes unheard. Same as we re-encounter the image of a familiar suburban living room in Untitled (Taming) —now placed within a wider context of survival—we meet again the infrastructure of this post-colonised nation. Our vistas in Unceded Land are filled with these narratives, which are sidelined by dominant tales. Baker’s photographs uncover the pains that scar these panoramas and offer uninvited guests the portals to learn about these wounds.