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So Fine Contemporary Women Artists make Australian history

National Portrait Gallery July 2018

Fiona McMonagle

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Fiona McMonagle
Contributing artists /

Born: 1977, Letterkenny, Ireland Works: Melbourne

Artist statement

Under Britain's child migrant scheme - operating from the 1920s through to the late 1960s - over 130,000 children were forcibly sent to ‘a better life' in former colonies, mainly Australia and Canada. Many were children of single mothers who had been forced to give them up for adoption, or had left them temporarily in British orphanages until they were fit to reclaim them.

The deception on the part of the British and Australian governments has only recently come to light. Instead of being given a better life in Australia, the children - whose ages ranged from three to fourteen - were sent to remote farms and state orphanages where they were put to work. They endured years of hard labour, with many subjected to physical and sexual abuse. They were lied to, often being told their parents had died or had disowned them. Parents were also misled, with those who returned to orphanages to reclaim their children rebuffed with various heartrending responses: that they had been given better lives; that they had been given to wealthier British families; that they should just forget them.

The Scheme (5 works on calico - Girl 2), 2018 by Fiona McMonagle

The Scheme (5 works on calico - Girl 2), 2018 by Fiona McMonagle

The Scheme (5 works on calico - Boy 3), 2018 by Fiona McMonagle

The Scheme (5 works on calico - Boy 3), 2018 by Fiona McMonagle

The Scheme (5 works on calico - Boy 1), 2018 by Fiona McMonagle

In this body of work, The Scheme, I have portrayed five children, all dressed up in new clobber, smiles on their faces, preparing to embark on a journey to a better land. Originally made from paintings using ink on paper, the images were then enlarged and printed on calico using the halftone process. The choice of calico was a deliberate one, as I feel that it gives the works an aged aesthetic. The large scale is a product of some consideration, too - not just in terms of its initial impact, but to create a poster or banner effect, as though these children, full of hope and excitement, are an advertisement for the scheme itself.

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