THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN ARTIST Barbara Hanrahan was my nan’s cousin, so I’ve grown up with a number of her prints on the walls of our Adelaide house, pictures that have become familiar and fond, not just for their hereditary connection. For me, the works are redolent with the feeling of home. It’s not just that they’ve literally been at home forever, and in the homes of my mum’s siblings, but because they’re of a domestic scale and feminine concern. It’s unfortunate that a description like that seems to instantly conjure in the mind nauseatingly pink still lifes, or sedate, softly lit images of children with beribboned curls (not that such art doesn’t have its place). Hanrahan’s works are vibrant and sometimes disconcerting; in this, they are not pretty, but beautiful.
Perhaps because I layer my knowledge of my own family’s domestic history upon them (knowledge cobbled together from memory, story, and perhaps some romantic invention), the prints seem imbued with the floral scents of Australian suburbia, the texture and colour of 1960s wallpapers, and the warm presence of small, rugged dogs, silken cats, chooks and ducks. They’re about relationships between human, home, and nature, the relationship between birth and death, and loving relationships between women.
In 1991, Jan Owen of the Adelaide Advertiser wrote:
She has put us on the international map and she has done this by focusing on the small and the ordinary and showing us the real interest and dignity in quiet, ordinary lives. She has always written and made her prints with an allegiance to the truth, there is no striving for beauty or for effect. The anguish of real life bursts through the surface decoration of her art and writing.
Some are expressly concerned with personal histories, like my favourite print that hangs above the computer on which I now write, the 1977 work Iris Pearl Dreams of a Wedding. The image depicts the then long-ago wedding of my own grandparents, my nan Jean, who passed away some years ago, and the granddad I never knew. Funnily, 1977 was the year of another marriage; my parents’. It seems fitting. Laden with memory as they are, the works will now pass through the family, becoming themselves items of domestic tradition.