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b. 1972, West Chester, Pennsylvania

Lives and works in Adelaide, Australia

Deborah Paauwe has exhibited nationally & internationally in over 35 solo exhibitions and 100 group exhibitions throughout Australia, London, Europe, Asia, New Zealand and United States. In 2000 she completed her MA in Fine Art at the Chelsea School of Art in London, UK supported by the Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship. Her work is represented in over 35 collections including the National Gallery of Australia; National Gallery of Victoria; Art Gallery of South Australia; Art Gallery of Western Australia and Artbank. Exhibitions include 2004 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art; Photo LA, Los Angeles, USA; Wall Power: Significant Contemporary Australian Photography & Photo Media, London; Imagining the Everyday, Pingyao International Photography Festival, China.  In 2004 Wakefield Press published a hardcover book (SALA publication) on Paauwe’s work titled “Beautiful Games” written by Wendy Walker.

Summer of '83

SUMMER OF '832018

In 1983, Deborah Paauwe had not yet moved to Australia from the United States. Only eleven years old, she was facing those transitional years when the innocence of childhood diminishes. When the warm days of summer are marked by sleeping, slow dreaming or busy interludes with friends. Paauwe introduces this body of work with a diptych in blue where a barefoot girl reclines amidst an excess of tulle. This is the ‘Summer of ‘83’, full of provocative memories of now unfashionable pleats, dots and lace trim on synthetic fabrics in pastel and citrus hues.

Psychologists speak of adolescence as an explorative process, a crucial time in the formation of self, and the cognition of self in relation to others. This is a period when parents are shunned in favour of peers and pushing against boundaries is a part of the everyday. Consequently, it is also a time of increased vulnerability when friendships made, or broken, impact on long term emotional stability, social success and ultimately the resilience of one’s global self-esteem.

The young girls that populate the series huddle together protective of their aspirations – to be centre stage, to be admired. Their garish dance costumes lack the classic simplicity of the ballet tutu. Instead the bands of tassels, ribbon and sequins are suggestive of proud, dedicated mums chatting as they stitch backstage at rehearsals. Mums who live vicariously through the status of their daughters in a competitive arena. On the sidelines, they cling to the last vestiges of parental power, hopeful their children realise a better life.

The artist’s leitmotif of freefalling tresses secures the girls’ anonymity, locking from view the openness of their eyes and self-conscious smiles. Instead what comes into focus is one girl’s chipped baby-blue nail polish or the fine silver band on an index finger. There is uniformity in the shade, texture and length of their hair. The pale and supple skin of their exposed limbs implies the benefits and underlying values of the middle-class – accessibility to education and health care. These young beauties are defined by the norms of their broader community. They belong to each other.

What is apparent in the languorous gestures of Paauwe’s pubescent bodies is attitude, defensiveness and nonchalance. With their heads close, secrets are whispered and opinions supported. Each individual’s victory becomes a validation and affirmation of their belonging, which contributes to the communal kudos. Conversely, when life serves a blow to one this all-girl clan rally in support with affectionate caresses and comforting arms. There is a familiarity between the girls, which holds the artist’s nostalgia for adolescence in an incorruptible stasis.

Allison Holland, Curator, Australian Centre for Photography, 2018


That breathing in and out remembers lost or quiet things you always wanted [1]

Somewhere I still have the photographs my friends and I took of one another dressed up in my sister’s clothes when we were only eleven. We posed with props that empowered us to perform new and different identities: my sister’s electric guitar, a plastic tiara and a purple exercise ball.  This memory is of a specific hot-blooded communication that occurs between girls, where the move from childhood to adolescence is navigated together and where there exists a tension between solitary and shared experiences. The cloudy photographs, taken on a disposable camera, show undeveloped bodies in poses that awkwardly practice how to simultaneously present the allure and integrity of being a woman.

Child play is a safe and private rehearsal for ‘real’ life’s performance. The intimate spaces created in pre-pubescent secret-sharing, lies and games create a particular momentary excitement, which can verge on both the erotic and sinister. Play between girls exposes that the nature of intimacy between women is inextricable from emotions responding to the socially constructed performance of femininity. This unconscious awareness of performance creates a tender, trusting understanding of how it feels to be perpetually watched. Though never overtly explained that this is the way of the world, through social codes and the pervasive construction of gendered behaviour, certain rules are learned.

Becoming a woman felt a bit like becoming famous [2]

Deborah Paauwe’s staged portraits of pre-pubescent girls are intimate considerations of the volatile transition from girlhood to womanhood. The images capture the complexities of navigating this time with secrecy, ambiguity and take a sensitive approach to the physical indicators of innocence budding into awareness.

Like most of Paauwe’s photographs, faces in the Stolen Riddles series are obscured from view. We glimpse teeth awkwardly finding their position, presenting a confronting and grotesque image of childhood development, further heightening its precariousness and uncertainty. Subtle suggestions of narrative are constructed through the coupling of the girls, emphasising their solitude in the singular photographs. The physical interaction between the girls draws attention to their vulnerability. A protective arm folds over a flat chest, unformed hips are embraced and supple arms are linked in mutual union. When viewed as a whole, the tension between the girls coupled and isolated speaks of states of loneliness and alienation, where the difficulty of navigating private and public spaces becomes an experiment with freedom and an emerging awareness of the significance of beauty is formed.

In Stolen Riddles there is a focus on the lushness and allure of hair. The wigs are sumptuous and appealing. In some photos they look like ripe fruit, while in others they are arranged awkwardly and shambolically, like soft shields or bad hiding places. The obstruction of faces with hair has an uneasy edge and gives the impression of dual identities, heightening the sense of a shared secret game. Of course in all games there is an initiator and an initiated; a complex web of power relations. There is something more assertive about the girls in this series. The gestures of hair-shaking and protective unification have a strength that feels as though the subjects play a more active role than in Paauwe’s previous work.

…once we had the peculiarities and history of our bodies in place we went on to the stories…

The contrast of young girls together and in private is at the centre of this series as Paauwe reveals a tender embrace, the desire for escape and a sense of alienation. These images could be seen as responses to memories or might remind us of the mysterious ways our own childhood recollections manifest in adult experience. This transitional time in the lives of pre-pubescent girls is both intriguing and uncomfortable. There is pleasure in looking at these photographs, yet the contrast between the girls’ innocence and awareness destablilises our gaze, creating a pervading sense of unease. To counter this discomfort we try to decipher what it is, and in that process, create narratives of our own.

Kate Power, 2015

[1] Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013). 

[2] Caitlin Moran, How To Be a Woman (London: Ebury Press, 2012).

[3] Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness (London: Vintage Books, 2010).

Stolen Riddles, 2015


The desire to perform and the want to conceal would seem counterintuitive in theory. The mere thought of subjecting oneself to the gaze of the camera, the reach of the microphone or the lights of the stage conjures a nightmarish prescience in some, just as it engenders an almost lustful flight of fancy for others.

But we are complicated beasts; confused compounds of projected familial aspirations, inner desires and outward appearances. The semblance of bashfulness or extroversion hardly equates to a resolved behavioural or psychological state. The troubled, shambolic lives of countless of our most renowned dramatic and musical icons would seem to render the correlation between public face and personal fulfilment perilously tenuous. Appearances can often be deceiving.

It’s a notion worth taking into account when spending time with The Painted Mirror, the most recent body of work from American-born artist Deborah Paauwe. Employing the sequins, sheen and symbology of the child beauty pageant as its register, this suite of staged portraits skirt a particular tension between public and private. Indeed, while Paauwe’s close-cropped, highly gestural photographs capture her young teen (and even younger tween) protagonists striking various melodramatic poses in full, garish kitsch regalia, there is something askew.

As with much of Paauwe’s work, the girls’ faces are obscured and erased from view; in this case, via a series of handheld props, such as vintage, hand-painted mirrors and colourful paper fans. It’s a telling motif. Like earlier work, too, there are irrevocable linkages to personal history and autobiography here. That Paauwe cites her part-Chinese heritage – specifically, a cultural sensibility of concealing one’s emotions – as an inspiration for the series adds an intriguing layer.


With the face concealed, there is little personal legitimacy to these poses. Indeed, how does one read the body without the aid of the face? Our eyes fall upon the details – the position of the hand, the fall of the hair, the subtle stain of recently removed nail polish. The children’s gestures, costumes and bodies become an almost arbitrary system of signifiers.  They resemble and hint at emotion and joy and reticence, but they fail to offer confirmation.

What might have been considered as a light-hearted study of primping, play and “girls being girls” is in fact far more complex in its disposition. These are girls are play-acting learned femininity. They are living out contrived drama, emotion and behaviour of someone else’s dream.

The Yellow Line, 2010


There is a spectre in these scenes. There is an intimacy of memory, an unbreakable resilience between present and past.

Economy is of the essence here. Even the slightest of gestures become crucial. A touch or twist or link of hands; a head turned; an index finger, slightly raised. The actions are muted somehow; tender, far from overt. But they are significant.

The two figures at the centre of Deborah Paauwe’s new body of work are permanently connected, irrevocably entwined.

The Yellow Line Paauwe refers to in this collection of large-scale, staged, highly gestural colour photographs is one of the road. Born in Pennsylvania, her early life was spent in the back seat of the family station wagon, traversing the highways of 1980s America.

What we witness in Paauwe’s photographs, however, subverts romantic, cinematic connotations of travel. Here, the signifiers of freedom – endless highways, sky and empty expanse – are obscured and erased. The austere, symmetrical environs of an underground car park take their place. The yellow line creeping into frame leads not to a distant horizon, but to the arbitrary swirl and texture of a concrete wall.

As with the majority of Paauwe’s work, the pair of protagonists here are female, faces obscured from view. Their body shape, hair colour, signature of movement and gesture, are remarkably similar, almost familial. Yet, there is an ambiguousness to the figures. Age is indecipherable at first glance. Both are lean and long-limbed, in a youthful way. They cling together in their matching Sunday best, tightly framed and cropped against cold grey.

With time, more details come to light. Disparities between the pair become more evident. Bruises become decipherable, as do veins, the deep scarring on a leg. We come to realise that one subject to be a woman and the other a child. In a shift from Paauwe’s recent works from the exhibitions Kindle & Swag (2005) and The Crying Room (2006) – which resonated with a kind of lush sensuousness and sexuality – the figures in The Yellow Line espouse a different brand of intimacy. Their touch becomes one of nurture, one of connection via mutual experience. It is not necessarily one of choice.

The idea that the woman and child might be an allegory for Paauwe’s adult and childhood selves seems particularly compelling. Though separated by time, their shared memory ensnares and entraps them both.

The Yellow Line is a parable not of boundless freedoms, but perhaps of our inability to break from our past.

Dan Rule

Dan Rule is an arts and music writer from Melbourne. He writes the 'Around the galleries' column in The Age and is the co-founded of independent art publishing imprints And Collective and Erm Books.