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