* Warning: Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people are advised to exercise caution when viewing this article as it may contain images of deceased persons, which might cause distress to some viewers of these communities.
For the past month or so I have been working on a series of paintings called ‘Remembering Place, People, Spirit’. Opening to the memories of the effect that the land and people of the Kimberley’s in the North West of Western Australia had on me in my 20’s and 30’s, and rendering the feelings evoked from those memories with paint.
The original impact happened when I was 20 years old…my first visit to Kalumburu Mission by Cessna. The land, the people, the adventure, the ruggedness, the beauty, the history, the culture, the children, the spirituality of place; left an indelible mark on the weave and weft of my soul. It also opened my eyes to how incredibly incorrect & ill informed the generalised city opinion of Indigenous Australians was up until around that time. Furthermore, I became very concerned about the complete absence in my school history books of the horrific treatment by white colonial immigrants towards Indigenous Australians. I won’t go into this further in this blog post, however you can research the history more here)
After that first trip, I was very fortunate to be able to go back to Kalumburu again the following year and grew more attached to the people and country, as well as more vocal back in the city that non-indigenous people had it all wrong…and that ‘Aboriginals’ were beautiful, special people and whatever negative experiences city folk had had with them closer to the cities was largely a result of our own doing. Those children up there, interested to know who my brother, mother, father, aunty were? Family connections were extremely important to them. They were so beautiful, friendly and kind, with their eyes radiating with pure joy from their little hearts…they got to me!
* Click on the photo’s to enlarge
The impact deepening further, when after 30 years of living as a city girl and groomed as a high flying health professional pounding the power~dressing pavements of West Perth (schmoozing with Insurers, Solicitors, Doctors & Surgeons)…I moved to Broome to live. As soon as I arrived in the middle of the wet season; my fiancee broke off our engagement. Fortified with antidepressants to help make myself eat and get on with the business of caring for my young son, I crawled out of the childhood fairytale~like vision of the life I had once held for myself and came into my own. * (In retrospect, it was part of a longer, intermittent experience of a ‘dark night of the soul journey’~ more on that in a future blog post)
Nature all around me, away from my family and so foreign from the city life I was used to; I let myself surrender into the passing of the seasons with the elements gently waking me up from my urban reverie. I came to know and understand myself as a country girl. In my heart I always had been, but circumstance had made me not know this until I was ‘dumped’ and planted on my bum in that red, red pindan dirt! I started my own treatment practice with the encouragement and support of friends and I also started working part time for the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service (CRS). I LOVED that job! And,…I also disliked it. Loved it because I got to sit out bush in the communities on an upturned old plastic milk crate and yarn (meet to conduct initial interviews) with Indigenous mothers, brothers, fathers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts & uncles and I had the great honour to see the world through their magnificent eyes. It was a gift, they gave me; yet I was supposed to be there to help them. I got to be, (for the first time)…truly myself, and they accepted me. I disliked the job because of the restricting government framework through which I worked under and only a few short steps removed from the colonial empire that came in and took over and displaced this beautiful, deeply spiritual, connected-to-spirit, country and culture, people. It was a framework in an organisation that used a city template and placed it over a remote country town and people, with an expectation to achieve the same outcomes as its city counterparts. The uniqueness of those people and place would never fit neatly into, nor yield to the demands, statistics and targets the government wished satisfied. It was a combination of misguided, ignorant obtuseness of white ‘government-knows-best’, hitting up against pure magic. And as we know…magic can’t be quantified, boxed and neatly stacked away. Magic likes to play, delve, weave, be elusive…be free. This magic freed me. I saw my soul.
I did my best in that job. Walking two paths, trying to be of service to both the people and employer. It wasn’t easy. But in the end, I learn’t to walk between the two worlds; advocating, mediating, communicating; the expressed needs of the people. I tried to help the organisation I worked for to understand and appreciate the breadth and depth of differences I encountered in demand, expectations and results. In the end, I just listened to what the need was at a local level and tried my hardest to work towards achieving that for individuals. In return, unexpectedly, people showed me their hearts; they allowed me to see glimpses into their world, into what was possible in knowing and seeing self, spirit, community, the universe. I went on a vision quest with a young girl and tribal elder, into the land between Broome and Port Hedland. Some 600 odd kilometers of country. I urinated in a dry, culturally significant river bed, that the elderly indigenous women told me would help with my fertility issues I had been struggling with after meeting and marrying my wonderful husband. Whilst he didn’t fully understand the journey I went on, he respected my need to go. That journey changed me, from the person I was to who I am now. Whilst my rational mind could not explain the process that took place to transition me; people, place, spirit…can. I sat in my car on the 6 hour drive with an Indigenous elder that I was asked to bring back from Port Hedland to Broome Hospital. Having him communicate in a language my ears did not understand but my heart and spirit did; as we passed through golden terrain with burn’t orange hues; his undulating hand described to me stories of ancient dreaming past and the history of his land and people. I wish I could sit in that car again and understand more…more deeply. My time in the Kimberley’s opened my heart and mind to what is possible in each of us; to journey within and see soul, to move with spirit and be connected to all that is. Its an experience and a way of being alive in the world that I miss dearly and I will treasure for the rest of my life. And equally, for the reminder of my life the memory of it will guide me in all aspects of self and living. I know I live a richer life as a result of my time with the people who generously shared their culture, their hearts and their land with me…an ignorant white girl from the city.
(The great man on the left is Ron Pearson (who I affectionately call the ‘Albie Mangles of the North West), a passionate man who was the principle of the Kalumburu School. He loved those kids & community!)
My time up North with Indigenous Australians showed me how important their rich, ancient culture and belief system is…to all of us. They are a wellspring of knowledge and wisdom that connects us to the non visible beauty of this land and ancient past that knows not, the limits of time as we know it. I believe deeply, that they offer the key to saving Nature and teaching us how to honour and live with it. And to brush shoulders with these special people is to remember who we are and find self acceptance…which is after all, what we all seek…freedom and soul connection. We need each other and we need to help each other…indigenous and non-indigenous people, together.
Over the past couple of years, I have felt a yearning to paint Indigenous Australians, however wanted to be respectful and honour them and obtain images to reference via appropriate channels. Recently, I saw some images in my fb feed which spoke straight to my heart! They were beautiful photographs by the talented Freedom Garvey-Warr, of the children and adults in Kalumburu today! I immediately reached out and Freedom very kindly facilitated getting permissions obtained for me to paint the children from the images. Huge thanks to the children and their parents for allowing me to do so! Freedom had been to Kalumburu taking with her several Olympus Camera’s kindly donated by Olympus for the people of Kalumburu to learn photography skills. You can find out more here.
So here are two of the three pieces I have been working on…
‘See Me’ (Detail) Original Acrylic on Canvas 76cm x 91 cm © 2018 Tanya Cole
‘Stories worth Pearls & Diamonds’ Original Acrylic on canvas 18” x 36” ©️ 2018 Tanya Cole
‘Stories worth Pearls & Diamonds’ (detail) Original Acrylic on canvas 18” x 36” ©️ 2018 Tanya Cole
I also have a young boy I am painting that is currently still a work in progress. I had to take a brief break these past couple of weeks as I completed a rather large undertaking by painting another very special Indigenous Australian whose portrait I have entered into the Archibald Prize! I will talking all about that and sharing progress pics in my next blog post in the next day or so ~ so stay tuned!