Senior Curator of Indigenous Art, Judith Ryan, spoke to Melbourne Now artist, Steaphan Paton, for the NGV Blog.
JR: Your interdisciplinary practice often references customary Indigenous material culture and iconography. Can you please explain how you developed your knowledge of Gunai/Monaro/Ngarigo visual language and material culture?
SP: I grew up watching and learning from my Nan and Pop and my uncles and aunties who are mostly artists. These markings are very strong in our family and will remain strong in our family. Cultural strength and this knowledge is something that has been passed for generations.
JR Can you tell us about the bark canoe you created for Bunjilaka. I am interested to know who mentored you and collaborated with you on its production?
SP: Boorun’s Canoe was a collaborative project with my Pop, Uncle Albert Mullett, who is a senior elder of the Gunai/Kurnai and a friend of mine, Cam Cope who is a photo journalist style photographer. We came up with the project and contacted my Pop to do it. Working with Pop and my cousins and brothers we created this traditional bark canoe and floated it in our traditional waters, which had not been done in over 100 years. I see that canoe as a vessel that carried our past histories and will carry on our history and stories.
JR: Your Urban Doolagahl work produced for the Melbourne Laneway Commission incorporated organic materials and multi-media to rewire and energise traditional storytelling for a younger audience. Tell us about this aspect of your practice.
SP: I like to take my experiences and knowledge and play around with them to create something new. It makes things interesting and sparks new stories, more ideas and ultimately strengthens culture in a different way from the traditional.
The urban doolagahl is a mash-up of a traditional story and my experience of the ‘Melbourne culture’ and its laneways. The Doolagahl comes to the city to become the Urban Doolagahl who after hiding around the lanes, eventually finds himself drinking coffee in Degraves St and eating sushi.
JR: The sacred geometry of southeast broad shields, emblematic of attachment to Country and resistance to colonial onslaught, has been a source of inspiration for many Victorian Indigenous artists. Could you talk about this preoccupation of your practice?
SP: I wear a shield tattoo on my arm that my sister designed for me. It protects me and reminds me of the strength of family. It has traditional southeast designs on it that hold meaning for me. There is a lot of meaning in many of the designs which sometimes are shared with others and sometimes not. I see my work as a delivery system for my concept or message and the shields I make tell people about conflict, tradition and strength. Through making ‘Cloaked combat’ I am continuing traditions of craft and storytelling whilst having a contemporary art practice that challenges people.