Meet First Nations artist Cassie Leatham

Levels 3-6

This program for primary school children was filmed in the exhibition Deadly Narratives at the Koorie Heritage Trust. It originally screened on Thursday 27 May as part of Reconciliation Week 2021.

How can art express connection to Country, culture and community? Taungurung and Wurundjeri artist Cassie Leatham and NGV educator John Parkinson got together for a discussion about her woven artwork, Healing weaved floor mat with emu feathers, 2018. Discover how Country provides materials for Leatham’s artmaking and valuable lessons to pass on to the next generation.

Learning objectives

  • Identify and describe how ideas are expressed in Cassie Leatham’s healing mat.
  • Describe the materials and techniques used to weave the healing mat.
  • Discuss the cultural and personal significance of Cassie Leatham’s art practice

Workshop instructions

Cassie Leatham is a Taungurung artist, dancer, weaver and educator with a passion for sharing Indigenous people’s cultures. She has exhibited nationally and internationally and her artworks have been acquired by the NGV, Koorie Heritage Trust Collection, and Magistrate’s Court of Victoria. Her work Healing weaved floor mat with emu feathers, 2018, has been carefully woven from five different native grasses sourced from Gurnai/ Kurnai country. The feathers are a gift from fifty-eight-year-old emu PePe, who malts three to four times a year, leaving a trail of feathers for Leatham to collect. Each feather is smoked, sung to, and handwoven into the mat. By collaborating with nature and crafting objects like her healing mat, Leatham connects to the knowledge of her ancestors and passes it onto the next generation.

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Discuss

Discuss the ideas in Leatham’s work and consider different approaches to making art:

  • Leatham says when she makes art, the creativity and knowledge of her ancestors is flowing through her. What do you think she means by that?
  • What is the significance of the five types of grasses that Leatham has used to weave the mat?
  • For Leatham, the process of creating the mat was just as important as the finished object. What were the stages of her process? Why is it so important to her?
  • Why do you think it is important for Leatham to use Taungurung, the language of her ancestors, when she names her work?

Create

Take a moment to explore your local environment. What kind of art can you make that will lead you on an inspiring journey? Consider emotions or ideas that you could convey or look for natural materials to make art with. Remember to treat the environment with care; don’t take things that might be a home for an animal or cause damage to living plants.

Video Transcript

– Good morning everybody. My name is John and I’m an educator from the NGV and I’m here at the Deadly Narratives, an exhibition at the Koorie Heritage Trust. Right now, I’m on Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung country so I want to pay my respects to their Elders past, present, and emerging. And, as you, the audience, are watching from many places, I want to pay my respects to traditional owners all across the land. And you might wonder why someone from the NGV is poking around in an exhibition at another gallery and that’s because the Koorie Heritage Trust, they’re actually our neighbours, just a short step away from where I work at the National Gallery of Victoria, and I love to come down here and check out what’s on display from the very, very talented artists of the Koori community. And right now, I have one of those talented artists, Cassie Leatham. Cassie is an artist, she’s a Wurundjeri and Taungurung artist and weaver, educator, and is very, very passionate about sharing her culture. Cassie, how are you?

– Yeah, good, thank you. Hello.

– Hello, lovely to have you here. We’ve got many questions from our audience but I want to start with one of my own.

What is this beautiful object that we’re looking at right now?

– Yes, so John, this is my healing mat. This is a sacred piece of work that I love to create. I only normally create about two or three a year. Sometimes I get commissioned to make them though so sometimes, it goes, it extends from three a year to maybe twelve a year, it just depends. But these are very sacred to me to create is because I’m passing on tools and knowledge as well when I make them. So if anyone is in the presence when I do create these beautiful weave mats, they learn the technique I do is the traditional weave of the coil and then, also too, putting together that beautiful foraged emu feathers, and they have a beautiful process as well. So this is a healing mat.

– Wonderful, well, as I mentioned, we have heaps of questions. People are very curious to hear about you and your work and also this healing mat so I’m going to have a look at some of the questions that have come in. First one is from Jasmine and Jasmine asks:

Where do you get materials to make this artwork from?

– Ah, so I just explained that. So native grasses from Country. Because I do a lot of travelling, I like to stop and collect and have a look around, so the Lomandra, there’s New Zealand Flax, there’s kangaroo grasses, there’s wallaby grasses, and what other grasses would there be, Dianella. So yeah, so they’ve all got different stories behind them and the reason why I like to mix up my grasses is because our weavers didn’t just use one grass for weaving. But with this healing mat, I like to, basically, weave in the stories of, histories, of our native grasses being used in women’s weaving. And Jasmine, the answer also is emu feathers, so that’s foraged from an actual emu. So going up to Country where I live, on Gunaikurnai Country, there’s a beautiful old emu and he’s fifty-eight years old and his name is Pepe and he moults three or four times a year. So he leaves me these beautiful trails of emu feathers that I go along and I pick up and then I take them home and I process them. And it takes quite a long time because every single individual feather is smoked, is sung to, and is hand woven into these healing mats. And there’s probably over 40,000 emu feathers in this one alone. If you wanted to count them, you’re most welcome.

– Well, I’ll take your word for it on that, Cassie.

So the process is a lot more about, not just about the making of it, but also things like the ceremony of it. Is that an important part?

– Yeah, definitely, because this is actually not a wall hanging, This is actually, my healing mats I create are for galleries and they are hung up but traditionally, for me personally as well, they’re normally put down and I sit on them and I teach other girls how to weave but I also do beautiful healing, like hands on healing. So I would sit someone on that and I would sing to them and I would play my clapsticks and I would dust ochre and I would smoke them as well to cleanse all negative away from them. So these are a floor mat and it’s also a healing space as well. But when you do hang it up and you do rub the emu feathers, you do get that sense of empowerment because the emu is a very, very strong bird, as we know, but its feathers, like, you have a feel of those, they’re soft and delicate, aren’t they? But they’re nurturing too.

– Beautifully soft, yeah.

– And they’re very, very warm. So you can imagine sitting on this and just relaxing, closing your eyes, and listening to me sing a song and sprinkling with beautiful ochre while you nurture the beautiful emu feathers.

– That sounds very special.

– Yeah.

– We have another question. Pradeep has asked

How do you think up a name for an artwork?

– Well, it’s quite easy. When I think up a name, it’s normally in language and it’s very, very, it’s very strong and significant when I come up with a name. Even though this is a healing mat with the emu feathers, it’s more of a (Taungurung language). So it’s more of a (Taungurung language) meaning a healing emu feathered mat. So do you know what I mean? It’s, everything has its place and time and story so if I can carry on the traditional ways of my ancestors and their language when I come up with an artist title for something, I think that’s more special rather than making up something. So trying to keep it real because that’s who I am. I like to keep it real and I like to pass on and always pay respects to my ancestors because, at the end of the day, it’s their work that’s coming through me to continue the process.

– And Cassie, that language is language of the Koori people?

– Taungurung, yeah.

– Taungurung.

– Taungurung, right.

– Yeah.

– More questions, shall we?

– Yeah, definitely.

– So, Hamsa has asked:

What other kinds of art do you make?

– I love to create lots of different things. So I love clay pots. I love going out and, recently, or these past few days actually, I’ve gone out on Country and I’ve collected lots of pipe clays, the beautiful white pipe clays, and different types of ochre as well. So I love making clay pots. I love collecting shells and creating midden pots to, as I said, every piece of my artwork has a story behind it and it always comes back to the old ways of people. So I kind of look at myself as a traditional artefact maker, so making things from natural resources. Because I’m so involved with sustainability and keeping Country clean and alive and, also too, protecting and nurturing, I think that’s really empowering. So my artwork, we could have the healing mats, I’d do weave baskets, I’d do native jewellery, I even collect snake bones and make beautiful snake bone necklaces. So I kind of, yeah, I’m just multi- talented in different-

– There’s just culture running through you.

– Yeah, there is, yeah, and it’s really important.

– Great, that’s lovely to hear. I guess this is a similar question we’ve got from Archer:

What is the biggest inspiration from your art?

You kind of answered that in that question, didn’t you?

– Yeah, well, it’s definitely, it’s my ancestors, it’s how they lived in the past but also too, it’s definitely Country. When I wake up every morning, I’m woken up by Wah the crow. He’s always in my pine tree and he starts wah-ing and yeah, that’s my inspiration. I get up every day and I hear his call and then I go outside and then I’ll see cockatoos and then I’ll see blue-tongued lizards and that’s what inspires me is nature, nature and Country and my environment. And then, when I do go out, I always look at my area, my environment, and wonder how did they do it in the past? How would they do this? How did they live? Like, at the moment, there’s this lake and it’s just all dry and I’m like, but it wasn’t dry because I can see the stumps and I can see the camping grounds and artefacts there and I’m trying to put their place and time together. So that’s my inspiration from my artwork and from who I am. It all comes up and it just pours out but I get guided by spirit that takes me on these little adventures, that I get little snippets of things and then I go home and I reflect on what I saw and then I create, and then it just happens.

– So the endless, inexhaustible creativity of nature, isn’t it, just speaking to you?

– Yeah, it is.

– Yeah, that’s really nice to hear.

– That’s good.

– Now, this is an interesting question from Arlo. Arlo has heard about this term, Country, and he’s asking:

Can places where there are lots of buildings, houses, and roads, also be called Country?

– Yeah, definitely. Like, we said Melbourne, that’s Country. It’s Naarm, isn’t it? So Naarm in Aboriginal language is Melbourne, the city of Melbourne. And, at the end of the day, we’re on Country. Just because we’ve got built around concrete, it wasn’t like this years and years ago. There was Country. Underneath us is dirt, isn’t it, mother Earth? So it doesn’t matter whether there’s buildings, whether there’s trams, whether there’s buses or anything, it’s still Country.

– That’s really great to hear. Here we are on Country land.

– We are on Country.

– Wurundjeri-

– Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung Country.

– And Boonwurrung Country.

– Yeah.

– Yep. More questions coming out from the audience here. Now, this one sort of, this is from Sybil, and you kind of answered this in other questions but:

Why is making art important to you?

– It’s important because I want to share my skills and knowledge to the youth and that’s my passion. Like, my ancestors are there to guide me but the passion for my creativity and my art practise is children. Without children, we have no future. We have to educate them, we have to be there for them, and that’s why I do what I do. Sometimes, I go a little bit above and beyond when it comes to sharing knowledge but, at the end of the day, if I don’t do it, if I don’t stand strong and empower people, my life its, really, meaningful. It’s not, yeah, it’s got to be, I want to inspire people, I want to inspire children, and whether they’re non-indigenous or indigenous, to be able to come together and to be able to learn and create and be empowered by our beautiful country.

– Well, we’ve got lots of children watching us today.

– Oh, good.

– The next generation of artists.

– Yeah, and that’s the most powerful thing, isn’t it? Because, at the end of the day, yeah, they’re our future creators and I want them to be able to carry the stories forward and to be able to share and if I can teach them and empower them, that’s, yeah, that’s my job done.

– They can do it, I’m sure.

– Definitely they can, yeah.

– Well, this is a kind of related question. I’ve got a question from Esther who is curious to know:

How do you become good at making art? Where do I go? What do I need to learn?

– It’s in here, it’s in here. If you really want to create art, you’ve got it in here and you’ve got it in here as well. So you get guided by people and, obviously, you’re going to learn at school, little techniques. Growing up, I was the same. I was a born artist. I was born, I was out in the mud when I was little, you make things, you create things, you go to school, you learn from your art teachers, and then you go off into your directions. So you’re going to pick up different forms of art and different varieties of mediums and everything through your life but if you really want to know where to start, just have a look inside, have a look inside yourself and think about what you really want to create, and then just go outside, be empowered by nature, pick up a few sticks and a little bit of grass and have a little make and see what happens. It’s what it’s about.

– So have a lot of faith in yourself.

– Have a lot of faith in yourself, yeah, and don’t ever be afraid to create because creating, I didn’t realise where I would be in this time of my life and I’ve built up my career over 34 years and its just been an adventure and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

– Lovely to hear, Cassie, and thank you so much for coming down to talk to me and our lovely audience. So wonderful to hear your story and see the beautiful results of that story as well on display. Thank you to our lovely audience out there. We always love to see you online. We love to see your faces, hear your questions. We’d also love to see you in the Gallery at some point, whether that’s the NGV or right here at Koorie Heritage Trust. Might even do both in one day. That’s all for now. Goodbye and see you soon, thanks Cassie.