Painting the Spirit of the Land

Cessnock teenagers and their families joined local Aboriginal elder and artist, Uncle Les Elvin, at Cessnock Regional Art Gallery for the annual CatholicCare Indigenous Art and Culture program, held over three weekends in June.

Painting the Spirit of the Land

Participants learned about Aboriginal culture, symbolism, interpretation and the art and history of Wonnarua land, and enjoyed spending time as a family creating artworks significant to them. Students were encouraged to bring their family along and reconnect with their culture, gaining an insight into the spirituality of indigenous art.

The program has run successfully for the past four years, with local teen Chantel Sinclair joining the workshop for the first time in 2015. Chantel’s interest in art is growing and her work was recently commended in a regional art competition. She brought her parents, Michelle and James, to the workshop as a way of spending some relaxed time together as a family. Chantel’s platypus artwork, featured on the cover of this edition of Aurora, is a representation of her indigenous birth animal, similar to astrology. James was enjoying the opportunity to spend time being creative with his loved ones, “Painting with my family makes us feel connected to each other and our country.”

Program facilitator, Uncle Les Elvin, has been expressing stories through his own artwork for the past twenty years using traditional symbolism. Uncle Les was keen to pass on his knowledge to more Hunter Valley families. “On the east coast a lot of information about symbolism was lost as elders were driven away and weren't there to teach our younger people to pass on the symbols,” said Uncle Les. He spent time researching and gathering symbolic references from the local Aboriginal community and even as far away as Western Australia. “I don't want to see that part of our culture lost, it's very important to keep that alive,” said Uncle Les.

Thirty common symbols are used in Wonnarua art to express a story. Uncle Les was thrilled to see everyone in the class learning them so quickly. “It doesn’t take much to teach them because, within themselves, that information is already there,” he said. Students grabbed hold of the concept very easily and now they're expressing stories and dreamtime in a meaningful way, using Wonnarua symbols and colours.

Regan Morton and her son, Robert Nichol, who are also understanding the concept and symbols for the first time, only discovered their indigenous background four years ago and joined the program as a way of reconnecting with their culture. Regan’s artwork, “Spirit Land”, is a representation of Australia as a spiritual land to Aboriginal people and shows the connection between, not only tribes, but the spirit of the land in Australia. Since commencing the program, Regan has questioned her own spirituality. "Aboriginal dreamtime says there are so many different creatures that make the planet and earth involved in spirituality, it's interesting to have a different perspective on my own spirituality. It opens the world up to you,” she said. “There's a lot that crosses over between my Aboriginality and Catholicism. As well, a lot of the dreamtime stories line up with Genesis and creation stories, just put in a different way.”

Program organiser and CatholicCare Senior Caseworker from the Early Intervention and Placement Prevention program, Kylie Pratt, is thrilled to see the success of the program, funded by the Department of Family and Community Services, in the shared cultural experience and bonding within each family. Kylie says the casual, relaxed environment means families keep coming back each year. In addition, families learn the indigenous art skills from their culture. Kylie shared some feedback from previous years. “Before coming to the program, some children knew they were Aboriginal, but didn't want to identify with that. However, after being involved in the program, they took pride in their Aboriginality and started doing Welcome to Country at their schools. They were really embracing the culture.” Kylie is committed to the ongoing success of the program and says, “It's something that needs to keep happening. Having a relaxed, family-friendly workshop is a great way to get young people engaged.”

Artworks created during the program are currently on exhibition at Cessnock Regional Art Gallery as part of NAIDOC Week celebrations, and can be viewed until Sunday 26 July. Entry is free. 

The Aurora article Painting the Spirit of the Land first appeared on mnnews.today, your local source of Catholic news for Newcastle, Maitland and the Hunter Valley. Follow mnnews.today on Twitter and Instagram.

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