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Jessie Beasley collecting seeds on Alyawarr Country, Photographer Jesse Marlow, Image Courtesy of Barkly Regional Arts.

Warning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following blog contains names of people who have died.

We’re revisiting some articles from this year’s Art Collector DAAF 2023 Special Edition. Here, Claire G. Coleman explores the importances of Elders in Art Centres.

 

The 2023 NAIDOC theme, For Our Elders, pays homage to the vital role Elders play in First Nations communities. Elders keep culture alive and keep the stories in the art, so those stories can live on.

Words by Claire G. Coleman, August 2023

Singing rings out across the Art Centre, an Elder is recounting the story of the Country she is painting in sacred, ancient song. One by one the other women join in; the story of that Country, and the Country itself, has been renewed.  The song, the art, and the Country are one.

Everything comes from somewhere. Aboriginal art comes from the heart of culture, the heart and soul of Country, from what makes us Aboriginal – our histories and families and our timeless law. It’s the Elders that keep that law alive, that maintain the stories and knowledges everyone relies on. So it is from Elders that the culture really comes, and from that culture comes our art. Elders help found Art Centres. They are part of the governance of those Art Centres. Some Elders are also artists, making cultural works that can steal your breath and leave you longing for more. The works of Elders are often more valuable, not just because of their rarity but because of the depth of experience and culture behind them.

Elders are the pillars of Art Centres, holding up even the sky, keeping culture alive and keeping the stories in the art; passing stories to their descendants, so the stories can live on. Once they return to the Dreaming, their stories go on forever, kept alive in their timeless culture and in the lives, art and stories of their families and the other artists. Their art endures forever, not just in the galleries and in the keeping places, but also in the art of their descendants who pay respect to their Old People in all the work they do.

“All of our artists, past and present, have amazing lived experiences and express their knowledge through art, dance, song, storytelling-yarning. Because of this, other younger artists learn the stories and continue in their footsteps,” an Art Centre worker from Mirndiyan Gununa Aboriginal Corporation (MI Art) tells me.

Artists like Kaiadilt Elder Mirdidingkinggathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori – who was born on Bentick island but spent many years on Mornington Island – sometimes start painting later in life than we might expect. Gabori was in her 80s, and that age and experience lends the power and strength of long lives and experiences to her art. 

Makarrki, Netta Loogatha Birrmuyingathi Maali, Acrylic on canvas, 2018, 90x120cm, Image Courtesy of MIArt Mornington Island Art.

There are more stories of Elders taking up art late in life than I can write about here, more than I can ever know. But some of the names you might have heard of, Elders who took up art in their senior years are Walmajarri artist Rover Thomas and Anmatyerr artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye, now giants of First Nations contemporary art across the world.

Such cultural power, gifted to the Art Centre by the old ones, gives new artists, and members of the community, something to build on and someone to follow. The culture and stories provide a context and a framework for the art of those who come after. 

Bringing, as the arts worker on Mornington Island tells me, “knowledge collectively, they have stored in their memories, grounds us in regards to Culture, Dreaming, Dance Song Lines, Lore, Kinship System, Tribal Boundaries (Country, totems and Skin Group), Land and Sea Food, Language and Sacred Places” and their stories become immortal through art.

Elders bring their stories to every Art Centre, teaching their stories of Country to the young people around them. Their presence turns the Art Centre into a culture place, a school of culture for the community. I have visited Art Centres where the old ladies sing, their grandkids listening, learning that story, and where the old men sing, telling stories to the younger men who listen intently. The Art Centre also gives Elders somewhere to go, somewhere to be and to teach culture to their community; somewhere for a cuppa and a feed and where there is someone to learn their songs and stories. When we look at the art now, we can see the presence of the ancestors and of the Elders who represent them, in that way the art is culture, and connected to community, connected through the Elders.

So you can see the culture of Elders forever, in the respect they have earned by the Art Centres they have created, by the art of those who followed and often learned from them. Without Elders, Art Centres would be less rich in culture – if they could survive at all.

This article originally appeared in the Art Collector 2023 Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Special Edition, head here to read more.

Cover Art by Marlene Harold, Mulla Mulla, Acrylic on Canvas, 45.5 x 61cm . Courtesy of the Artist and Yinjaa-Barni Art. 

Contributor Claire G. Coleman is a Noongar woman whose family have belonged to the south coast of Western Australia since long before history start being recorded. She writes fiction, essays, poetry and art writing while either living in Naarm (Melbourne) or on the road. 

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