Last year, Geelong Arts Centre embarked on it’s first formal Reflect Reconciliation Action Plan and, as part of that journey, commissioned Adnyamathanha man and local artist, Shu Brown, to produce a piece of art that interprets the concept of Reconciliation. No small feat.
Shu spoke with us about his own artistic journey and breaks down the symbolism within his work, Cultures Connect.
“My grandfather is an artist, he’s a potter and sculptor by trade. He works with acrylics and oil paints, and became a black smith a couple of years ago.
“He’s one of those really talented people, who can pick up any medium. So, I guess, when you’ve got someone like that in your life, you’re more likely to go in a similar direction.”
A passionate storyteller, Shu grew up with a connection to art and to culture, coming to his own practice early in high school by exploring painting, acting, dance and writing for theatre. With the birth of his first child, that practice was interrupted but something he would soon return to.
“I became a father at 20 and obviously your life changes to focus on your children. But, for me, culture was still a big part of life and along with that comes dance and art. Being a parent, you have the responsibility to teach your children.
“Your kids see you sitting there with a paintbrush and then they’re sitting there mimicking what you’re doing. You may be doing it just out of a hobby, like I was, but your kids are really interested and ask What's this shape? What does that mean? What colours are we using and why?”
Shu still considers himself a ‘hobby artist’, finding time to produce painted and digital works between his role as a devoted father and day-job as Aboriginal Partnerships Coordinator for Victoria’s largest regional water corporation, Barwon Water.
“A lot of the artwork that I have, painting wise, is at home or with family. It was never anywhere public. Not that I don’t think I'm good enough, but I thought, I’ll just keep this for us.
“Then, people started seeing it a bit more and commenting, whether it was just friends and family or visitors. I started putting my work into the [Wathaurung Aboriginal] Co-op newsletter, and as time goes on you get a little bit better at your work and more opportunities present themselves.”
The artwork Shu was commissioned to produce for Geelong Arts Centre, Cultures Connect, is now displayed in the Geelong Arts Centre’s Ryrie Street building foyer, wrapped around a central column, some four meters tall. It has also been produced as a canvas and the cover art of the physical Reconciliation Action Plan document.
“To see the work at such scale. It’s very surreal and unbelievable. You’re so used to seeing other people's artwork, you’re not used to seeing your own. It is very vulnerable. You are exposed now. None of this hiding behind the screen or paint brushes, you’re out there.”
When reflecting on his work, Shu admits that interpreting a concept like reconciliation, rich with layers of cultural load, is not, by any means, an easy task to embark upon.
“The brief for the design was obviously reconciliation. And, honestly, I found that something really difficult to represent in an artwork.
“Seeing other pieces of art about reconciliation, there’s often the representation of people, footsteps and hand printing; things that demonstrate a coming together. That’s not my style.
“I thought about how I could represent Geelong or the Community in the one piece. I began by thinking about the traditional owners and the community and what that one thing was that we can all relate to, what most Aboriginal Victorians can relate to. It’s Bunjil, the creator spirit. A wedgetail eagle.”
“To me, if we think about aboriginal art, the feather is representative in different ways. If you think feathers in traditional dress that aboriginal people dance in, it’s on headdresses and skirts. And for non-aboriginal art, the feather has been used as an instrument to write with.
“The feather is connecting culture and art in this piece. If people can understand that then there’s a connection with both worlds, aboriginal and non-aboriginal culture.”
As a viewer, Cultures Connect draws your attention immediately to the central feather motif, signifying Bunjil; the creator spirit. But, as you let your eyes wander across the canvas, page or pillar, you’re sure to find familiar landscapes and gestures that grounds the work back to Wadawurrung country.
“When you think about the landscape here, obviously the You Yangs is one of the most significant landmarks of the area. It’s very significant to the traditional owners. So, the black lines within that section of the piece indicate travel lines as you would move through the mountains. It’s not just one travel route but many.
“And then there’s Wurdi Youang, a rock formation and astronomical site between Little River and the You Yangs that connects to the stars above. Not many people know about that place but it’s of deep significance to the Traditional Owners.
“When we come down the piece, we think about the river. It’s not just a river, there’s many different points along the river that have different meanings and purposes. There’s patterns along the river that show meeting spots and hunting grounds.”
An important message that Shu’s Cultures Connect conveys through symbolism and colour scheme, is the diversity that exists within the Greater Geelong region, an area, like so many, significantly affected by the forcible separation of Aboriginal families during the stolen generation.
“I started thinking about what could go in the background. There's a few things that popped out: particularly the colours - blues, greens, browns and white – all earthy tones.
“Geelong has become home to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I wanted to have the blues and white and greens in there to represent Torres Strait Islander people. There’s also the black, red and yellow of the aboriginal flag within bands across the feather.
“I had a little bit of trouble trying to figure out how to do the bottom and I laid it out in about seven different versions. But, this is how I brought myself and other people in the community into the piece as well.
“We are a very diverse community here. We’re not just Wadawurrung people, we’re from all over the country. The dots were not something that are used in art much down here. There’s often far more line work, drawings and etchings, while the dot work is more indicative of communities in central Australia.
“The claw, Bunjil’s foot in the sand, came last. We often think of Bunjil in the sky, turning into a star and I feel that’s somewhat represented in the positioning of the feather and stars, but there’s also connection to land and country, as protector of the area.”