by Caitlin Gibson
Before Urana walked into Gunawirra, she had never picked up a paint brush. Art had never been something she’d thought about doing. But as soon as she started, she says she knew what she wanted to paint.
“The snake, I’ve always thought about the snake. I don’t know much about my family, and what our totems are and all that, but it was just like it was always there, inside my head. It means something to paint the snake,” she says.
This year, as part of a range of support programs for young Aboriginal mothers, Gunawirra has held art classes every Wednesday with local Aboriginal artist Graham Toomey. Gunawirra is a not-for-profit organisation made up of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal professionals and specialists working side by side for Aboriginal young women, men and their children.
Mr Toomey remembers the art group’s initial apprehension. “At the beginning, many of the women were very unsure of themselves, but over the weeks we saw this progression, and they were more enthusiastic, painting larger and larger canvases,” he says.
He says the program was really about building the women’s confidence, getting them to explore their own identity and connect with their Aboriginal culture in a really positive way.
“Whatever you’re doing,” he told the women, “when you’re painting, it will be part of you, because it will come from inside you. Don’t think it’s not good, that’s not the point, art is about exploring yourself, and the process really is important, too.”
For most of the women who took part in the art class, growing up in Sydney’s inner city means their connection to their individual cultures, to their country or individual language groups has been disrupted.
“A lot of the mothers don’t know much about their Aboriginal culture,” Mr Toomey says, “it’s about them exploring who they are, their identity, and letting them experience their heritage, to find a new connection to community.”
Once the women realised that it’s not about creating something glamorous, something that looked like the Aboriginal art in the galleries, they were able to really embrace the process.
“I think art is very much a part of Aboriginal culture,” Graham Toomey says. “I think the project has given them a sense of their own Aboriginality.” He believes that “practicing our culture, whether it is our art or dance, singing or storytelling, is a way to deal with trauma, it’s healing.”
Norma Tracey is the co-founder and CEO of Gunawirra. A trained psychologist, she has spent over 25 years working with Aboriginal communities, primarily focusing on their youngest members.
Working across NSW, Gunawirra partners with preschools in areas with large Aboriginal populations to offer training and social programs to support the particular needs of young indigenous children and their families.
“When you understand that the likelihood of a child who suffers from some trauma, neglect or abuse, developing serious mental health issues or drug and alcohol problems, it makes so much sense to focus on the children,” Ms Tracey says. Under her direction, Gunawirra has developed social support programs that are based on principles of early-intervention and prevention.
“Parents who themselves had problematic upbringings or unstable relationships are more likely to find it difficult to engage with their young children, to encourage them, play with them,” she says, “and it is fundamental to a child’s development.”
By providing parents the skills they need to raise young children, Gunawirra aims to break the cycle of trauma associated with generational poverty and dislocation from culture. And it offers support to make the family a stronger unit.
“When it comes to protecting children, I think it’s sometimes forgotten that those children have mums and dads,” Ms Tracey says. “The family needs to be included, too.”
In the weekly art classes, “it was good, getting to watch the women passing on what they’d learnt to their kids,” Graham Toomey says.
Pointing at one of the small paintings hanging behind him, he indicates two tiny hand prints and says he watch the mother and her son do them together. “She had to help him dip them in yellow and press them down carefully right in the middle. That is what it was all about.”
The paintings made by the women throughout the year are in the process of being taken off the walls. They are being packed up and taken to a local gallery in Redfern to be exhibited alongside the work of Graham Toomey and another local artist, Judy King.
“We want to celebrate the work the women have been making,” Judy King says, “and support all the work being done at Gunawirra.”