She’s been considered a bright new shining light in Aboriginal art, yet only a few art curators and collectors have ever seen her paintings. At 32 years of age, far north Queensland-born Kuku Yalanji (language group) Tarsha Davis, a highly modernist painter, is creating new Aboriginal themes that are destined to become important teachings for future generations.
As I interview her at Aboriginal Exhibitions Gallery (Rutherglen, Victoria), seated among some of Australia’s finest collection of Aboriginal paintings (many from far north Queensland), it becomes apparent that magic is at play. The two of us together feel it – she’s meant to be here – perhaps it’s a spiritual calling. For what ever reason, Tarsha Davis has been drawn into the fold; and it’s obvious that among the art she feels right at home.
Having grown away from traditional Country, Tarsha has spent the best part of her twenties exploring ways to strengthen and express her Aboriginal identity. Her highly personal storytelling and visual style is remarkably similar in feel, and with a skill approaching the level of the internationally celebrated elder, Palm Islander artist Billy Doolan – yet she’s known little about him, or ever previously even seen his work. Today two of her latest paintings, one depicting a bush cassowary, the other a highly detailed moon and Milky Way scene, now hang beside Doolan’s.
I ask her about her early years:
‘I’ve been painting and creative my whole life, as my mother nurtured that in us as small children; however I started taking on an Aboriginal technique or style began when I was 17,’ says Tarsha. ‘At this age, like most teenagers, I started questioning my identity, so started painting what I saw (in and around Innisfail, Queensland) and also made similar paintings to what my uncle was doing.’
She explains that for her, the teaching of Aboriginal storytelling was limited: not always traditional Kuku Yalanji stories; mostly she remembers reading the stories of Percy Trezise – a discoverer, documenter and historian of Aboriginal rock art.
‘I can remember my first canvas painting; I painted it for my mother – it was a turtle with little eggs – I used a a lot of red oxide and sienna – all the red earthy colours. I can’t remember the techniques, whether or not I used cross hatching – it was pretty basic. At the time, I was just looking at what art was around the family home, at art in galleries – so my learning was by observation – nobody actually sat me down and said “this is how you do it”. While my uncle paints really well, and I’ve grown up living among his work, we’ve not sat down and painted together.’
I ask Tarsha about her elders, a connection to tribe; was there further teaching?
‘There are many creative family members on my mother’s side of the family. I remember watching many of my aunties paint when I was a child. I also grew up with my Uncle’s (mother’s brother) Aboriginal bark paintings in our childhood home and coveted his painted turtle shells,’ she explains.
Also fondly mentioned is Mossman artist Brian ‘Binna’ Swindley, owner of Janbal Gallery (Binna’s mother’s Aboriginal name was Janbal meaning quandong in Kuku Yalanji.) ’I first visited his gallery when I was 21, and saw how successful he was – for me as a young person it was pretty inspiring, and was certainly an influence.’
Tarsha explains another small stint, working with some Aboriginal artists in Brisbane in her job in youth health services, offered another opportunity for her to further develop her painting skills. However, it’s clear that such experiences have been limited, and that Tarsha has had to find her way in creating her work and exploring who she is as an Aboriginal person.
Today’s there’s a strong sense of fascination and in part, disbelief in the fact that she’s actually at a modern Aboriginal art gallery hanging her work for the first time. There is also a strong emotional reaction to her first time witnessing of so many key paintings by FNQ elders such as Billy Doolan – these seem to have her mesmerised.
Tarsha explains that in recent times she’s looked to her immediate family for storytelling ideas, and that in paintings like Kija (moon), 2019, she is beginning to strengthen her ties to family, Country and culture. She tells me that her work and themes are likely to evolve and grow, and ‘who knows’, she says – ‘these might become stories that teach future generations.’
Two newly-hung paintings at the gallery, including Kija (moon), completed only recently (March 20th), are powerful black and white works showcasing her strong narrative style and masterful skill in fine brushwork: its detailed cross hatching and feather work. Her choice and balance in composition is also impeccable. Tarsha’s painting Kurranji (Cassowary – The Keeper of the Forest), 2019, appears as the most complex, although she explains it took her longer to complete Kija, ‘as it needed to be so symmetrical’.
Initially, the reason for wanting to paint Kija the moon was somewhat unclear. Tarsha says she felt a strong drive to begin the canvas without understanding exactly why. But perhaps by a spiritual connection, her Aunty Julie saw the Kija canvas and explained what she in fact she had created:
‘I never met Great Grandmother Caroline Kija Davis although she was alive in my teens,’ says Aunty Julie. ‘I started painting at age 20 and wanted an Aboriginal name so I went to elders Wilma Walker and Judy Shuan – they asked me to wait as they talked together. A week later they came to me and said I was right to carry my grandmother’s name Kija; they both knew her… So from here I started using it.’
‘When Jala, my daughter, was born, I took her to my uncle David Buchanan who named her Yalbay Kija, meaning full moon. I had promised this job to him, but the truth is that (elder) Aunty Elsa beat him to it and rang me while I was in the hospital naming her Jala Kuba – meaning rain – so she now tells people that she’s the full moon on a rainy night, as she holds both names: Kaba Yalbay Kija. Declan, my youngest son is also named Dawar – meaning the stars – so I’m happy to see a sprinkle of stars and the Milky Way in the background of (Tarsha’s) painting.
‘I also see the intricate lines and patterns within the image of the moon as a reflection of the tides and temperamental movements of the sea. Perfectly representing my eldest son Jalun (his name means sea).’ Unlike the themes in paintings and sculptures by FNQ artists Billy Doolan and Russell Butler, Tarsha’s moon is highly personal, and not at all derived from a message passed down through generations.
‘In all my artwork, it’s been my way of reclaiming or connecting to culture; which for a lot of complex reasons hasn’t been particularly strong in my life,’ she says.
Tarsha respectfully touches only lightly on the layer of inter-generational trauma existing in her family, and how this has resulted in her spending less time on Country. Subsequently a slower, more restricted learning of Aboriginal culture and teachings of the land has resulted.
‘We weren’t raised on County, but were always taken back there on school holidays, or for family events. No matter where my journey has taken me I have always had a strong sense of where I belong – that’s my connection, that’s my culture. I wanted to express myself somehow, or teach myself about it, so I chose painting in order to do that.’
Tarsha was raised Kuku Yalanji (her mother’s side) but is also Aboriginal on her father’s side. He is a Pyemmairrener man from Tasmania. Tarsha only recently moved to Melbourne, and currently works part time with Victoria University in enrolment marketing and promotions. Her painting Kurranji (cassowary), 2019, effectively sold within two days of being hung in the main gallery at Aboriginal Exhibitions, Rutherglen. She is currently working on a group of works that will combine to make a feature exhibition, launching later in 2019, and also on a commission for the Wall to Wall Festival in Benalla, Victoria.
Aboriginal Exhibitions Gallery at Rutherglen Estates
13-35 Drummond St
Tel 02 6032 9033