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Painting a picture of Indigenous injustice


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“When I paint, sometimes it hurts,” says South Australian artist Allan Sumner, reflecting on the process of creating work that depicts the Indigenous experience of dispossession in Australia.

“I try to imagine what it would have been like to live the same way my ancestors lived and walked through the country.

“It doesn’t matter where I am in South Australia, sometimes I imagine what the landscape would have looked like when our people lived freely on the land.”

Sumner’s paintings and projections will set the scene for a performance next Tuesday at the ABC Studio 520 in Collinswood featuring music by Soundstream Collective and vocal duo Halcyon.

Titled Stolen, the event is being presented by earin and seeks to explore ideas of displacement, dislocation and identity. It will also be presented at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on September 6.

Sumner, a Ngarrindjeri-Kaurna and Yunkanytjatjara man who is also a musician, says his involvement in the program has been an intensely personal journey.

“When I was asked if I would like to participate, I didn’t realise how much it would affect me emotionally. Whilst preparing for the event, I lost a dear uncle to cancer. He was a cultural man who taught me a lot of things, as did my father, who passed only two years ago from cancer.”

Through his work, Sumner says he seeks to provide a visual landscape of life as it was for his people before European settlement, when there were no roads, buildings or permanent man-made structures.

“When we look around today we see houses, fences, gates, buildings and huge concrete slabs covering up our mother earth.

“The land is our mother and she provided everything for us so that we could live in our natural state.

“In the same way, I like to paint the land, sea, flora and fauna as it would have looked like prior to settlement.”

Encouraging deeper understanding of this country, its history and original inhabitants is the goal of earin artistic directors David Harris and David Kotlowy, who have both written new works for Stolen commissioned by Soundstream

Kotlowy’s “Mitithi”, meaning “stolen” or “taken from us”, features text written in Kaurna, while Harris’s “Yurrebilla Climbing” is a reference to the trail through the Mt Lofty Ranges and the warrior and lawgiver ancestral being (Yurrebilla) of the Kaurna people in their dreaming.

Also featured in the program will be Australian composer Andrew Ford’s song cycle “Willow Songs”, the premiere of Gerard Brophy’s new work“When Peacocks Dance”,and US composer Martin Bresnick’s “Prayers Remain Forever”.

“I have always had a strong interest in understanding and knowing about the country that I live in,” David Harris says. What its history is and how that has shaped this place today.

“It seems to me that what is generally known of our history has been greatly sanitised and so I have been inspired to find out as much as I can and reflect this in my music.”

Sumner has learned more about his roots and the experiences of his ancestors through the development of his pieces.

Sharing his work is like wearing his heart on his sleeve, he says.

“Sometimes I get upset when I paint because I think about all of the terrible things that happened to our ancestors.

“I think about what it would have been like if I have my children taken away and how I might have been taken away from my parents. I think about the thousands of Aboriginal families who were forcibly removed from their lands and taken to other parts of the country.

“I think about the ancestors who were rounded up like sheep, shackled, chained, imprisoned and killed for trying to protect their families and preserve their way of life.”

He believes events such as Stolen are important in furthering understanding of Indigenous history and knowledge.

“Not only are our elders dying at an alarming rate, unfortunately they take a lot of cultural knowledge with them. I think art and music is great way to preserve our stories, and bring our culture and language back.

“We need to be able to pass this on to the younger generation and to educate people for future.”

Stolen will be presented at ABC Studio 520 in Collinswood at 8pm on September 2. More information can be found on the earin website.


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