Painting a way forward

Kamsani Bin Salleh talks about combining the past, present and future through art.

Describe yourself.

I’m based in Perth but originally from a small country town. After school I studied architecture because I was interested in design but didn’t think I had a future in art. This seemed a practical way to satisfy my creative side, but after a couple of years and an internship, I realised it could be quite creatively limited. I switched over to communications, finished my degree with a bachelor of arts in communication and media, and ended up being a research assistant at Curtin University. They were researching correspondence between Noongar people and the government between the 1840s and 1940s. It was about people asking for their children back or the right to carry arms and hunt; asking for rations. It was eye-opening and personal. I realised I had to give voice to those stories, and I could help communicate them by turning those words into images and bringing those stories to life. 

Describe your art.

I’ve always enjoyed doing intricate designs and used to fill up A4 pages in a notebook. I think that’s where I found my strength in composition. I never really wanted to tackle colours, so focused online work at the start of my career, but now I think colours might be what I’m good at.

I reimagine traditional styles that people associate with Indigenous art. Obviously, many artistic practices have been lost for obvious reasons, but culture is continually evolving, and with that, art evolves. I’m trying to establish a modern-day presence and retell old stories afresh. I also want to create a style that people might associate with Noongar artwork and build an identity there. 

I try to dabble in everything from painting, children’s book illustrations, political cartoons and sculpture, to make Indigenous artwork more multi-faceted than just dots. 

Tell us about your arts company, Kambarni.

Kambani is cross-collaborative and allows big or small companies to engage with Indigenous artists. The main goal is bringing Indigenous art to public spaces and making it accessible for the broader population.

Since the focus on Black Lives Matter, attention has been bought to First Nation’s issues. I’ve had quite a few people reach out to me, and it’s been a fine line to work out which ones are in it for the right reasons and not just because Black is in. So, I’m trying to find sustainability in what I am doing right now.

I’ve worked on big murals in Perth designed to building community spirit and a sense of belonging and also helped schools rebrand because they had houses named after colonial settlers. You often hear people talk about decolonising space, but my focus is on Indigenising spaces and educating people.

Where do you get your inspiration? 

My love for creating came from being in my grandmother’s home. She was always on the phone back in the day when there were no mobile phones, and she would scribble in her notebook while she talked, and I would sit by her chair and draw over her magazines and sort of copy what she was doing. I didn’t realise until recently how much of an influence her artistic style had on me.

I have an older cousin who is like a sister. She’s an artist, and she had all her artwork around Nan’s house. She used really bright colours, and it encouraged me to try different styles and experiment. 

I also like Keith Haring, how he uses bold lines and highlights important social issues, and looking inward is also a big inspiration for me.

A lot of Indigenous artwork is focused on place, so I create art inspired by species that are endemic to the area: flora and fauna. I research the cultural implications or any medicinal uses of particular plants and use my art as an educational tool. I put little tiny details into them, so they’re hard to find and then tell a few students or locals. This will hopefully carry on the oral tradition of our culture, as people spread the word, and it makes the art like an eye-spy. I think this approach brings people together instead of just showing them a bird straight-up, for example.

Why do you choose to illustrate children’s books? 

Cultural and social change can start when people are quite young. I imagine parents reading those books to their children and think they can start conversations from a young age about Indigenous artwork. Having those positive injections of culture and representation at an early age can hopefully help shape a community. And smaller communities make up larger communities. I think it’s also about trying to undo all the representation of the past and start afresh. Easier said than done, though.

Is that why you run workshops with school children? What’s that like?

Yeah, it’s quite fun. There are only two rules I give the kids: you have to respect each other and stay in between the lines I draw up. As corny as it sounds, it’s like a little case study in community relations, working together and creating something as a group. Hopefully, it looks good at the end, and the children can be proud and take ownership of it.

I think kids are probably sick of being talked at by their teachers the whole time, so I try to listen mainly. But if the kids are receptive to it, I share a bit of insight, especially in the older years and in schools with high Indigenous populations. For those kids, I try to share my journey and sometimes those workshops become a bit of mentorship, especially if we’re working on a really long canvas. The kids get in a meditative state, and it’s interesting to see the conversations they have with each other once they’re in the flow. I can’t really talk effectively to crowds, but in those spaces and one-on-one, I can have really nice interactions. It would have been nice when I was younger to see that what I’m doing was a viable pathway, so it’s cool that I can do that now for someone else.

What kind of kid were you? 

I’m one of ten kids, and then Mum and Dad had more kids, so I had brothers and sisters from different parents. At Nan’s place back home, we had family come over all the time. There were lots of people. If you didn’t talk the loudest or the quickest, you wouldn’t get a word in. So I think that made me a bit more reserved and observant, and would sit back and draw.

I’d also do lots of exploring and go for walks, and tree climbing was my favourite past time. We had like a big willow tree out the back of my mum’s house, and a mulberry tree too. I think those memories of climbing and have mulberry fights are why I love trees so much.

With school, we lived out of town, so sometimes I would rock up to school late and had pretty average attendance. But I was quite good with maths, english and science, though art was always my passion. In year four, my teacher, Mrs Robinson, one day said to me: you’re on top of your work, so instead of doing maths this lesson, do you think you’d be able to make me a picture? So I drew for her, and she was like: you’re going to be famous one day. You’ll do something big, so I’m going to hold on to this. That’s when I realised I might have some talent.

What are your hopes for the future?

For me personally, I want to create without outside pressures. In the past, I have had to create to pay the bills, from a fear of going without. I want to get to a point where the artwork has allowed me to pay for a house with no mortgage so I can create to see what it is inside me, who I am, and then to be comfortable in that. 

In terms of community, there is nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said before in terms of quality and equity, but I don’t know what needs to be done to achieve those things. I hope schools can incorporate more of an informed history into their teachings though, and talk about past relations. We can go from there and see how that changes people’s perceptions of Australia.

One of the things I’ve become increasingly aware of is that Australia is a recently formed country I guess, yet it has one of the oldest surviving cultures in the world. So of course we’d have issues trying to find an identity as a nation. For the future, I would like to see more of a unified identity that is positive and encourages sustainability and some growth. One that’s forward-thinking, innovative and encouraging of new ideas and self-expression.

What is the biggest lesson to learn from the time we’re in?

I think compromise and a bit of selflessness goes a long way for yourself and community. Knowing our time is short-lived and it’s all about doing it for the next person and paying it forward while trying to find the balance to enjoy your life while being considerate of others.

Do you want to say anything about this year’s NAIDOC theme, Always Was, Always Will Be? 

It’s an effective title as is, but for me, it’s not about saying the land has always belonged to us, it’s the fact that we have always belonged to the land. We don’t have ownership of it, but we will always belong to it. We will always feel connected to where we are, and for people that aren’t Indigenous, that needs recognizing. 

Being custodians and taking care of Country shouldn’t be limited to the one people I guess, and taking care of it could be something we all do collectively. But there must be an understanding that the people who have been here for thousands of years might just have a good idea about how to do that.

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