Sharyn Egan, Empty Vessel I, 2011, photocopy, watercolour paper, Balga resin, Guildford grass. Berndt Museum Collection. Photo: Bo Wong

Sharyn Egan: The hidden past

Sharyn, I know you had a tough childhood like many other Nyoongar children of your era. Despite that, you seem so positive, a mentor, a leader and a maker of beautiful art. Is it the art in your life that has healed you?

I was brought up on a mission for Aboriginal kids. I was fair-skinned. I used to get teased for being white and then, when I was fostered out, I was teased for being black. I never felt I belonged. Not to my family, not at the mission or school, and not with the foster families.

There were about eighty girls at the New Norcia Mission, north of Perth. I was there from age 3. We were told that our parents didn’t want us and didn’t love us. I don’t remember being especially angry or hurt, I was more confused than anything, it was all I knew so I didn’t know I was missing out on a family life. In fact, it was with the foster family that I felt so isolated ... I was used to the mission, that was my family. I feel like I’ve been removed twice, once from my parents and once from the Mission. I hated leaving because that’s all I knew.

At the mission we were locked up most of the time but sometimes they’d take us for a really long walk. They’d let us run wild out in the bush and some of the girls knew about bush tucker, they were digging for yams, and getting the gum from the trees, we’d suck on it like lollies, use it for trading. It is the same gum resin I use in my paintings now. We would dig for carnoes (a type of yam) and ate them raw, they were beautiful, better than apples. We were always scavenging because we were hungry.

They didn’t teach us any manners at the Mission but we would get in trouble if we spoke Nyoongar. When I was fostered out, they used to laugh at the way I spoke; they couldn’t understand what I was saying. The first foster family got me for company for their daughter in a family of boys. Like a puppy. The father had a view that all Aboriginal women were loose, so they did everything to make me look ugly. They cut my hair, made me wear really long dresses.

I was fostered at 12. I’d hear all these white girls talking about “boongs” and “coons”, I was terrified they were going to find out I was Aboriginal. It was just that era, the Sixties. Blending in. Trying not be noticed. I only lasted a year, I hated it. Got taken to a home then a student hostel – the Sister Kate’s girls (also Mission girls) were at the school and I was rapt. So happy to be with other Aboriginal kids. But again I was the fair-skinned one ... I was picked on because I wasn’t dark enough.

I was about 17 when I was told my mother had died. I felt nothing really, I didn’t know her and it was drummed into me that she hadn’t wanted me. She had sent some letters and gifts but the Mission had succeeded in their indoctrination and I didn’t try to find her. No role models, they taught us that Aboriginal people were dirty, disgusting, shameful savages. Funny, because I am told she lived around Bibra Lake and I have lived around there for 20 years, and got to know and love the wetlands, the plants, the birds, the land and sky. Back in the sixties, people still camped out there. She’d been in a mission as well.

I always wanted to study art but I was directed into Graphic Design as art wasn’t seen to be a career, no work in that. I didn’t finish, I struggled, I didn’t get that way of thinking. Worked as a cook in the Kimberley, did a couple of prawning seasons at Exmouth, moved to Darwin, then Sydney and back to WA. Didn’t know of any Aboriginal artists at the time. I loved to travel and I met the right people, women who didn’t worry about what people thought. I hung out with different groups … I stayed on the edge, I still do.

I had my kids, kept doing courses, made it to Claremont School of Art. I just stumbled along. I didn’t know about the Contemporary Aboriginal Art course at Curtin University until I saw the sign when I went to enroll in mainstream studies. There were others there just like me, it was so exciting to find them, and I felt a bit more comfortable in my skin. I was impressed with the way the lecturer, Sandra Hill, could speak about herself to a group of people … amazing. I’ve done it now in my teaching and workshops but find it hard taking charge because I grew up being told what to do.

I moved into teaching art, then leadership courses for women’s health centres and kids at school. Now I am teaching a course in working with ATSI people. I enjoy the teaching, sharing, mentoring … my art always comes into it, sharing stories. I talk about the big collaborative painting we did with Lance Chadd and Shane Pickett, RIP, for Festival of Perth. We had the elders coming in as advisors ensuring everyone was represented in the painting. Good way of working, sharing knowledge and skills. I am still finding my way. Identity, history, politics are not overt in my art. I’m not brave enough, I don’t want to be questioned…to have to explain it. My earlier work was a mother and child series. It was my way of dealing with my history, without having to talk about it… nurturing, being a mother or having a mother… without knowing a mother.

Sharyn Egan, Empty Vessel II, 2011, photocopy, watercolour paper, Balga resin, Guildford grass. Berndt Museum Collection. Photo: Bo Wong

Someone told me the Cultural Tourism training had camps so I did it because I wanted to travel. I soon realised I didn’t want to be a tour guide, I want to be a tourist! I met Aboriginal people who were guiding up at Mt Magnet, and out Leonora way. We went all around, big ten-days trips, so good being with that many blackfellas from all over. At Dryandra, an elder said they got a big red ochre pit; it was traded for ceremony, only men can get it. That’s when I started using ochre. A friend gave me a stock of ochres from the southwest, I just wish we had written down where each piece was from so I could know which bits of country are going into my paintings.

I fell in love with Rothko – the feeling … a spiritual energy ... I have the same response to Rover Thomas. The space and the surface speak to me. I love Australian artists like Robert Juniper, John Olsen, Fred Williams, Russell Drysdale, the earthy colours, the land. My work involves acrylic and oil paint, resin and ochre with layers built up and wiped back, then sanded back creating an abstract texture and surface. The layers are like the land itself over time.

I got interested in fibre and baskets, and connected with other fibre artists. Fibre is a shared thing. I show people how to do it. Recently, I made a quokka, this beautiful little native animal, so precious, but it’s treated like shit, not well looked after, people go to Rottnest and feed them bread, they have no fresh water, something precious that needs protecting. It’s a mother and child thing … I was thinking of making a family.

I took lots of photos out the window when flying to Darwin last year. As we left Perth there were all these squares and within them, the tracks of the harvesters creating beautiful lines. Could see salt lakes. It was quite dry but over the Pilbara it was red, then towards Darwin, it was so green and lush with rivers going through it. The landscape changed all the way. I could see the claimed land, cultivated, the unclaimed land, the damaged land. What’s happened to the people, their experiences, stripped of their land? But when I was in Darwin I saw Aboriginal people living their culture, strong proud people, confident and running the place. They know where they belong.

I want to use these aerial photos for paintings … imagining the land, who was there and what’s happened to them, like when I walk around Bibra Lake I imagine people living there and wandering around, camping and catching turtles … my mother perhaps. The land is like my art and my life, layers of memories, the hidden past revealed only in glimpses.

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