As a visual artist, a business owner and a creative director, Cheryl Davison is creating and maintaining beautiful and important cultural connections.
Cheryl Davison is a proud Walbunga and Ngarigo woman. She is an artist who expresses her creativity and connection to Country in many forms. Best known for her prints and paintings, she is also the Aboriginal Creative Director with Four Winds Festivals and has recently opened Mungala Bugaali Gallery in Central Tilba, New South Wales, where as well as selling her own artwork and products, she sells the wares of other local artists and producers.
‘I come from here,’ she starts. ‘There is nowhere else I come from. I was born in Bega, my mother was born in Nowra, my grandfather was born in Wallaga, my great grandfather was born in Wallaga, my great great grandfather was born in Wallaga. That’s a real connection for me.’
This long and deep relationship with Country is evident in all that Cheryl does and it’s beautifully reflected in her work. Cheryl has always been an artist. She first found her interest when going to preschool in Wallaga Lake with Aunty Anne Thomas. Then when she was five she was severely burnt and needed to spend 12 months in hospital recovering. It was during this time that her parents began sending her art supplies to stave off the boredom of a hospital bed and that was when she really developed her love of art. It was something she continued throughout her school life and her talent was encouraged by her teachers.
‘When I first started painting, I wasn’t painting any of my cultural stuff, I was just doing wacky stuff really,’ she says. It wasn’t until after she spent time on a cultural exchange in New Zealand around the time the country was reviving the Maori language and culture that she understood where she needed to direct her skills.
‘The traditional art and culture in New Zealand was so intact compared to us and it was a little bit sad for me – it was a real eye opener,’ Cheryl recalls, adding that she eventually understood why she was feeling homesick and what she needed to do. ‘The mountain was calling me home, Gulaga Mountain, I did that story while I was over there, [then] I came back to Australia and I said “we’ve got to be doing more of our stuff”.
‘About a year after I came home, I took a trip up to Canberra and met up with Theo Tremblay who was doing a lot of printing for Indigenous people. He printed it and said you should charge $150 for that print and I said “what? I was going to charge, like, 10 bucks.”
‘He said “no, it’s too important to be selling it for 10 bucks.” He said “this is your culture and you can’t just chuck your culture away.”
‘So I charged $150 per print even though I was in disbelief. I did an additional 50 and they just sold, every single one of them.
‘By the following year they were all gone and I thought “that’s unreal, who would have thought?”’
The value of telling stories from the heart was something Cheryl felt a responsibility to pass onto her students during her eight-year tenure teaching culture and art at TAFE.
‘[I’d tell them to] have integrity in everything that you do. For god’s sake don’t make stuff up. We have stories to tell. Every one of us. We don’t have to make stuff up. It doesn’t matter how small or insignificant you think it is, people love to hear our story. ‘And a lot of them young people I was teaching at Bomaderry homes – the homes for the stolen kids – were feeling like they couldn’t go on and finish the class because of their experience at the homes, being taken away from their parents and all that hurt and trauma.
‘I told them that’s what you can be talking about in your art. Just tell that story because that’s really important because people don’t know that trauma. Telling your truth really, that’s important. And even though I don’t paint a lot of that stuff in my work, although I could, that’s what I tell other people.
‘It doesn’t matter how big or small your story is. I might paint a picture of my dog chasing the currawongs up a tree, that’s something I’ve done and everyone loves that painting. It doesn’t have to be about your trauma, it just has to be your story. Don’t make it up. If you’re really good at it and you’re really telling a story people want to hear you can actually become really successful because that stuff is from your heart.’
Cheryl’s art, and more significantly her gallery, plays a far more important role than simply being an outlet for both her creativity and her work. As interest in her work grew, so too did her understanding that it is an important meeting point for Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures, and a really useful tool with which to build longoverdue awareness and to help develop deep respect of the oldest culture on earth.
‘I just found that when I paint about my cultural stories people really love them and that, for me, is a way of getting Aboriginal people in the hearts and minds of everyday Australians. It’s a way of telling people “hey, look, this is our culture.”
‘This is what our ancestors have kept alive over thousands of years and even through all the colonisation and trauma that we’ve been through, we still have those stories. They’re still in our lives and that’s something for every Australian to be proud of; that we can still tell our stories.’
Cheryl comes from a long line of storytellers. As a child in Wallaga, her grandfather Reggie told her stories as they sat beneath and looked out on Gulaga Mountain. Her mother, too, was a storyteller. These were dreamtime stories, stories of her family and history, they’re thousands of years old and they’re the stories she beautifully relays through her artwork.
‘A lot of stories were told to me just sitting around the campfire by my uncles and aunties and people weren’t really listening, but I was. I used to love every bit of the story and the dreamtime stories.’
The story of Gulaga Mountain is in many of Cheryl’s paintings and prints. A hugely significant site for local Indigenous people, Gulaga is a birthing place for south coast Yuin women.
‘Gulaga is the mother, she is laying down looking out at her two sons, Najanuga and Barranguba. In the stories her husband made her a possum-skin cloak and put it over her and the cloud that descends on Gulaga in the cold, is her white possum-skin cloak.’
There are many parts of the Gulaga story and Cheryl focuses on different parts in different paintings.
‘It might be her sons, it might be the stars at night, they’re all different,’ she says. ‘I’ve done close to maybe 20 Gulaga paintings now and I will continue to tell that story. They all have some sort of different information about them.’
Cockatoos also feature regularly in Cheryl’s paintings and they, too, are part of an important dreamtime story [see breakout].
‘The interesting part is that we say they flew west, but in Western Australia they say the cockie brings fire and he comes from the east. There is that connection and that big long storyline is connecting us and we have stories that connect us all over the country, massive big songlines. We’re only just starting to discover that on the east coast, but the old people in Western Australia and central Australia, they know more of the story.
‘Colonisation has broken that songline, but I don’t think I will be hard to reconstruct it again.’
As well as expressing and sharing her culture through her visual art, Cheryl is also doing it through music. She is currently the Aboriginal Creative Director at Four Winds Festival in Bermagui, which she says is a dream job because it allows her to be really creative. She has also created the Djinama Yilaga Choir and together they have written songs in Dhurga language that they have performed at the festival. The live performance of the latest project Bagan, Barra Barra, Mirriwarr (Land, Sea, Sky) was turned into a film which went on to win Best Film, Best Director and the People’s Choice Award at last year’s South Coast Film Festival.
‘It was just magic singing those songs and singing in Language,’ she says. ‘When we talk about healing Country we’re also talking about healing people. And when you sing, and you’re singing to Country, you’re healing Country. But you’re also singing and healing yourself.
‘I know that through singing and what we do and learning our culture and our language again, it heals us. And when we sing to Country, we heal Country and when we heal Country, we heal people because without healthy Country we don’t have healthy people.’
Cheryl generously and creatively shares her stories, her history and her connection to Country through her practices. In doing so, she allows her audience to connect with Country, to learn some of those important and ancient stories and to see the world through her eyes.
The black cockatoo
THIS ISSUE’S COVER IS CHERYL’S STORY OF HOME AND OF NATIONAL CONNECTION
‘The main story about [the New South Wales town of] Nowra is Cambewarra Mountain and the white cockies,’ explains Cheryl. ‘Ngaral wanted to see where the fires and flames were coming from and they flew up over the mountain. They had to fly up through the back burning fire and smoke, and a big flame come up from the mountain and caught their tails alight. They took off flying west with their tail alight and their feathers all burnt, and black, from the soot and that’s how the black cockatoo was created.’